Postcard: Sydney

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:18pm

The 61st edition of the Sydney Film Festival, which ran from June 4 to 15, had a selection of films from 47 countries. And China (and Chinese-language films) figured significantly.

One of the festival's jury members, Canadian critic Shelly Kraicer, was also responsible for programming the "China: Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics" section.

A resident of Beijing since 2003, Kraicer has been writing about Chinese-language cinema since the mid-1980s. "I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and saw these great Hong Kong movies by the likes of Wong Kar-wai, a Taiwanese film by Tsai Ming-liang and new mainland films, and they provoked me to wonder why there was such an explosion of contemporary filmmaking," he says.

"As China changes and modernises, it inserts itself into cultural exchange through film. I like to watch this process."

Kraicer selected films from both "inside" and "outside the system" for Sydney.

"There were a series of independent film festivals in China which until recently were a low-key way for audiences to see 'outside the system' films, but there's been a crackdown on those festivals recently," he says.

"After the [2008 Beijing] Olympics, it looked like the Chinese state security apparatus gained the upper hand so that independent cultural spaces have really shrunk down again and are not even as prevalent as when I arrived there."

Among Kraicer's seven choices were Teng Huatao's commercial work Up in the Wind, Peng Lei's Dancing in the Room, an independent film that passed censorship, and Yang Heng's Lake August, which was made outside the system. Lake August can't be shown on the mainland, but it should have a strong festival life overseas as some of its financing came from France.

Documentaries had a stronger focus this year thanks to the introduction of the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary prize and associated programme. The inaugural award went to Janine Hosking's 35 Letters, about a terminally ill woman seeking a peaceful way to die, while Lynette Wallworth's Tender, about a community centre which attempts to set up funeral services for the local people, earned a special mention.

Also featured in this section was Sydney filmmaker Nick Torrens' world-premiering China's 3Dreams, which analysed how the mainland populace's simple desire to own a watch, a bicycle and a radio has evolved into the acquisition of wealth and a more Western life, to the detriment of family and tradition. The documentary played to packed houses.

The 68-year-old Torrens, who had worked in Europe and returned to Australia in the 1970s in the heyday of documentary funding, had to go guerilla to make his film largely alone with his camera and sound gear. For 12 years, he followed the lives and gained the trust of family members and, via an intrepid interviewer and family member named Lei, was able to broaden out his story.

"I was told that same story so often and I believe it applies to millions and millions of people," Torrens says. "I came to understand the Chinese family structure over these many years and the necessity for parents and children to be responsible and to carry on the fortunes of the family, to get a business plan and a good career - generally more than Australians do."

One of his most moving interviews was with a former 8.15 factional rebel and one-time Red Guard Zheng, dubbed "the leader of corpses", who wept as he recalled the atrocities he committed. In contrast, other former Red Guard members said they had no conflict at all with performing torture as they just did what they were told.

Torrens also interviewed other factional rebels who were sent to the countryside to be kept quiet, and essentially lost their youth. "The older generation doesn't have a connection with the younger generation which enables them to pass on the knowledge or discuss the issues or their trauma," he says. "When we filmed at the Red Guard graveyard, Lei said people don't want to talk about it, not even her parents. Generally though, the young people aren't interested in hearing about it."

Torrens promised his subjects his film would not be released in China and was warned not to take his material on the plane when he left. "I spent the next couple of months getting it out through Hong Kong."