There’s no sugar coating it, Sydney is shit in winter.
It’s a city whose inhabitants thrive in warm climates, and wither in the cold. Without the beach, we’re like a bunch of chickens with our hot wings cut off. That’s why the Sydney Film Festival is such a beacon of hope during these dismal few months of never-ending doom. For 11 days, some of the best films in the world descend upon our emerald city, offering us a window into the lives and cultures of people and places most of us have only ever seen on a map. Here are six of the best SFF documentaries that do just that.
Over the Limit
Russians have a pretty bad rep for being unconscionably hard people, lacking in sensitivity and empathy. This documentary does nothing to change that impression. Over five years, filmmaker Marta Prus followed Russian gymnast Margarita Mamun, documenting her gruelling training regimen in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her personal trainer is former competitor Amina Zaripova and her head coach is Irina Viner-Usmanova, who happens to be the wife of Russia’s richest man. The former is at best unbalanced, and the latter simply has no best. There is no way to describe a person like Viner-Usmanova other than vile, and the insults she throws at a teenage Mamun make you wonder if she’s even a person at all. Through it all, Mamun retains a level of dignity and poise that is ultimately inspiring, making her triumphs despite her adversaries all the more powerful.
Yellow is Forbidden
Remember Rihanna’s show-stopping hand-embroidered yellow gown she wore to the 2015 Met Gala? Of course you do. Everybody does. But few people know the mastermind behind the masterpiece—Chinese designer Guo Pei. Yellow is Forbidden is her story. The documentary highlights Pei’s determination to join the prestigious, elite, and extremely exclusive world of haute couture. It’s an intimate look behind the bejewelled trains and intricate embroidery of one of China’s most captivating and innovative designers. China has never been known for it’s cutting-edge fashion scene, but Pei may just change all that.
The Distant Barking of Dogs
Feel like a good, hard punch to the guts? The Distant Barking of Dogs has you covered. It tells the tale of 10-year-old Oleg and his grandmother Alexandra living in a tiny, mostly abandoned, village on the frontline of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmot, The Distant Barking of Dogs beautifully captures an ugly existence that no kid should have to call home. His grandmother does her best to make good of a really, really bad situation, and the bond between them warms and breaks your heart at the same time. It’s a tough scenario to watch play out on screen, but it’s a reality worth acknowledging next time you think of complaining about your lukewarm soy chai latte.
The Long Season
I just had a thought, but maybe the reason I’ve been so depressed this winter is because I keep gravitating toward documentaries like these? The Long Season is another hard-hitting portrait of life in a war-torn town, this time amongst the rubble of a Syrian refugee camp. You know those films that seem less like a documentary and more like a horror film? The Long Season is one of them. Set in a pop-up village of tent shelters called Majdal Anjar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the documentary focuses on the lives of the kids, teachers, and bickering families in the camp. Super confronting, particularly for free-thinking women.
A word of warning: if you have anxiety issues, probably best to sit this one out. A real-life version of The Hurt Locker, The Deminer follows bomb disposal expert and father of eight Colonel Fakhir in Iraq as he sets out to defuse the booby traps and mines that litter his homeland. And my god, does it make for stressful viewing. Apparently Fakhir coerced a subordinate to shoot the nail-biting footage of him using garden pliers, penknives, and sometimes nothing but his bare hands, to defuse literal ticking time bombs. What a psychopathic legend.
Of Fathers and Sons
Sensing a theme here? Yep, it’s another country ravaged by war. And who’s to blame? Well, I’m no war historian, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the problem seems to start with an R, end with an N, and have the letters eligio in-between them. Of Fathers and Sons filmmaker Talal Derki must have balls of steel, because he managed to hoodwink a radical Islamic father, Abu Osama, into allowing him access to his family under the guise of being a pro-jihadist photojournalist sympathetic to his cause. Osama’s two sons are forced to fight their father’s father’s father’s father’s (you get the gist) war, and begin military training with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra. It’s a confronting, uncensored look into the life and ideology of a radicalised family, and it’s scary as hell.