Sydney Film Festival starts today, which means if you haven’t been sifting through the 200-plus films on offer, you need to start right now.
Trying to find the cream of the crop can be overwhelming—in the documentary category alone, there’s films that range from stories of the last female bee-hunter in Europe, to biopics about icons that include late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, beloved French filmmaker Agnès Varda, and cool cat Miles Davis, to a small community of Greek farmers who play their tomatoes classical music to help them grow. So, lend us your ear and wallet as we guide you through seven documentaries that deserve your time and money.
One Child Nation
Whether you know next to nothing about China’s One Child Policy or consider yourself an expert, everyone needs to watch this film. Award-winning documentarian Nanfu Wang returns to her home village to find out more about China’s devastating social experiment, and gets unobstructed access to the heartbreaking true stories, often from her own family. Wang listens quietly to a member of her family speak about wrapping up their newborn baby daughter—there was nothing worse than giving birth to a girl during the One Child Policy, and they were often discarded—and leaving her at the markets in the hopes someone would take her. No one did, and it took just two days for her to die in the markets; surrounded by people, with her tiny face covered in mosquito bites. From abandoned newborns, to forced sterilisations, abortions, and abductions ordered by the government, it’s a heartbreaking story from beginning to end, and a must-watch at this year’s festival. The cruel irony at the end of One Child Nation? China now doesn’t have enough of the younger generation to care for the elderly population, and are campaigning hard on the benefits of a ‘two-child family’, saying that ‘one is not enough.’
Get tickets to One Child Nation here.
The year was 1972, and Aretha Franklin had decided it was time to get back to her gospel roots. She was already a household name when she decided to record a two-night performance in an LA Baptist church, with director Sydney Pollack behind the lens. The captive audience (which included Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) was treated to a once-in-a-lifetime performance—the footage of which has never been seen until now. Amazing Grace is a spine-chilling (the audience member’s reaction at 1:04 in the film trailer says it all) historical record of one of the most incredible performers in modern history. Do your best not to get leaky eye during her 11-minute rendition of the film’s namesake, ‘Amazing Grace’.
Get tickets to Amazing Grace here.
School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia
This film is a reminder to not judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their stilettos. With a title like School of Seduction, director Alina Rudnitskaya’s film was always going to be a wild ride, but until you get to a session at SFF and watch it for yourself, you really have no idea. With over 60% of Russia’s population living below the poverty line in cramped high rises, it’s little wonder that the three women in the film—Lida, Vika and Diana—are desperate for a way out, and if that means paying a fat old sleazebag to score them on their abilities to seduce a man, and giving them tips on how to bag one (crying is good apparently, as is being dumb and wearing pigtails), then so be it. Read more about the film in our previous article here, then go get yourself some tickets.
Get tickets to School of Seduction – Three Stories from Russia here.
‘If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up,’ says Scheme Bird’s protagonist Gemma. It’s a statement which, over the course of the feature-length documentary, will unfortunately come true for the teenager, who lives in the projects known as ‘schemes’ outside of Glasgow, Scotland. Winner of Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival, Scheme Birds is a sensitive look at a harsh town plagued with violence and addiction.
Get tickets to Scheme Birds here.
Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool
To say Miles Davis was an interesting guy would be like saying an ex-reality TV star probably shouldn’t run one of the most powerful countries in the world—a gross understatement. The jazz icon and impossibly cool cat was as talented as he was charismatic, traits which carried him from a small town in Illinois, to jamming with his music idols in New York, to rubbing shoulders with Picasso in Paris. But like most tales of international stardom, there was an ugly side to the success—rampant drug use and domestic violence with his wife and muse, Frances Taylor. ‘From 1975 to early 1980 I didn’t pick up my horn,’ Davis writes in his autobiography, which provides the basis for narration in the film. ‘Mostly during those four or five years… I just took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point)… mostly I snorted coke, but sometimes I would inject coke and heroin into my leg; it’s called a speedball and it was what killed John Belushi.’ Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool is a fascinating biopic filled with archival footage and interviews with friends like Quincy Jones, and you shouldn’t miss it.
Get tickets to Miles Davis: Birth of The Cool here.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
Terrifying and beautiful, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, is a film that should only be seen on the big screen. From mounds of elephant tusks being set alight in Kenya, to mines in Russia the size of small cities, this stunning, cinematic doc is a timely reminder of the havoc that humans are wreaking on planet earth. How do we sort a private screening for the dinosaurs in government who still think coal is a cool idea?
Get tickets to Anthropocene: The Human Epoch here.
Mexico City might be home to over nine million people, but it’s serviced by just 45 government ambulances. This is where families like the Ochoas come in—private, untrained paramedics who are often the first responders at the scenes of accidents. Director Luke Lorentzen joined the jostle for ‘business’ night after night in Midnight Family, and the result will make you thank your lucky stars you’re not haggling over ambulance fees as your trying to stay in the land of the living. In lieu of a trailer, check out some snippets from the movie in the short clip above.
Get tickets to Midnight Family here.