Five Films You Can’t Miss at the 2020 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

Each year the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival rolls around, a new slate of top tier documentaries rolls into my view, and as such, a wealth of stories that I never knew existed opens up in front of me. Usually, due to scheduling conflicts, I’m unable to attend the festival, but given the state of the world right now, the festival is coming to me – and you – via the magic of online screenings. 

Running from June 30th til July 15th, there’s something for everyone at this years fest.

The best thing about the festival is how affordable it is. For $100, you can watch the entire festival at home, or if you’re limited on time, then $35 gets you five films. It’s great value, for great films, and for a great festival.

To help narrow down the massive array of great films on offer, I’ve selected five films that you simply cannot miss at this years festival. Each one tells a different, unique story, and each one engages and informs in unexpected ways. 

Leaving Allen Street

This absolutely wonderful documentary follows the occupants of The Oakleigh Centre, a home for intellectually disabled individuals, in Victoria as they move to newly established facilities that will allow them to live more independent lives. Throughout the runtime, we get to know the occupants, what their dreams, hopes, and goals are, as well as watch their relationships flourish, and at every step we’re invited to share in their journey, smiling at every step of the way. This is not an opportunistic film that is intended to make you feel better for having watched it, but rather a story about the need to change and adjust outdated perspectives for a modern world. 

Nadine wrote about Leaving Allen Street at length in this powerful review, and I interviewed director Katrina Channells here, and I highly recommend seeking them out once you’ve seen this film. We need more stories like this in the world, and more people who encourage and practice empathy like Katrina and co. do. 

Keyboard Fantasies – The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story

Keyboard Fantasies is the standout film of the festival for me. Every so often, you encounter a film, or an artist, that opens your eyes to a world you didn’t know existed, and with Posy Dixon’s excellent film about musician Glenn Copeland, a trans-man who crafted an album called Keyboard Fantasies that had a subtle impact of lives around the world, my eyes – and ears – were opened to a part of the world I’m honoured to now know. Copeland’s music is hard to describe, with an ode to electronic music, fuelled by divine vocals, a deep level of care, and a wealth of adoration for the ethereal, all making for a transcendental experience. 

Dixon’s film wisely doesn’t attempt to reach that level, but rather emulate the vibe of Copeland’s songs in a wonderful manner, with pastel visuals and softly-spoken moments about the past, the future, and the need to honour both at once. Gosh, I wept with love and adoration at the end of Keyboard Fantasies, noticing the past and how it echoes inside us all, and hearing that resonance within Copeland’s music. I hope you love this film as much as I did. 

Listen to my interview with director Posy Dixon here.

Small Island Big Song

Music is a strong element of this years Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, with three of the films on this list being celebrations of music and those who engage in it. From the electronic, to experimental rock, to the music of the Pacific-Indian oceans in Small Island Big Song. Tim Cole’s collaborative film takes us across the oceans, from Madagascar to the Torres Strait, showering us with a chorus of songs that carry across the world, singing the the words of culture, the journeys long past, the importance for action on climate change, and the need for unity and support. 

On paper, this sounds like it could be a prescriptive affair, a lesson about the need for action, but it’s quite the opposite, instead pushing a positive message of hope and the wonder of these different islands stretched across the land. Visually a powerful film, but aurally, it’s an absolute triumph. A must see.

Listen to my interview with director Tim Cole here.

The Rise of the Synths

There’s an aspect of cool within Ivan Castell’s honourific doc The Rise of the Synths, paying homage to the creators of synthwave music and the legacies that precede them. Narrated by John Carpenter, The Rise of the Synths evokes a colour palette of cool, drenched in neon, driven by the dark of night, and powered by a bank of laptops and music keypads, and for this 80s era-kid, this harkened back to an era where nostalgia grew large. 

Now, I’m a cynic at heart, and reject the notion of nostalgia, especially the 80s kind, but The Rise of the Synths showed a community of musicians coming forward to honour the mood and vibe that synth music creates, with them referring to the vibe of films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day as what they want their tunes to sound like. It’s less about the films, and more about how it makes them feel. This is where I found the greatest resonance with this fantastic documentary, and feel that the art conscious will also find resonance.

Listen to my interview with director Ivan Castell here.

Insert Coin

And here we have a film that I’m yet to watch – Insert Coin looks like the kind of film that will scratch the video game itch in my heart. The coin pushing arcade junkie of my youth will no doubt feel alive once again with this film that takes a stroll down the history of games like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat. This video game history is always a treat to watch and experience because it is so intrinsically entwined with my own history; I grew up with video game culture, coming around after its collapse in the early 80s and being reborn in the 90s in households around the world. I know so much of it, yet, hearing the same stories retold is like sitting around a campfire hearing familiar stories from wisened voices. 

And this is where I leave you, with five selections – four I love, and one I’m eager to dig into -, and a hand extending to the wealth of films available on the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival website from today, June 30th, through to July 15th. We’re in a complex time in regards to film festivals, but in this confusing era, we can now experience one of the finest film festivals Australia has to offer in the comfort of our own home. I invite you to do so, and see for yourself why this is one I’m continually thrilled to champion, year after year. 

And when you do catch them, come back and let us know what you watched and what you thought of them! 

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!