The Byron Bay Film Festival kicks off on October 18th, running til October 27th. Even though I write from the other side of the country, I’ve long admired the brilliant selection of films that the festival has shown, and have always found a wealth of films to add to my ‘must see cinema’ list. One of the other aspects I’ve admired about the festival is their dedication to celebrating environmental films, as well as creating a great platform for short films from all over the world. It’s clear that the festival has taken the core mentality of what it means to be a Byron Bay-ian, namely, someone who is eco-conscious and surf focused, and that’s what makes it such a unique, exciting festival to get behind.
As with every film festival, it’s hard to decide which films to push into a jam packed schedule. With over 175 films screening over ten days, that struggle becomes even more difficult. So, here I am to try make that decision process a little easier by giving you ten suggestions of films to see at the 2019 Byron Bay Film Festival.
First off the block is H is for Happiness. Look, if you haven’t read my review for this exceptionally joyous film, then please, give it a read. The more I’ve thought about the Cinefest Oz winner, the more I fall in love with it. See this film now so you’re ahead of the curve and so you can get all your friends on board for its national release next year.
First time feature film maker, Josephine Mackerras, won the Grand Jury Prize at 2019’s SXSW film festival for her film, Alice. Indiewire said of star Emilie Piponnier that, ‘the opening minutes of Alice make the case for [her] to be a movie star, and the rest of the movie keeps it up’, so if that statement and the award isn’t enough, then maybe the comparisons to the Dardennes brothers might be? Alice follows Piponnier’s titular character as she is forced to reconcile with the fact that her husband has spent all of their money on a sex worker addiction. To see a film about sex work directed from a woman’s perspective shouldn’t feel new, but it is, and that, paired with the critical acclaim and awards is why I have Alice on this list.
I’ve paired these two films together because they both feature characters who are photojournalists. One is exhausted and emotionally drained after two decades of work (Hugo Weaving in Hearts and Bones), the other is a young student, bright eyed and seeking independence (Polina Snisarenko in Julia Blue). While I haven’t seen Julia Blue yet, I can tell you that Hearts and Bones is an emotionally rewarding, exceptionally powerful Australian film about the ownership of stories. Don’t believe me? Then read Travis Johnson’s review here. Part of why I love film festivals is that you often find two films that are united by common themes, working to elevate each other unknowingly, and both Julia Blue and Hearts and Bones fit that bill perfectly.
Look, part of the reason I have Little Monsters on this list is because I love the work of Abe Forsyth, and watching a horror comedy about students trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, all the while being lead to safety by their teacher (Lupita Nyong’o). There’s something so purely bonkers about this concept, and the fact that Australia has managed to craft some brilliant horror films in the past few years that should have this one on your radar. The fact that Lupita Nyong’o enjoyed her time so much with this film that she’s eager to work with Forsyth again should have you excited. I know I am.
I know nothing of this film, but with this being a world premiere screening of a film that the festival reports ‘we must keep anonymous to ensure its maker is not arrested’, well, you can’t help but put this on the ‘must see’ list. The rundown of the plot of the film states:
‘A man is tormented by the knowledge that he carries a gene that means he will go mad and, like his father, end up in a mental hospital. He refuses to have children with his long-suffering wife and seems incapable of making a commitment of any kind: even work as a dog-sitter is beyond him.’
Controversy and mystery is an easy way of selling a film, but for me, the world premiere aspect is another reason why ‘Film X’ is a must see event at the Byron Bay Film Festival.
I was sold on Honeyland the moment I read the headline for the always reliable Britt Hayes trailer announcement: Trust Us, You Don’t Want to Miss HONEYLAND. What makes this film even more intriguing is the increased realisation of the impact humanity has on bees around the world, and about what we need to do to ensure that bees have a chance to thrive and survive in this ever changing environment that mankind has created. On top of this, Honeyland promises to assess the relationship that neighbours have to one another, and also the creep of capitalism into the world of beekeeping. I cannot wait to see Honeyland, and if you’re at the Byron Bay Film Festival, you’d do well to check it out (and report back if you do).
Leaning into the environmental aspect of the Byron Bay Film Festival is the documentary Kifaru. Guaranteed to be a heartbreaking film, this is a film about the final years of the last male northern white rhino, a “kifaru” (Swahili for rhinoceros) named Sudan. Alongside Sudan, Kifaru follows the carers and rangers who monitor and care for Sudan day in day out. His impending death is coming, making this a mournful and painful narrative about extinction occurring right before our eyes. Scientists advise that we are in the sixth great extinction, and it’s through documentaries like Kifaru that we’re presented with the harsh reality of climate change as well as the caustic overreach of humanity on the ecosystem that we live alongside. Yes, this will be a difficult film to watch, but gosh it is an important one.
The immediacy and speed of filmmakers being able to react almost in real time to world changing events and craft films about them is astounding, and it’s something that’s fully realised with the film, The Cave. Focusing on the July 2018 rescue of the Wild Boards football team when they became trapped in a cave in northern Thailand, Tom Waller’s film focuses on the human element of the event, showcasing the many hands that were involved in saving the team and, with the presence of some of the participants portraying themselves, there’s an authenticity and respect given to this story that will no doubt be missing in a future Hollywood adaptation. It’s impressive to see such a story being brought to life with such immediacy, but also with such care and dedication to those who were trapped, and those who helped save them. As the closing night film, this is guaranteed to be a discussion starter.
It’s been too long between films for director Kasimir Burgess, whose 2014 film, Fell, was a visually impressive film. Shifting towards documentaries, Burgess takes a look at Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig, in the film The Leunig Fragments. Almost all Australians will be aware of the work of Michael Leunig, with his cartoons having crept into public consciousness insidiously throughout the years. For some, he’s an icon, a national treasure, for others, he’s a problematic hero. Whatever your take, it’s always appreciated when a documentary lifts the curtain to reveal the machinations behind an Australian artist (I’ll use this chance to remind readers of the essential documentary Looby), and The Leunig Fragments looks to do exactly that with Michael Leunig.
And that is my ten picks for the ‘must see’ films at this years Byron Bay Film Festival. There’s a wealth of other choices out there that I could have added onto the list (I’ve heard nothing but great things about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, In My Blood it Runs, Rituals of Resistance, and Judy and Punch) so make sure to head over to the website and purchase your tickets ASAP to ensure you don’t miss out on some of these brilliant films.