Jirga, writer-director Benjamin Gilmour’s tale of an Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to seek amends with the family of a civilian he killed in battle, will make its world premiere in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival.

The film, starring Sam Smith (Rake) and produced by John Maynard (Balibo) will be one of 12 films competing for the festival’s $60,000 Sydney Film Prize, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Milko Lazarov’s Ága, and Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Half of the films in competition this year are from female filmmakers.

Artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth will head the competition jury, joined by actor Ewen Leslie, Filipino producer and writer Bianca Balbuena, South African composer and songwriter Chris Letcher and Tokyo Film Festival programming directory Yoshi Yatabe.

Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley unveiled the festival’s full line-up today at the Sydney Town Hall, with the program consisting of some 326 films from 65 countries, including 26 world premieres. The festival director describes this year’s selection as “urgent, provocative, and thrilling”.

“Whilst the film landscape continues to change, the cinema experience remains one of the most vital ways to engage with the wider world. In an increasingly fragmented society, we can sit together in a dark room, full with friends and strangers, to experience something entirely new – from the most exciting new filmmakers, who we’ve discovered for the first time, to an inventive take from a master director. This year’s festival is a celebration of contrasts,” said Moodley at the launch.

As was previously announced, the festival will open at the State Theatre on June 6 with the Australian premiere of Kiwi comedy The Breaker Uppers, written, starring and directed by Jackie Van Beek and Madeleine Sami. Closing the fest will be Brett Haley’s indie comedy Heart Beats Loud, which stars Nick Offerman as an ageing hipster dad who forms an unlikely band with his daughter.

Among the other local films to make their world premiere at Sydney Film Festival this year is Steve Jaggi’s satirical examination of a young duo living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Chocolate Oyster, starring Aaron Glenane, Anna Lwarence, Rosie Lourde and Ryan Harrison.

A range of other local features films have also been announced following successful international and local festival runs. Leigh Whannell’s Melbourne-shot thriller Upgrade joins the line-up off the back of a successful premiere at SXSW, where it won the Midnighters Audience Award, with the writer-director, who co-created the Jaw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, also due to appear in conversation at the fest.

Stephen McCallum’s feature debut 1% will screen up after bowing at Toronto International Film Festival and Adelaide Film Festival last year, and Clayton and Shane Jacobson’s Brothers’ Nest will play following its premiere at SXSW and a recent screening at the Gold Coast Film Festival (GCFF).

Alena Lodkina’s Venice Biennale College-backed feature debut Strange Colours is on program after its world premiere in Venice and recent screening at the GCFF, and Mairi Cameron’s GCFF-opener The Second will also screen ahead of its theatrical run and release on Stan.

Aussie director Sarah-Daggar Nickson’s feature debut A Vigilante, about a domestic abuse survivor who helps other victims, will also make its local premiere.

Other Aussie features in the line-up include the previously announced West of Sunshine, and the animated Maya the Bee: The Honey Games. 

Ten local documentaries will compete for the festival’s $10,000 Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian documentary. In addition to the previously announced I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story and RocKabul, they include: Ben Lawrence’s Ghosthunter, Richard Todd’s Dying to Live, Grant Leigh Saunder’s Teach a Man to Fish, Grace McKenzie’s In The Land of Wolves, Olivia Martin-McGuire’s Create NSW and ABC Arts-backed China Love, Kim Beamish’s Oyster, Dylan River’s Finke: There & Back, and Catherine Scott’s Backtrack Boys.

Robert Connolly will appear in conversation with David Stratton for the festival’s Ian McPherson Memorial Lecture, with the first two episodes of espionage thriller Deep State, directed by Connolly, to screen as the festival’s ‘Box Set’ ahead of airing on SBS in August.

Following the screening of US director Amy Andrion’s documentary Half the Picture, which examines Hollywood’s gender disparity problem, a panel of Aussie female filmmakers will discuss how discrimination impacts upon our own film industry. Female filmmakers from Europe will also talk about the industry’s gender gap in a talk as part of Vivid Ideas’ Filmmaker Talks program.

In another Filmmaker Talks session, Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner and film journalist Sandy George will lead a discussion on the impact of streaming and piracy.

As part of its First Nations strand, SFF will shine a spotlight on a range of new films from local indigenous filmmakers, including Hunter Page-Lochard’s Djali, Tyson Mowarin’s Undiscovered Country, and Yulibidyi – Until the End, co-directed by Curtis Taylor. There will also be a retrospective of shorts funded by Screen Australia’s Indigenous department, which celebrates its 25th birthday this year, and there is a planned discussion session from former funders and filmmakers about what has changed for the industry since its inception.

Other strands will include the Screenability; Europe! Voices Women in Film; Sounds on Screen; Family Films; Animation Showcase; Freak ME Out; Classics Restored and the new program Flux: Art + Film, which explores the ground between art and film, curated by producer Bridget Ikin.

Leo Faber and Shaun Gladwell, of local VR collective Badfaith, have also once again put together a program of 17 virtual reality works for the festival. Among them is the world premiere of the collective’s own VR film Storm Rider, about two female Muslim skateboarders at Bondi Beach, due for SBS later this year. Other Aussie VR works include Carriberrie, Rone, Summation of Force and Parragirls.

Sydney Film Festival runs June 6-17.


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