Stronger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival 2018. Palace Electric. August 2 to 5, 2018. strongerdocs.com
Asked what was different about the fifth Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival, director and co-curator Deborah Kingsland says, "This year's festival is really unusual in that we did not receive funding from the ACT government for the first time."
But, she says, the festival has "risen from the ashes" and found sponsorship from Canberra businesses including in particular Ainslie IGA as well as the Canadian High Commission and the Australian National University, which has come on board as the festival's education partner.
In collaboration with ANU, the festival is running the ANU Pitch Slam, a pitching competition where filmmakers have just 60 seconds to talk about a film idea, before getting feedback from a panel of film producers and working with professional filmmakers to develop their ideas. The Pitch Slam has run at Stronger than Fiction for four years and has been popular with younger audiences, with school students regularly winning awards. The ANU Pitch Slam is available year-round to schools. Details on the website: strongerdocs.com.
Kingsland says, "What kind of supermarket funds a film festival? You can find out when we premiere a film about Manuel Xyrakis and the family history of Ainslie IGA [The Xyrakis Family, directed by Kingsland and Hannah de Feyter] at the gala opening night of Stronger than Fiction on August 2.
"Later in the festival, we will be screening another short film we made at What’s in My Basket? with Canberra’s own Alex Sloan at Ainslie IGA," she says.
Sloan will be seen shopping for her favourite items and will shares her recipes for fast fresh food.
There are 13 feature films in this year's festival, the same number as in 2017. Kingsland and co-curator and festival founder Simon Weaving travelled to international film festivals to assemble a program of what they feel is the best of recent documentaries. While there are too many films to cover them all, Kingsland discusses some of the highlights.
Opening the festival on August 2 at 6.30 for 7pm is the subtitled French film by Stéphane de Freitas, Speak Up (general audiences, 2017).
"A bunch of French university students are in the process of preparing for a public speaking competition."
This is no polite Toastmasters-like training, however - it's an energetic and sometimes outrageous experience.
"Their teachers are very confrontational," Kingsland says, employing shock tactics and humour to push the students to their limits in readying them for the annual Eloquentia contest.
"A lot of the students are immigrants and we got to their homes as well."
The Canadian High Commission is sponsoring the screening of Christy Garland's What Walaa Wants (MA, 2018) on August 4 at 6.30pm. It will be introduced by the Deputy High Commissioner of Canada, Charles Reeves. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs 2018, the film follows Walaa, a wilful teenager whose dream to join the Palestinian Authority becomes a nightmare when she realises she must follow rules during basic training. There will be a Q&A; with Garland after the screening.
Among the festival's Australian highlights, Kingsland says, is Catherine Scott's The Backtrack Boys (MA15+, 2018) on August 3 at 8.30pm.
"It premiered last month at the Sydney Film Festival, got a five-minute standing ovation and won the Audience Award."
The film is about three Armidale boys – Zack, Russell and Alfie –who join the BackTrack youth program to stay out of jail. travelling with Bernie and his dog jumping team to rural shows.
"It's a very lovely, wonderful film."
Scott is coming for a Q&A; session after the screening.
A "cutting-edge and controversial" film is The Cleaners (MA15+, 2018), directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. This German/Brazilian co-production, in English and subtitled Tagalog, is about people - many in the Philippines - who are employed to censor social media such as Facebook and Youtube - something like 25,000 units a day.
"It's a big job with big companies and the film asks questions like what are the rules? And who makes the rules?"
The international co-production Touch Me Not (R18+, 2018) in German with English subtitles, won The Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, beating Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, which won The Silver Bear. First-time Romanian director Adina Pintilie has made a film about sexual intimacy and people who don't like being touched as what Kingsland calls "a hybrid documentary - is this a documentary or set up? It's highly stylised."
The subtitled Swiss film Genesis 2.0 (MA, 2018), directed by Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev, won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"This is a superbly crafted film that works on many different levels, weaving together three stories: the Yakut men risking and often losing their lives in the Arctic Sea journey to the islands where they dig for the tusks of woolly mammoths, in the hope of making their fortune, the genetic scientists who talk of 'perfecting God' and the ancient myths of the Yakut people."
The closing night film on August 5 (6.15 for 7pm) is McKellen: Playing the Part (PG, 2017), directed by Joe Stephenson. It's a film about stage and screen actor Sir Ian McKellen, who's played Richard III, Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, and Magneto in the X-Men films, among many other roles.
"He's reflecting on his life and how he became an actor," Kingsland says.
And there are more films to discover for yourself.