Sydney Film Festival 2013 Preview: Documentaries

Contributing Writer; Sydney, Australia (@HugoOzman)
Sydney Film Festival 2013 Preview: Documentaries
"In this age of digital video - in which there are cheap cameras, editing software, and funding to be had (if rarely big money to be earned) - the cool kids are making docs. The form is not just good for you these days. It's incredibly sexy." - David Edelstein, New York Magazine. 

I just love this quote. For me, the joy of watching documentaries comes not only from experiencing something interesting, challenging or thrilling, but also the knowledge that it will teach me something about the world that I live in. 

The Sydney Film Festival, which is due to start in just over a couple of weeks, has a strong tradition of featuring incredibly good documentaries, and the following are a few of my picks from this year's program. 

Red Obsession

The legendary Bordeaux region, 'the best plot of land in the world', has been producing valued wine for centuries. The region's fortunes, long exposed to the vagaries of climate, are now swayed by market forces. In 2010, when a vintage year was on the cards, the global financial crisis ensured that Western pockets were empty, and cashed-up Chinese buyers set the price. This shift, fuelled by the East's obsession with these illustrious vineyards, created a perfect wine storm; co-director and vigneron Warwick Ross documented the upheaval.

Narrated by Russell Crowe, Red Obsession is an expertly told, delectable tale of a much-coveted global commodity in times of change.

The Crossing 

Two young Aussie guys, Clark Carter and Chris Bray, decide to cross a remote island in the Arctic - just for the hell of it. To say they're game is an understatement, and once you see the knee-deep mud and razor-sharp rocks, you'll quickly realise why no one has attempted this before. With teeth gritted and their homemade kayaks fully loaded, the duo head off into the frozen wilderness.

The film is edited from more than a hundred hours of stunning footage shot by the travellers themselves. The Crossing is a 21st century boy's own adventure that successfully shows the duo's inner and outer worlds.

Approved For Adoption

This delightful animated documentary tells the childhood story of cartoonist and co-director Jung, who was born in Korea but raised in Belgium by adoptive parents.

It was a time, at the end of the Korean War, when thousands of Korean children were adopted into the West. As Jung says, he was the Asian in the family - a badly behaved one too. Out of sync with his community, he retreated into the world of drawing. Luckily, his life turned around. Many years later, Jung returns to Seoul, to find his birth mother, or perhaps just to see how much he feels at home. The adult Jung draws his own story with considerable skill, humour and insight.

This surprising gem of a film (which started life as a comic book) deservedly won the Audience Award at the Annecy Animation Festival.

Dragon Girls 

School assemblies have rarely looked this dramatic - but then Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu School is not your average institution. It's located right next to the Shaolin Temple monastery, considered the birthplace of kung fu. There are more than 20,000 students - and these are no ordinary students; their ritual exercises resemble a scene from a Chinese historical epic.

Director and cinematographer Inigo Westmeier captures the early-morning routine in all its cinematic glory, before focusing on three pupils: nine year-old Xin Chenxi, and two teens, Chen Xi and Huang Luolan. The three girls struggle with the school's harsh routine: early rising, six-day weeks, no heating and most definitely no tears. Despite this, as Westmeier's film deftly reveals, becoming a martial arts champion is perhaps their only chance of escaping the poverty that has dogged their families.

We Steal Secrets

Director and producer Alex Gibney has successfully tackled some of the hottest topics of recent times. Among his targets have been corporate fraud (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, SFF 2005), the US Army and torture (Academy Award® winner Taxi to the Dark Side, SFF 2008) and child abuse in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God).

In his latest film, Gibney comes to grips with Wikileaks, but the focus goes way beyond Julian Assange and the mountains of material he made public. It's about the inner workings of the organisation itself and its global impact. It's also about a cast of characters including tech geek Bradley Manning (the US soldier who leaked classified documents) and Adrian Lamo, the man who betrayed him. Gibney's absorbing doco is packed with interviews and clips and smartly edited by Andy Grieve.
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