AIDC’s Top 10 Documentaries to Watch at SFF 2018

22 May 2018

As ever, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) program offers a strong selection of international documentaries in its main program and a host of excellent Australian work in the $10,000 Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) Award program.

Members of the AIDC team will be joining the audience in June, hoping to catch as many new films as possible. We’ve asked around the office to build a shortlist of must-see films, including some already witnessed at Canada’s Hot Docs this month, and here’s what we came up with…

International Documentaries

Bisbee ‘17

A fascinating and sometimes dream-like hybrid doc, Bisbee ’17 examines a dark episode in the history of small Arizonan copper mining town on the Mexican border. As the current residents attempt a dramatic reenactment of the forced deportation of 1,200 striking miners in 1917, many of them immigrants, questions of racism and the suppression of labour activism come to the fore. The film’s long takes, eccentric characters, and blurring of history, reality and differing points of view made this a polarising yet memorable entry in the Hot Docs program. It’s an artfully unusual look at the history of race and labour in America.


The Cleaners

A viewing of The Cleaners at Hot Docs left one Australian filmmaker in attendance openly craving “something light” to watch afterward. Looking at Silicon Valley’s outsourced content cleaning operations in the Philippines, the film considers the psychological impact on the people employed to assess and remove ‘inappropriate’, violent and confronting images from our social media feeds, as well as the political impact such activity has on free speech and activism. It’s a timely film with food for thought for any internet user, but maybe have a lolcat video queued on your phone to watch afterward.


Three Identical Strangers

The recipient of huge buzz at Hot Docs, Three Identical Strangers is the fascinating account of three unconnected men from different families who discover themselves to be identical triplets. As they rapidly become mini-celebrities, more facts come to light to make this already strange story even stranger. An enthralling tale with surprises galore and unexpected dark twists, this is a guaranteed post-viewing conversation starter.


Yellow is Forbidden

Praised as one of the best fashion documentaries she’s ever seen by AIDC Director Alice Burgin, New Zealand director Pietra Fretkelly’s film gives an equal parts intimate and objective account of Chinese designer’s Guo Pei’s ambition to join the ranks of Paris’s fashion elite. Her elaborate works exhibited most recently in Australia at Melbourne’s NGV Triennial exhibition, Guo Pei’s career trajectory - from Mao-suits to the catwalk - makes for a revealing story. A film for anyone interested in fashion, couture industry politics, and China’s growing soft power.


Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Still on the topic of fashion visionaries (albeit one born in the punk revolution rather than the Cultural Revolution), fashion model-turned-filmmaker Lorna Tucker takes full advantage of the colourful history of her subject, the irrepressible Vivienne Westwood, to tell a tale of bondage trousers, defiant creativity, and eco and civil rights activism. Putting the self-effacing Westwood firmly in the spotlight is a welcome move given the miles of footage devoted to arch self-promoter Malcolm McLaren, and Tucker’s film does full justice to the Dame’s long and varied career.


Documentary Australia Foundation Award


Hotly tipped by an AIDC associate privy to an early edit, musician and journalist Travis Beard’s film about Afghani metal band District Unknown looks set to be a crowd-pleasing favourite in SFF’s DAF Award program for Australian docos. Is metal the universal language? Head to Kabul to find out.


I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

Fresh from a rapturous reception at Hot Docs, where it received the Audience Pick for the Nightvision program, Jessica Leski and Rita Walsh’s I Used to be Normal is a warm-hearted, quirky and joyful look at three generations of boyband fandom. Expect to walk out of this one grinning from ear to ear (with the Backstreet Boys playing in your head).


China Love

Pitched at AIDC’s The FACTory Pitching Forum in 2017 as ‘Double Happiness’, Olivia Martin-McGuire’s China Love explores the China Dream of national prosperity through the growth of the extraordinary pre-wedding photo industry. Fantasy and reality are kept at arm’s length as couples indulge in imaginative and extravagant shoots, providing a head-spinning contrast to the Maoist uniformity and state-governed marriages of the past.


Finke: There and Back

Time to get dusty with this engaging, rough and ready adventure doco, detailing Australia’s largest off-road race – the Finke Desert Race. Directed by Alice Springs filmmaker and Finke racer Dylan River, Finke: There and Back gets deep into the action with the competitors and organisers, providing thrills, spills and stunning scenery in Australia’s red centre.



A beautifully-filmed look at a rarefied way of life, Oyster, the new film by Kim Beamish (The Tentmakers of Cairo, 2015), observes an oyster farming family on the NSW South Coast as they confront warming waters and changing weather conditions. A meditation on working with nature, raising a coastal farming family, and the increasing impact of climate change on sensitive ecosystems, Oyster provides a gentle but urgent look at life on the nation’s edge.


See Also

Matangi / Maya / M.I.A.

Nearly the trigger for an international incident when Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) had to seek help to cross the border for the film’s Hot Docs premiere, Steven Loveridge’s bio-doc mines M.I.A.’s personal archives to create this intriguing portrait of the Sri Lankan Tamil-British musician/activist. It screens as part of SFF’s Sounds on Screen Program, alongside Kevin Macdonald’s Cannes hit Whitney and revealing Joan Jett bio-doc Bad Reputation.


The Sydney Film Festival (SFF) runs 6 – 17 June 2018. Tickets are selling fast for all sessions. Don’t miss out!