Eight Revealing And/Or Upsetting Documentaries To See At The Sydney Film Festival

We review some of the festival's best ahead of Opening Night.

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

The annual migration of Australian cinephiles to the darkened movie theatres of the Sydney Film Festival is about to begin. After we looked at some of the festival’s biggest films last month, we’ve now been lucky enough to catch some of the best documentaries before opening night tomorrow.

If you have some spare slots to fill on your flexipass or just generally love docos, then you should see these ASAP. It’s either now, or in 18 months when they turn up on the crowded shelves of JB Hi-Fi between boxsets of The Real Housewives and The Only Way is Essex.

The Look Of Silence, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

If you’re interested in: The Act Of Killing, Indonesian history, being generally devastated.

If you didn’t learn enough about the genocide of Indonesian communists from the three-hour, Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2013), director Joshua Oppenheimer is now back with The Look of Silence (2014) — an inverted take on the story. Where Killing got much of its power from the shocking maniacal glee with which its subjects recreated their crimes, The Look of Silence tells it from the point of view of relatives of the victims as they confront the people responsible, many of whom have family members who don’t believe the stories they’re told. It’s absolutely devastating, as one would expect, but also a more appropriate elegiac than its predecessor. Any film with this many anonymous credits at the end has to ruffle some feathers.

Bonus stuff: Joshua Oppenheimer will be talking about the film at the Festival Hub on Thursday, June 11 at 8.45pm.

Tyke Elephant Outlaw, dir. Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore

If you’re interested in: the circus, animal rights, terrible things.

The number of circuses that use animals in their act has dropped significantly in the last two decades and that’s in large part because of the story behind this film. This Australian documentary is directed by the same people behind My Big Fat Bar Mitzvah (2014) and The Cars That Ate China (2008) respectively and focuses on the story of Tyke, a circus-trained elephant that went on a rampage through the streets of Hawaii after purposively stomping on its trainer and breaking free. The archival news footage had me crying by about five minutes in, but what’s most impressive in this local production is the honesty and remorse felt by the employees. It’s a striking film that can stand alongside Blackfish (2013) and Virunga (2014).

Gayby Baby, dir. Maya Newell

If you’re interested in: LGBT rights, family drama, converting a conservative friend.

Following on from the autobiographical ABC TV series Growing Up Gayby, director Maya Newell looks at the lives of modern children of same-sex parents in this much-anticipated crowdfunded doco. Here, Newell sensitively examines the lives of a group of children in the face of intolerance and perceived disadvantage — made clear with parliamentary member speeches over the opening credits. While politics obviously plays a part, Newell allows the drama to occur naturally — one set of parents gets to meet with Julia Gillard, for instance — and the film is more about traditional parental struggles. There are hospital visits, debates about conflicting religious views and discussions about whether the kids should watch WWE. It’s a compassionately made documentary that’s ultimately all about our similarities.

The Russian Woodpecker, dir. Chad Garcia

If you’re interested in: modern history, geopolitics, conspiracy theorists who get shit done.

Nuclear devastation and political revolution are tough topics by themselves, but in this incredibly complex and layered doco, they become intertwined. Against the growing unease of the region’s recent conflict, Ukranian provocateur and artist Fedor Alexandrovich thinks he’s uncovered the truth behind the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion. It’d be hard to believe if it wasn’t so convincing and that makes the film a definite must-see.

Bonus stuff: Screening alongside this is Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s Sundance-winning short film The Face of Ukraine (2015). Just like her AACTA Award-winning Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2014), it yields a damning critique of Russia with the story of its Ukrainian female subjects.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Self-Belief and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, dir. Alex Gibney

If you’re interested in: Scientology, Steve Jobs, controversy.

Alex Gibney is a filmmaking machine. Since winning an Academy Award eight years ago for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) he’s directed 16 films on topics as wide-ranging as the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer in Client 9 (2010), the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse of deaf students in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), and Lance Armstrong’s doping cover-up in The Armstrong Lie (2013).

Now, Gibney’s latest two projects both screen at SFF: the already infamous Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) and the less controversial Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). The former is well worth the price of admission for its frank and damning examination into the abuses of body and mind conducted by L. Ron Hubbard’s religious organisation (not to mention all that bizarre Tom Cruise footage). The latter is another typically thorough Gibney doco that will pair well with the upcoming Danny Boyle biopic starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs.

Bonus stuff: Alex Gibney is having 90-minute conversation about the films at Sydney Town Hall on Sunday, June 7 at 11am.

The Hunting Ground, dir. Kirby Dick

If you’re interested in: prosecution for sexual assault, the mess around UVA/Rolling Stone, being angry.

Documentarian Kirby Dick was nominated for an Oscar for his soul-destroying exposé of rape and sexual harassment in the United States Army in The Invisible War (2012). Now, he returns with The Hunting Ground (2015), a similar film that examines sexual assault within the American higher education system and the subsequent cover-ups by these institutions. Searing and emotional, you best not schedule anything important after you see this one because you’ll be seething and ready for a long discussion.

Iris, dir. Albert Maysles

If you’re interested in: Iris Apfel, fashion, being a sassy old lady.

Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles died earlier this year at the age of 88. Despite his history as the man behind classic rock doco Gimme Shelter (1970), it was his intimate looks at small people like Grey Gardens (1975) and Salesman (1968) that cast the longer shadow. In Iris (2014), his penultimate film, Maysles follows fashion icon Iris Apfel around her home city of New York as she goes about her everyday life: shopping and being sassy.

It’s hardly the most provocative documentary in the festival line-up, but it’s such a delightfully fizzy one that it should be the perfect tonic after a long festival and the final day session is selling fast. It’s certainly better than Advanced Style (2014), and those who take the world of fashion seriously will admire Apfel’s dedication to personality as well as her beliefs. She was adamant that fashion tells a story not only of the wearer, but also the politics and history of the day and age.

The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 3-14. Check out our other picks here.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.