How The Aussie Films Fared At SxSW

Australian cinema was welcomed into the heart of Texas. And so was Angus Sampson.

With four feature films screening at this year’s festival, Australian cinema has made a strong, critically lauded showing at Austin’s SXSW — featuring drug mules, feminist protestors, and a curious emphasis on time travel.

Here’s the breakdown.

The Mule

Dir. Angus Sampson, Tony Mahony

Angus Sampson has made the latest move in his long-running feud with Dylan Lewis for the coveted title of Most Accomplished Recovery presenter, a competition that I just made up.

His feature film The Mule (co-directed with Tony Mahony) screened at SXSW to widespread acclaim. Sampson produced, co-directed, co-wrote (along with Saw and Insidious’ Leigh Whannell), and stars in the story of a hapless footballer who naively agrees to smuggle drugs into Australia from Thailand. Apprehended at the border, Sampson’s Ray refuses to cooperate, and is detained to a hotel room with two detectives waiting for him to, uh, ‘pass’ the many narcotic-stuffed condoms situated within his person. Thus begins the race between Ray’s gastric pressure and the legal amount of time the detectives can hold him.


The Hollywood Reporter proclaims The Mule to be “somewhat more eventful than a film about self-inflicted constipation promises to be”, while Drew McWeeny at HitFix praises Hugo Weaving’s nasty performance as the “happy asshole” detective confronting Ray.

John Noble (a.k.a crazy old man Denethor from The Lord of the Rings, and crazy old man Walter Bishop from cult TV show Fringe) plays the cold-blooded businessman behind the drug operation. Noni Hazlehurst (a.k.a the very best Play School presenter of all time please do not attempt to disagree) plays Sampson’s mum.


Dir. Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Also garnering positive notice is Predestination, the new film from the Spierig Brothers (Undead, 2003). Continuing their collaboration with Daybreakers’ Ethan Hawke, the film is a time-travelling tale adapted from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story ‘—All You Zombies—’.


Hawke stars as a Temporal Agent tasked with stopping a bomber in 1970s New York, but the breakout star is South Australian actress Sarah Snook, in a gender-fluid performance as an intersex person tangled up in Hawke’s time-hopping organisation. Henry Barnes in The Guardian calls her a “revelation”, while Justin Chang in Variety writes that “the lingering resonance of Snook’s performance transcends mere gender-bender gimmickry; whether she’s speaking in a man’s gruff lower register or gazing, transfixed, at the first boy who’s ever shown her any attention, it’s her poignant embodiment of the desire for acceptance and self-fulfilment that lends this singularly weird experience a universal dimension.”

The Infinite Man

Dir. Hugh Sullivan

Another Aussie time travel fantasy (what is it with Australians wishing they could go back and change the past, I wonder?), Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man is a romantic comedy about a heartbroken man (Josh McConville) who invents a time machine in order to repair a romantic weekend retreat that turned disastrous. Hannah Marshall is his ex, and Alex Dimitriades is her Olympian ex-boyfriend who comes to seduce her back.

Twitch Film praises the “temporal mayhem” the film generates: with multiple versions of the same characters running around the same weekend, the story evolves “into a brilliant Noises Offstyle comedy with the same scenes playing out from different vantage points”. Indiewire calls it a “funny and oddly involving representation of one relationship’s ups and downs”.

Ukraine Is Not A Brothel

Dir. Kitty Green

Also screened was Australian documentarian Kitty Green’s Ukraine is Not a Brothel, a look at the Ukraine’s controversial Femen activist group, whose members sometimes stage protests bare-breasted. Green filmed the group in the Ukraine and the surrounding region for fourteen months, during which she was arrested eight times and abducted by the KGB.

Pretty much not safe for work, I would say:

The film is getting attention for the moral complexity it uncovers at the centre of the organisation, namely that this group of (often semi-nude) feminists was launched and is dominated by Victor Svyatski; an “abusive and scary man”, as Green puts it. In a review from its Venice premier last year, Patrick Holzapfel at Twitch Film writes about the questions the film raises about “the nature of the movement and feminism … Femen is presented as a group of activists that is organized in exactly the same way as the organizations it protests against.”

Brandon Watson at The Austin Chronicle commends the film for its balanced depiction of the dynamic between Svyatski and the female members of Femen: “If he is an example of hypocrisy, the women of Femen are an example of nuance.”

According to Screen AustraliaThe Mule will be distributed in Australia through Hopsctoch/eOne, Predestination through Pinnacle Films, and The Infinite Man through Infinite Releasing. Ukraine is not a Brothel is yet to find a domestic distributor.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @anthroJRD