The Must-See Movies Of This Year’s Sydney Film Festival

From documentaries on Australia's attitudes to climate change to dramatic descents into the porn industry.

sydney film festival 2021

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And we’re back, even bigger than before: Sydney Film Festival has used its 2021 postponement from July to this November to lock in even more films, including hyped premieres and highlights from Cannes and TIFF.

With more than 200 films showing from November 3 to 21 across in-person and virtual screenings, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed — and to overlook plenty of gems. We don’t blame you: heavy hitters and long-anticipated films litter the line-up quite literally from A to Z. (For those curious: A Hero, by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and Zola, possibly the first major film based on a Twitter thread.)

Here are our picks for the films that will no doubt shape conversations long after the festival ends, from documentaries on Australia’s disproportionate incarceration rates of First Nations people to dramatic descents into the porn industry.


Examining Australia’s horrific 2019-2020 bushfires, director Eva Orner’s latest documentary Burning looks at our country’s political and economic lag to combat climate change. Burning is, of course, just one of many documentaries focussed on climate change screening at SFF, but given Orner’s previous work includes the searing Chasing Asylum, about Australia’s treatment of refugees, and Best Documentary Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the topic is in astute hands. And while SFF hasn’t yet begun, Burning has already won the festival’s inaugural Sustainable Future Award, awarded by a panel of climate change activists.

See also: A Fire Inside, a documentary focused on NSW Rural Fire Services’ efforts during the 2019-2020 bushfires; Greta Thunberg documentary The Magnitude Of All Things; and Gaia, a South African ecological horror where nature strikes back.


This British psychological horror focuses on a very traumatic job: content censorship. But rather than make Enid (Niamh Algar) a Facebook or YouTube moderator, Censor is set in 1985 Britain. Enid is a hard ruler and often recommends violence be removed from films: when she reviews a film that echoes a trauma from her childhood, we understand why.

Floating through the horror are questions of the purpose of portraying violence against women in films, and what is and isn’t necessary. Reviews from the UK are incredibly positive, calling it an impressive and timely debut from director Prano Bailey-Bond.

Here Out West

A collaboration between eight writers and five directors, Here Out West weaves together separate stories set across Western Sydney, centring on a grandmother who steals her daughter’s newborn when it’s about to be taken by authorities. An ambitious and necessary project that features nine spoken languages to capture a disparate community that continues to be misrepresented within the media.

The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson

Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman Leah Purcell’s directorial feature debut is a long-time coming. The veteran writer and actor (Wentworth, Lantana) first adapted Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife into a play in 2016 that debuted at Belvoir Theatre in Sydney, before being reconfigured as a novel — now, a Western film.

In it, Purcell plays the titular role, a pregnant woman living in the Snowy Mountains at the turn of the 19th century, alone with her children when an Indigenous fugitive (Rob Collins) arrives. This re-writing of Lawson’s story untangles the colonial images at the heart of our national literature, rewriting who is and isn’t at the centre of a Western film.

Purcell is also one of the five directors of Here Out West, SFF’s opening night film.

Rehana Maryam Noor

After gaining international attention for his debut film Live from Dhaka, Bangladeshi director Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s follow-up was selected in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ strain of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Rehana Maryam Noor’s titular character (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a single mother and assistant teacher at a medical college who overhears an assault on a female student by her own boss. She is uncertain what to do, as to report it would, in essence, ruin Emu’s life and complicate her own — and the two devise a plan. Reviews, like‘s, praise the film as a “fascinating study in how we define allyship and how easy it is for bad men to continue unchecked”, led by stirring performances.

See also: The Beta Test, an American psycho-horror comedy clearly inspired by #MeToo about Hollywood talent agent (Jim Cummings, who co-wrote and co-directed the film alongside PJ McCabe) who receives a mysterious invitation to cheat on the eve of his wedding.


Drawn from director Charlène Favier’s own experiences growing up on French ski fields, Slalom is about Lyz, a 15-year-old skiier who is groomed for a sexual relationship by her coach Fred, a former star athlete. The film has been praised and criticised, often at the same time, for its ambiguous tone, as it combines an abusive situation with a coming-of-age structure.

Given that France’s age of consent is 15 and the recent explosive revelations about various Olympic coaches abusing teenage athletes, Slalom wades through a lot of context to provide an uncomfortable, confronting experience.


Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank, American Honey, Big Little Lies) first documentary focuses on one Cow, Luma. Without narration, the film attempts to bridge the animal-human divide as we watch Luma’s life on a British dairy farm, filmed over years: she gives birth, is milked repeatedly, her hooves are trimmed.

Echoing last year’s pig documentary Gunda, Cow has a clear point — these animals deserve more. Reviews highlight how surprisingly moving the documentary is, with Variety critic Guy Lodge writing that “Arnold finds a horrible, hypnotic rhythm in these gruellingly looped procedures, though she doesn’t shoot them with any surplus beauty”.

The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation

Long-standing Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi creates a ‘manual’ to how to colonise, incorporating testimonies from 38 former Israeli soldiers on the occupation of Palestinian land.

Archival footage and the soldier’s revelations are shocking, tied together by Mobrabi’s own satirical and bureaucratic lecture on colonialism, which serves to reveal how calculated and intentional Israel’s slow take-over of Palestine has been.

Strong Female Lead

Like Adam Goodes’ documentary The Final Quarter before it, Strong Female Lead is a searing look at recent Australian history that only uses archival footage to tell its story. Director Tosca Looby examines the media coverage of Julia Gillard, revealing a blot of sexism and misogyny that set to immediately undercut the authority of our first female PM.

The Bowraville Murders

Journalist, filmmaker and Muruwari and Gomeroi man Allan Clarke interrogates how Australia’s justice system fails First Nations people in The Bowraville Murders, a documentary centred on the disappearances of three Indigenous children in 1990 and 1991. Thirty years later, the families of the victims still demand justice.

See also: Incarceration Nation, Dean Gibson’s doco on the over-incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia.


Swedish director Ninja Thyberg develops her award-winning 2013 short into a full feature with Pleasure, which trendy distributor A24 gave up the rights on after their plans to edit the film into an R-rated theatrical version caused clashes with the director. (Parasite distributor Neon picked it up, promising to not edit the film.)

An uncompromising, intense and exposing look at the porn industry, Pleasure follows Bella (Sofia Kappel), a Swedish woman who moves to LA to start her dream career in porn. Beyond Kappel, the film’s cast are pulled entirely from the adult film world, and Pleasure is based off almost a decade of research into an industry Thyberg remains ambivalent to, understanding that individual freedoms and agency can be found within an exploitative, grimy environment.

See also: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a Romanian comedy-drama where a school teacher’s sex tape goes viral.

Sydney Film Festival 2021 is from November 3 to November 21, split into two segments: the in-person screenings from the 3rd to the 14th, and the On-Demand films, streaming from the 12th to the 21st. Junkee is a proud media partner of Sydney Film Festival.

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Drag Race recapper, and a freelance critic who has written for The GuardianThe MonthlyNME and more. He’s on Twitter @jrdjms