By Gill Pringle at TIFF

An uplifting biopic about Helen Reddy, the ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem which became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement, I Am Woman already has TIFF audiences – and programmers – buzzing in anticipation on the eve of the 44th edition of the prestigious film festival.

“We are thrilled to see Australia represented so strongly at this year’s festival. Across programs and styles, it is great to see the wealth of talent currently at work in the country,” says TIFF Senior Director of Film, Diana Sanchez. “We are also excited to have Unjoo Moon’s uplifting biopic, I Am Woman, open our Special presentations section. Moon’s wonderfully inspiriting film does renowned singer Helen Reddy justice. We could not be happier to be presenting the film’s World Premiere at the festival.”

Reddy’s hit single would become an anthem for second-wave feminism that continues to reverberate in today’s #MeToo movement. But the story behind that song is itself an inspiration. Under Moon’s astute direction, Tilda Cobham-Hervey brings Reddy to life in this chronicle of the singer’s remarkable rise to fame and independence.

The dateline is 1966 and 24-year-old Reddy travels from her native Melbourne to New York in search of stardom. But the male-gatekeepers of the record industry are dismissive of her chances in a Beatles-mad pop market, frowning upon her single motherhood. Fortunately, she finds a friend in fellow Aussie Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), a journalist who’s made some headway of her own in a male-dominated field.

Everything changes when Reddy meets Evan Peters’ Jeff Wald who sweeps her off her feet, rapidly becoming both her husband and manager, insisting her golden voice gets heard. But how long is Jeff willing to stick around once the gold discs and cash start rolling in?

Born in Seoul, raised in Australia but now based in the US, Moon made her 2012 feature debut with the documentary, The Zen of Bennett.

Among the other home-grown films screening at Toronto (and perhaps enjoying the best casinos in Canada) are Daniel Gordon and Stan Grant’s documentary The Australian Dream – already released in Australia but now receiving its Canadian premiere. A portrait of the struggles and triumphs of indigenous AFL legend Adam Goodes, this inspirational story asks fundamental questions about the nature of racism and discrimination today.

Rounding out the Australian entries are the True History of the Kelly Gang, Dirt Music, Hearts and Bones and TV series Black Bitch.

Making its World Premiere at TIFF, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang features in the special Gala Presentation.

A fictionalized re-telling of the life and crimes of the infamous 19th century outlaw, based on Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning novel, the film stars Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult.

Kurzel studied film at Victorian College of Arts, directing his debut feature, Snowtown in 2011, followed by Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed.

Starring George MacKay as the infamous Kelly, the film also features Charlie Hunnam and Kurzel’s real-life partner, Essie Davis.

Ben Lawrence’s Hearts and Bones makes its international premiere in the Discovery category. Starring national treasure Hugo Weaving as an Australian war photographer and Andrew Luri as a South Sudanese refugee, both men are forced to confront the twin horrors of war and grief.

Marking the Sydney-based director’s fiction feature debut, Hearts and Bones explores the life-long traces of trauma with uncommon compassion.

Written by Beatrix Christian, last at TIFF with Jindabyne (directed by Ben’s father Ray Lawrence), this story of two strangers with a shared past asks thorny questions about surviving catastrophe and bearing witness.

Talking about his inspiration, Lawrence told us, “I began looking at specific war photographs and came across one in a Sydney exhibition – a close-up of a man who had a gun held to his head. All the information was there. And it posed many questions for me. Who was that man that had the gun to his head? Who was the guy holding the gun? And who was the photographer? How close was he? How much was he in danger? So, it was from that story and that photograph that I began to write Hearts and Bones.”

Weaving was impressed by Lawrence’s revisions, having read a version of the script many years ago. “I think the script is hugely intelligent and has just grown in layers over the years. It’s informed by Ben’s own experience by the film industry and traveling around the world, taking photos himself.”

Receiving its World Premiere in the Primetime category is Black Bitch, this TV political drama stars Rachel Griffiths as an Australian Prime Minister who recruits Deborah Mailman’s local indigenous politician Alex Irving to the senate after a contentious video goes viral.

Skeptical of the political PR machine, and wary of being considered the party’s “pet Aborigine”, as her brother puts it, Irving nonetheless sees the Prime Minister’s proposal as a rare opportunity to bring about meaningful, lasting change for her community.

Mailman, best known for her powerful performance in The Sapphires, gives a simmering raw performance as someone who is all too familiar with being underestimated and dismissed.

Meanwhile, the stunning landscape of Western Australia serves as the backdrop for Gregor Jordan’s impassioned tale of love and grief in his adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel, Dirt Music, starring Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund and David Wenham.

Receiving its World Premiere in the Special Presentation category, Dirt Music tells the story of a loveless relationship between Wenham’s legendary local fisherman and a despondent Macdonald who becomes enamored with Hedlund’s young poacher who is encroaching on her tyrannical partner’s territory.

Born in Sale, Jordan’s debut short film, Swinger, won a Jury Prize at Cannes, and he went on to direct features Two Hands and Ned Kelly in Australia.

It will be interesting to compare Jordan’s Ned Kelly with Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang.

A truly Aussie-centric TIFF.


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