Welcome to the 74th Venice Film Festival

August 30, 2017
Venice is back! With its faded glory a cliché that has now faded, the oldest continuously running film festival in the world is about to launch its 74th edition.

Venice is relevant again, with recent hits that have premiered there going on to win big at the Academy Awards; Spotlight, Birdman, Gravity and La La Land, Venice is once again seen as setting the agenda as well as successfully balancing the commercial with the eclectic visions.

Venice prides itself on striking the balance between a festival committed to showing films for the market and one dedicated to showing genuinely unique and independent films with their own voice. It seeks to balance the glamour with a late summer relaxed atmosphere on the Lido – the sumptuous holiday resort (think a sophisticated Gold Coast) seemingly miles away from the intensity of Venice.

After a brief hiatus, Venice is back as one of the leading international A grade festivals that competes aggressively for world premieres with Toronto and Telluride. The late summer schedule sets the agenda for the second half of the year and inevitably has a major impact on the awards season.

It is made up of an international competition comprising no more than 20 feature films all presented as world premieres. An Out of Competition selection and the Orizzonti section for new filmmakers, a Restorations of classic films and the Venice Film Market.

For Australian cinema, Venice has been particularly important in spotlighting a number of films early in their run and setting the festival and distribution pathways agenda. Recent Australian films that have kicked off in Venice include Hounds of Love, Hacksaw Ridge, Tracks, Early Winter, Tanna and Ruin (2013 Special Orizzonti Jury Prize). In 2015, the Closing Night Film was The Daughter and Looking for Grace was in the Official Competition.

This year everyone is already talking about Warwick Thornton’s Official Competition entry, Sweet Country, and in the Orizzonti Short film competition, The Knife Salesman.

The Knife Salesman

Sweet Country was filmed around Alice Springs and stars Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie, Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Anni Finsterer and Matt Day. Set in the 1920s during the frontier wars in the Northern Territory, the film will premiere in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival, and is a remarkably timely and sober follow up to Thornton’s ‘punk’ We Don’t Need a Map that opened the recent Sydney Film Festival.

With the Festival set to open on Wednesday with Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a sci-fi environmental zeitgeist comedy starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a couple who hope to minimise their problems and cut costs by shrinking themselves.

As always, the festival is chock full of stars that this year include Jane Fonda and Robert Redford who are being given lifetime-achievement awards by the festival and star in the late-life romance Our Souls at Night. Festival darling George Clooney will be in town for Suburbicon as will Jennifer Lawrence for the much-anticipated mother! By Darren Aronofsky which also stars Javier Bardem. The Spanish star also appears alongside Penelope Cruz for the drug-lord biopic Loving Pablo.

The queue-talk was about recognisable names such as Guillermo del Toro’s (could it be anything other than fantastical?) The Shape of Water and Martin (In Bruges) McDonagh’s dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It is impossible to avoid major global issues emerging as cinematic subject matter, but there does not seem to be a clear organising principle (as yet). Israel’s Samuel Moaz, who directed the insanely claustrophobic war drama Lebanon, returns with another light-hearted story of conflict in Foxtrot. This is the story of what happens to a grieving father who experiences the absurd circumstances around the death of his son in a blistering assessment of military culture. The illustrious but heavily scrutinised Chinese artist Ai Weiwei explores the vast waves of global migration in the documentary Human Flow. His celebrated countrywoman, Vivian Qu’s modern day noir thriller, Angels Wear White tells the tense story of what happens in the aftermath of a sexual assault in a provincial seaside town. Comedies seem to be well concealed, but there are some promises of a laugh with Chris Smith’s latest documentary about Jim Carrey and his morphing into the role of comedian Andy Kaufman (Man on the Moon) in the film with the most intriguing title – Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — the story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman featuring a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

VR Program
The world’s oldest film festival has reached for the future with a bold commitment to VR. Pretty much every self-respecting film festival has been programming a VR showcase for the past two years. But Venice has taken the idea of the showcase two steps better – it has a dedicated former leper colony devoted to VR and all presented works are in competition. Of the more than 100 works submitted for Venice’s first VR competition, only 22 pieces have been selected and all are international premieres. There are six room-scale installations, six Oculus, three Vives stand ups and 15 presentations in the VR theatre. Of the best known artists, Laurie Anderson’s ‘Sand Room’ project made with Hsin-Chien Huang is most keenly anticipated. It promises to be a next level interactive installation where you fly through a huge chalkboard space covered in text, and if you sing a song it transforms into a sculpture; you can see sculptures left by previous explorers and if you touch their sculptures, you hear their song.

Laurie Anderson’s The Sand Room

There are also considerable new opportunities to pitch and develop new work and it appears that all the VR artists will be attending the festival. The program will run from 31 August to 5 September on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, the otherwise abandoned leper colony that was until now off-limits. That is clearly worth the trip itself to explore the renaissance tunnels where all this high-tech experiences will be set up. The international jury composed of John Landis, Ricky Tognazzi and Celine Sciamma will award three prizes for all Virtual Reality films in competition: Best VR, Best VR Experience (for interactive content) and Best VR Story (for linear content).
The next eleven days promise to be broad ranging and eclectic, full of glamour and beach strolls, bold market predictions and agenda setting debates. Venice is back!

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