After an impressive documentary debut with The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe four years ago, director Ros Horin’s inspiring Rosemary’s Way focuses on what one of those women, Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe, has been doing since then.
The charismatic Kenyan-Australian runs a grassroots, funded-on-the-cheap cultural exchange program to bring isolated migrant and refugee women from Sydney’s western suburbs into the households of ordinary “Aussies” − Anglo Australians − in regional areas for a weekend.
A life-affirming trip to Kiama shows how both sides benefit through sharing food, stories and music.
Nays Baghai’s Descent is about professional ice freediver Kiki Bosch, who wears just a swimming costume, snorkel and flippers as she ventures into water as cold as minus 2 degrees. It is an exceptional feat of mental and physical discipline that is also her way of overcoming the depression and anxiety attacks that followed being sexually assaulted.
A fascinating portrait of a young Dutch woman finding strength through pushing herself to extremes is stunningly filmed as she dives in Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Finland. “The cold has been a healing journey,” she says. “It helped me get through the lowest points in my life.”
Isabel Peppard and Josie Hess’ Morgana centres on an another charismatic woman: unlikely porn industry icon Morgana Muses. A divorced mother of two who was contemplating suicide at 47, her life changed when she discovered feminist porn.
A raunchy documentary with heart shows the vibrant Muses having to overcome loathing her body to start a wild new career writing, directing and starring in adult films.
Two films in the competition resonate strongly given the Black Lives Matter protests in this country.
Ten years in the making, Tom Murray’s The Skin of Others is a docudrama about Douglas Grant, an Aboriginal soldier and POW in World War I who became famous as an intellectual, journalist, activist and, because he was adopted by a Scottish-Australian father, bagpipe player.
With the masterful Balang Tom. E. Lewis playing Grant, Murray changed course after his star’s death two years ago. It’s now a film that movingly interweaves the stories of two talented Indigenous men, Grant and Lewis, who both wanted to bridge the country’s racial divide.
Cornel Ozies’ Our Law focuses on the first entirely Indigenous police station in outback Western Australia, where two officers learn the language and culture of the local Aboriginal community for a less confrontational style of policing. Made for NITV, it’s a short but valuable contribution to a flashpoint debate.
The other competition films are not quite as effective but there are still moments and insights to savour in five more stories about women.
While not really a documentary, Allison Chhorn’s The Plastic House is an atmospheric and moving art film about grief and resilience that follows a young Cambodian-Australian woman working through the seasons in a greenhouse; Robynne Murphy’s Women Of Steel is an overdue chronicling of the landmark “jobs for women” campaign at Port Kembla steelworks from 1980 to 1994; and Jakeb Anhvu’s A Hundred Years of Happiness is a beautifully shot but too understated observational documentary about a poor young Vietnamese woman, having been rejected for an Australian visa, marrying a South Korean man despite not knowing each other’s language.
More problematic are Ili Bare’s The Leadership, about 76 high-achieving women with STEM careers taking a troubling leadership course on a 20-day voyage to Antarctica, and Kathy Drayton’s The Weather Diaries, a melancholy personal look at her fears for her musically talented daughter as catastrophic climate change looms.
Sydney Film Festival continues until June 21, www.sff.org.au.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.