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Thursday
Nov232017

SCARY MOTHER: THE ANA URUSHADZE / NATO MURVANDZE INTERVIEW

2017 ASIA PACIFIC FILM AWARDS: Ana Urushadze is a 27 year-old writer/director who hails from Tbilisi in Georgia. Her debut film, a stark and challenging drama called Scary Mother, may be the finest first effort of 2017. The titular matriarch is Manana, a mother of three whose ambition to be a published author threatens to deconstruct her middle-class existence, when she reveals the narrative of her first novel to be a brutal, thinly veiled skewering of the life she has created for herself. Working alongside Urushadze is acclaimed Georgian actress Nato Murvanidze, whose portrayal of Manana has been lauded as one of the year’s most accomplished lead turns. 

In Brisbane to attend the Asia Pacific Screen Awards as nominees in the Best Director and Best Actress categories respectively, Ana Urushadze (pictured, above) and Nato Murvanidze (below) sat with SCREEN-SPACE to talk about creating the vivid mindscape of Scary Mother…

SCREEN-SPACE: When confronted with a set of characters and a reality as maddening as that in Scary Mother, it is daunting to enquire about its origins…

Ana: The origins come from a script I wrote for a short film, a project that literally ran for about a minute. Events unfolded a bit differently, but the story was the same; it was about a wife telling her husband about her dream to tell this story. The treatment was rejected when I submitted it, but when I expanded the story and broadened the script into feature length, I resubmitted and it was approved. I was most fascinated by the idea of one character being out of the ordinary, being at odds with a normal life. Following her discoveries, watching her as she is taken out of her family life and how those around her react to this change is what developed into her story.

SCREEN-SPACE: There are authors in your family, Ana…

Ana: Yes, my sister is a writer although she refuses to call herself that because, she says, she hasn’t been published. I tell her, “You write! You’re a writer!” (Laughs) And my mother was once a writer, who went through a period where she started and stopped. So there were certainly connections to the real world, to my real world.

Nato: [The script] was a big surprise. I’ve known Ana for years, and I knew she was a very talented person, but her script surprised me very much. That such a young person could write these word and these characters is remarkable. It sounded like the voice of a much older, wiser person, with more life experiences. And I was really afraid, actually, because I was unsure if I could do it or not. Manana is a very intense character that demands you follow her 24 hours a day and it struck me as hard to be able to do that.

SCREEN-SPACE: Despite a vast body of work, Nato, had you ever encountered a woman like Manana?

Nato: I work a lot in theatre, and it is not uncommon to find these complex, difficult characters in the works of great playwrights, but you rarely get to play characters like this in movies. Ana and I met regularly and discussed at length the character, to delve deeper into her psychology. 

Ana: You know, everything with this film happened very quickly. We have a quite small group of filmmakers in Georgia and we know all the respected greats in the industry, like Nato, but we didn’t have access to young, unknown names and faces we needed to play the family. So we went through casting to secure some of the actors, and I drew on people I knew that were not names in the industry but who were perfect for the roles. If they had not done the wonderful jobs they did, the film would have turned out very differently.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the great scenes of the year in film is the single-shot slow-reveal when Manana finally reads her work to her family…

Ana: I wanted to start tight, on her face, and then reveal the whole scene as her words began to impact the family members. It felt like the most visually supportive way to capture that moment.

Nato: I said to Ana, “Give me the length of time you need for me to read this through and for you to get the shot, and I’ll do it.” (laughs) We talked about it before shooting that writers usually can’t read their own words very well. So the situation with her family, and the struggle to decide will she do it or won’t she do it, pushed us to create this staging of the scene.

Ana: And it takes a slightly exaggerated form, as much of the reality does in the film, but it works I think. (Pictured, right; the director with the Golden Leopard Best First Feature trophy from this year's Locarno Film Festival).

SCREEN-SPACE: It is also a very funny scene in a film that may not get it's due as a comedy…

Ana: It is so good to hear that, thank you. It is meant to be funny in parts; even the title, ‘Scary Mother’, is clearly meant to be funny, I think.

SCREEN-SPACE: Describe the state of the Georgian film sector for us. Is it an industry where distinctive, female voice such as yours are nurtured and encouraged?

Ana: It certainly is. Our whole industry is in agreement on the topic of women filmmakers getting their voice heard. There is a high percentage of women filmmakers, whose films are getting seen both at home and overseas. The Georgian National Film Centre runs a competition every year for debut films and, while the funding is low, applications are high. So a strong film culture does exist.

 

Thursday
Nov232017

APSA-NOMINATED ACTRESS HONOURS INDONESIAN HEROINE IN ATHIRAH

It became one of Indonesian film’s most sought-after leading parts – the role of Athirah Kulla, mother of the nation’s current Vice President Jusuf Kulla, in director Riri Riza’s adaptation of Albertine Indah’s period novel, ‘Hajja Athirah Kalla’. For Riza and producer Mira Lesmana, the actress who personified the strength, integrity and presence of the Makassar heroine would be Cut Mini, star of the director’s 2008 film Laskar Pelangi. As Athira, Mini proved a revelation; she took the Best Actress ‘Citra’ award in the film’s sweep of the 2016 Indonesian Film Festival. “I never even considered that I would come this far,” she told SCREEN-SPACE, who sat with the star in Brisbane on the eve of 2017 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, where she will vie for the Best Actress trophy…. 

“Athirah imparts a message of empowerment to Indonesian women, many of whom were faced with the same conditions, both then and now,” says the actress, whose ‘overnight success’ took 30 years, having graduated from model work to TV-soap stardom to her breakthrough role in the 2003 hit film, The Gathering. “She became the pride of the Makassar people,” says Mini. “Crossing boundaries in the way that she did was a landmark moment in our history.”   

The production lovingly recreated late 1950s Indonesia, a time when tradition and social mores dictated all facets of everyday life. Athirah Kalla is a well-to-do middle–class wife, committed to her husband Puanj Ajji (Arman Dewarti) and providing for a house full of children, including shy teenager Jusuf (Christoffer Nelwan). But when her husband strays, Athirah must raise the family in his long absences, while still striving to maintain the honour that society demands be shown to the patriarch. (Pictured, right; Cut Mini as Athira Kalla)

“When cast, I had already read the book and had felt a deep emotional connection with the character," says Mini. "I felt what she was feeling, was sensing her journey. Then I practiced every day for two months to get the nuances of this character just right.” She worked closely with Riza to shape what would become an iconic portrayal of the legendary figure, though it was not achieved without great discipline. “The greatest obstacle for me was the silent stillness of her character, about how much of what she conveys is in her expressions. It was very hard for me to conceal the performance because I was feeling such strong emotions.”

The actress adopted a method approach to her work that became so immersive it extended beyond her performance. “When I got onto the set, I considered everything mine,” she recalls. “The set for the house was my house, and the kids were my kids. The food that I cooked would be the food that Athirah would have cooked. Such moments stemmed from a desire and understanding within me.” She admits to feeling a sense of disconnect to her real self, a revelation not uncommon amongst actors who psychologically adopt another persona for a long shoot. “In truth, I felt that me and Athirah were one and I kind of forgot how to be ‘Mini’ for a while, so connected was I to her life.”

The all-encompassing characterisation impacted co-stars as well, not least of whom was the young but experienced actor Nelwan (pictured, above; with Mini, on set) with whom Mini has several emotionally potent scenes. “We had a particularly strong connection off-screen,” she admits, “They would never call me by my name, instead calling me ‘Mama’, for ‘mother’.” According to the actress, such devotion and belief is central to film’s message. “What the movie teaches us is how family, even in the face of all the struggles you have in life, is most important. We learn through Athirah that being a strong figurehead for your children is crucial,” she says.

Main photo: Tempo/Fakhri Hermansyah

Saturday
Nov182017

LOST GULLY ROAD: THE DONNA MCRAE INTERVIEW

MONSTER FEST 2017: The great horror films, works that linger in the minds and hearts of genre fans, are those that have meaning, convey a message, confront truths. Writer/director Donna McRae’s Lost Gully Road establishes a classic ‘cabin in the woods’ premise; a lone heroine (Adele Perovic) in a secluded location, an unseen menace threatening her, physically and psychologically. But McRae, a Lecturer in Film & Television at Deakin University when not behind the camera, wanted to confront the very nature of violence against women within her genre setting. The shoot was isolated and McRae’s depiction of domestic brutality, unflinching. “I think that this was the only way to do it,” the director told SCREEN-SPACE, ahead of the World Premiere of Lost Gully Road at Monster Fest on November 25….

SCREEN-SPACE: Lost Gully Road adheres to an Australian cinematic tradition via its contemporary spin on the 'haunted country home' genre. What are the films, books and art that influenced the project?

MCRAE (pictured, above): A sub-genre of recent independent horror films has been the secluded house by the lake, or deep in the forest, as a site for psychological upheaval. Films like Honeymoon (2014) or Shelley (2016) use this trope well – the seclusion, the claustrophobia and the landscape. The Australian Gothic is fascinating, and I think the landscapes rather than films from here are influences, although I loved the elegant simplicity of Lake Mungo (2008) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Babadook (2014).  The presumed quiet of the bush is something that intrigues me. We scouted for locations in The Dandenongs frequently. It’s so cinematic but offers an uneasy feeling of one step wrong and you are lost. There is a sense of concealment; unlike the outback where you can see what is coming, in the forest one never knows what is out there. Having said this, some of my favourite films are the older ones that use the house as character, such as The Haunting (1963), The Innocents (1961) and, strangely, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947).    

SCREEN-SPACE: A key thematic concern is how the past continues to haunt the present. Why is your film specifically, and the horror genre in general, so effective in dealing with grief and memory?

MCRAE: I have always been interested in ghosts and haunting. In fact my Phd was on (cinema) ghosts and memory. I feel that they are inextricably linked. The horror genre, or its subgenre the ‘ghost film’, is a fantastic place to delve into this area as it offers an arena to present many levels of an idea. You can represent grief or memory as a ghost, which, depending on which way the story goes, can be loving, traumatic or very nasty. So it is no wonder that this genre is so inventive. (Pictured, right; a scene from Lost Gully Road) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Your casting of Adele Perovic (pictured, below) catches her primed for her first feature lead role. How close was she to the 'Lucy' that you and writer Michael Vale envisioned, and what did she bring to the characterisation?

MCRAE: I had seen Adele on television, and was struck with the immediacy of her performance. When we first spoke, she came across as the embodiment of our character – a millennial that was smart, aware of the world around her but with her own point of view. We only had two weeks to shoot so we had no rehearsal time scheduled, [yet] Adele gave the most naturalistic performance, which I doubt would have been possible if we had tried to rehearse. She put herself in the character’s shoes and just went with it. It was a textbook study of an actor producing truth.  It was important to us all that she remain ‘in the moment’, to make decisions for her character, and I would only interfere if I wasn’t seeing it in the monitor. It was risky, but having trained as an actor myself, I know how hard acting is on a film set, so I was happy to take the risk.  My DOP Laszlo Baranyai is a great believer in letting the actor do what they need to do and then we shoot it. Laszlo and I had days of script conversations, so by the time we got to the set, we had made many decisions. He just got on with his department and I concentrated on the performance. I did have my favourite scenes though in my head, like the one where she walks down the corridor with a camping lantern. I wanted it a particular way, so I very much led those.

SCREEN-SPACE: Violence and horror films go hand-in-hand, of course, but your use of violence is not exploitative or gratuitous. What functionality does your depiction of violence serve?

MCRAE: I needed to get my point across. I wanted to show a disintegration of trust and the complications of when no means no. It is a film about random and domestic violence and I saw no point tiptoeing around that. I made choices about how it would be done; I didn’t want to make it a typical ‘cinema’ depiction of domestic violence. As a female filmmaker I found it hard to write these scenes but they were connected to the story so they needed to be in there. These were the only scenes that we rehearsed with a stunt co-ordinator and we were very careful to make it seem real. The fact that Adele does it all by herself is amazing. (Pictured, above; the director, on location).

SCREEN-SPACE: The final frames hint at the cyclical nature of violence against women and the inevitability of those actions. Is that the message you hope audiences will take from the film?

MCRAE: The primary message that I want to get across is that no means no. It doesn’t mean yes but I’m just being coy, it means I’m not interested and please stop. Women’s actions should never be misconstrued. And yes, the last frames of the film do reflect the cyclical nature of violence against women. But there is also another aspect, and that is the enablers of this violence. I don’t want to give the story away but there are lessons to be learned here – and I have seen it time and time again – people let things slide because of connections.

LOST GULLY ROAD will have its World Premiere on Saturday November 25 as part of Monster Fest 2017. Ticket and session details can be found at the official festival website

Sunday
Oct222017

ANDREI KONCHALOVSKY: A RETROSPECTIVE

Born into Russian aristocracy and groomed from an early age for classical music concert halls, Andrei Konchalovsky instead chose the life of a visual artist and was soon accepted into Moscow’s prestigious film academy, VGIK. A meeting with the great director Andrei Tarkovsky (with whom he would co-write the 1966 classic, Andrei Rublev) inspired the twenty-something; at the age of 27, his debut feature The First Teacher (1964) found worldwide acclaim and announced the arrival of a true Soviet cinematic visionary.

To commemorate the great director’s 80th birthday, a celebration of his career will feature at this year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival; six films, from the early dramas to his brief but brilliant Hollywood journey to his contemporary works, that acknowledge the remarkable contribution to world cinema made by Andrei Konchalovsky…

NEST OF THE GENTRY (1969)
Stars: Irina Kupchenko (pictured, right), Leonid Kulagin, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Vasili Merkuryev.
Plot: A Russian expat returns from Paris to his aristocratic life, mourning his late wife. Charmed by the daughter of his cousin, he is infatuated with the thought of a life spent with her, despite the obstacles such a love must face. But one last hurdle must be overcome – the unexpected reappearance of his betrothed…
Fact: Boasting intricate period detail and richly shot by Georgy Rerberg, Konchalovsky’s adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novel was the director’s third film, but only the second released in his homeland. Following The First Teacher, Konchalovsky made the 1966 romantic drama Asiya’s Happiness, only to have it shelved for over 20 years due to the director’s breaching of strict narrative guidelines set by the Soviet authorities. 

UNCLE VANYA (1970)
Stars: Irina Kupchenko, Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Sergei Bondarchuk, Irina Miroshnichenko.
Plot: Dr Serebryakov, a retired academic, and his beautiful young wife Yelena travel to their country estate, to stay with the home’s custodian, the professor’s brother Vanya. Yelena’s allure charms Vanya, as well as the town’s doctor, Astrov; meanwhile Sofya, Serebryakov’s daughter from his first marriage, struggles with her own unsatisfying life. When Serebryakov decides to sell the estate, the complex relationship dynamics are forced into the open.
Fact: Arguably Konchalovsky’s masterwork, his adaption of Chekhov’s play enjoyed international success unprecedented for Soviet cinema. The respected New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted all the performances were “marvellous” and that Chekhov’s text was “remembered by the filmmakers with deep appreciation and taste.” The film was included on the US National Board of Review’s Top Foreign Film List; the director took home San Sebastian's Golden Seashell honour.

RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985)
Stars: Jon Voigt, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan.
Plot: Manny, a hardened convict and Buck, a fiery younger prisoner, escape from a brutal Alaskan prison in the depths of winter only to find themselves on an out-of-control train with a female railway worker, while being pursued by the vengeful head of jail security.
Fact: Roger Ebert wrote of Konchalovsky’s action epic in the same sentence as The African Queen, Stagecoach and The Seven Samurai, stating “great adventures are great because they happen to people we care about.” Adapted from an original script by Akira Kurosawa, this brutal yet beautiful survival story earned three Oscar nominations (Lead and Supporting Actor categories, as well as for Henry Richardson’s editing); scored Voigt a Golden Globe for Best Actor; and, earned Konchalovsky a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. (Pictured, above; Voigt, left, and Roberts)

  

TANGO & CASH (1989)
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Teri Hatcher, Jack Palance.
Plot: Two rival LAPD narcotic detectives are paired in an effort to bring down a Californian drug kingpin, only to find themselves framed and sent to maximum security prison. From inside, they need to clear their names, nail the villain and stay alive while everyone around them wants them dead.
Fact: The set of Konchalovsky’s most broadly commercial film was a hotbed of creative differences, studio interference and colliding egos, making it all the more remarkable that Tango & Cash has emerged as one of the more memorable and cherished ‘buddy cop’ action comedies of the 1980s. With the bulk of principal photography in the can, the Russian proposed an edit that was slightly more serious in tone than first envisioned. That was the final straw for producer Jon Peters and Warner Bros, who took control of the film and employed 2nd unit helmer Peter McDonald (Rambo III), gun-for-hire Albert Magnoli (Purple Rain) and Australian editor Stuart Baird (Executive Decision) to lighten the mood. 

GLOSS (2007)
Stars: Yuliya Vysotskaya (pictured, right), Irina Rozanova, Aleksandr Domogarov.
Plot: Pretty young thing Galya leaves her provincial upbringing behind to make it big in the world of high fashion super-modelling. But her ambitious resolve is tested when setback after cruel setback chip away at her dreams.
Facts: As Andrei Konchalovsky neared 70, he turned his eye towards Moscow’s faux upper-class and shallow fashion industry sector with Gloss, one of his most contemporary and relevant works. A biting satire that has been labelled a deeper, darker version of the Anne Hathaway/Meryl Streep hit The Devil Wears Prada, Gloss didn’t sit well with all the critics but proved a domestic hit. It also showed the director at his most playful, boldly employing some surreal touches that his old mentor would have appreciated and exhibiting a buoyancy in his filmmaking, even when the subject matter gets a little grim.

PARADISE (2016)
Stars: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Peter Kurth, Viktor Sukhorukov
Plot: Described by The Hollywood Reporter as “ a somber and ambitious tale of love and loss set during Europe’s most hellish mid-century days”, Paradise track the story of three intertwined lives – Olga, a Russian noblewoman arrested for housing two Jewish children; Jules, a rotund policeman drawn to Olga’s tatus, who makes demands upon Olga in exchange for leniency; and, Helmut, an aristocratic old-flame whose position of power within Olga’s concentration camp allows her hope of escape.
Fact: Shortlisted to the final nine for the 2016 Foreign Film Oscar, Paradise represents one of the crowning achievements in Konchalovsky’s remarkable career. The mix of rich romanticism, historical theorising and humanistic horror, the fearless filmmaker once again rattled a few critical sensibilities but would wow international festival audiences. Stunningly lensed by longtime collaborator Aleksandr Simonov, the director’s 22nd feature won the Best Film Golden Eagle at the 2016 Russian Film Awards, as well as trophies at Gijón, Munich and Venice, whose judges honoured Andrei Konchalovsky with the Silver Lion for Best Director.

The 2017 RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL launches October 26 in Sydney with other capital cities to follow. For ticket and session details check the event’s official website.

Sunday
Oct012017

PREVIEW: 2017 SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL

Such otherworldly phenomena as trans-dimensional portals, parallel planes of existence and dystopian future realms are the least one should expect from an event like SciFi Film Festival, which launches its 5th season on October 11 in Sydney. That such potent narrative elements are tackled in the Opening Night film alone suggests festival director Tom Papas has crafted a five-day event of immensely ambitious genre programming.

The 12-session celebration of global science fiction filmmaking launches with the Australian premiere of The Gateway, fresh from a triumphant Revolution Film Festival showing in Austin, Texas, where it nabbed four trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director for John V. Soto (Needle, 2010; The Reckoning, 2014). Genre favourite Jacqueline McKenzie (Deep Blue Sea, 1999; The 4400, 2004-07; pictured, above) gives a star turn as particle physicist Jane Chandler, whose grief at losing her husband Matt (Myles Pollard) blinds her to the dangers of blurring multiple realities.

The Gateway welcomes in nine new international features, including works from North America, The U.K. and Europe. Guy-Roger Duvert directs the U.S./French co-production Virtual Revolution, a near-future thriller in which society functions entirely online and cyber-terrorism has become the ultimate threat; director Andy Mitton’s We Go On stars Clark Freeman as a man so terrified that his existence is meaningless he offers a fortune for proof of an afterlife, only to have the truth reveal a terrifying secret; and, from British director Matt Mitchell, a wildly imaginative supernatural period piece called The Rizen (pictured, right), that takes as its starting point the Allied Forces post-WWII experiments in the power of black magic.

U.S. director Terrance M. Young will be present for a QA session following the Saturday 14th screening of his dramatic thriller, Project Eden: Vol. 1 (a sequel is already slated for a 2018 shoot). Michael O’Shea’s urban vampire shocker, The Transfiguration (read the SCREEN-SPACE interview with the director here) screens following its breakout hit status at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The U.K. sector rounds out the 2017 festival slate - Hendrik Faller’s grueling alpine siege thriller, Mountain Fever (a co-production with France); Keir Burrow’s noirish sci-fi spin on the Alice in Wonderland story, called Anti Matter; and, earning Closing Night honours, Roger Armstrong’s blackly funny Sublimate, a found-footage/mockumentary spin on misguided ambition and blind obsession involving the transcendence of the human soul via aural experimentation.

A short film will precede each feature, a traditional programming policy that acknowledges that many of the most ambitious science-fiction works currently produced are from directors working in short form narratives. On October 12, a full slate of international short films will showcase the film sectors of Japan (Yoshimi Itazu’s Pigtails; Philippe McKie’s Breaker); France (J.L. Wolfenstein’s Departure); Finland (Juha Fiilin’s Job Interview); The U.S.A. (Miguel Ortega’s The Nungyo); Germany (Alexander Dannhauser’s Kaska); and, of course, Australia, which is represented by five cutting-edge visions - Scott Geersen’s Signal/Void; Samuel Lucas Allen’s Only the Beautiful; Sarah Rackemann’s One Small Step (pictured, right); Radheya Jegatheva’s Journey; and, Evan Hughes’ Hell of a Day.

The SciFi Film Festival is also honouring two classics of the genre with retrospective screening events. Starring the late Harry Dean Stanton opposite punk brat Emilio Estevez, Alex Cox’s Repo Man remains one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic visions; it returns to the screen on October 12 amidst a wave of nostalgia, both for Stanton’s body of work and the free-form inventiveness of the best of 80s movie culture. Then, on October 13, the 4k digitally restored 40th anniversary edition of Nicholas Roeg’s existential sci-fi masterpiece The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, will screen. Both films speak to the core values of the festival, which has always sought out auteristic works characterised by thoughtful, humanistic protagonists and ambitious scope.

THE SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL screens October 11-15 at the Event Cinemas George Street complex. Full session and ticketing information can be found at the festival’s official website.

SCREEN-SPACE editor Simon Foster will host Q&A events with The Gateway director John V. Soto (October 11) and Project Eden: Vol. 1 director Terrance M. Young (October 14).