The months-long writers’ strike is holding back the Australian premieres of major international films, including Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, which screened at the Venice Film Festival early this month.

While Adelaide Film Festival creative director Mat Kesting has not given up hope of securing at least three international features comparable to last year’s sold-out premiere Australian screenings of Tar and The Banshees of Inisherin, their availability could not be confirmed before this week’s launch of the program for the October festival.

“We went to the wire; it was hard for the team because we were trying to secure those films but it’s a printed program,” Kesting tells InReview. “We had to draw a line and go, ‘What have we got?’.”

He says he and program director Gail Kovatseff are still in conversation to secure films that may include Priscilla, about the gilded cage in which Elvis Presley tried to keep his young wife; and Saltburn, the new film from the director behind Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell, about a naïve college boy seduced by the lifestyle of an aristocratic friend.

Another on Adelaide’s Venice wish-list is the winner of Golden Lion award for best film, Poor Things, a fantasy about a young woman (Emma Stone) resurrected after a suicide. It’s by the Oscar-winning team behind The Favourite: director Yorgos Lanthimos and Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara.

While distributors want to hold back their biggest films until the stars can promote them, Kesting says there is a backlog forming. At Venice, the red carpet was all but empty but for Ferrari star Adam Driver, who received a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) exemption, as did director Sofia Coppola, who had the real Priscilla Presley at her side.

“Film is a great mix of commerce and art, and a premiere in Venice is one thing but the distributors are holding back these titles until they can have their cast help promote them,” Kesting says. “That’s the bottom line. I am hoping some of the titles will come to us and I can announce them as late inclusions but, yes, the actors’ strike has disrupted the usual path.”

The strike also means there is little hope of seeing Ozark breakout star Julia Garner in person for opening night film The Royal Hotel, which Kesting describes as a feminist take on Wake in Fright, the nightmarish 1971 film about a teacher stranded in a menacing outback town.

Shot on location in South Australia, the film has had strong reviews coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival for its portrayal of American friends Liv (Jessica Henwick) and Hanna (Julia Garner), who take a job in a rough and remote pub where the patrons are drunk and aggressive.

The Royal Hotel will premiere in Sydney three days before the Adelaide screening, which will be attended by director Kitty Green (The Assistant), who is also on the Adelaide Film Festival jury that will select the winners of the Feature Fiction and Feature Documentary competitions.

“This film is stunning and Kitty has done a really good job of bringing this to the screen,” Kesting says of The Royal Hotel. “There are a lot of nuances in the visual language and it is an overall crowd-pleaser, I think.”

The closely watched Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund this year includes a new film from Macedonian-born Australian director Goran Stolevski titled Housekeeping for Beginners, which tells the story of a patchwork family in Macedonia who are struggling to survive.

Stolevski was named by Variety magazine in the US as one of the top 10 international directors to watch after his 2022 film, Of an Age, an intimate portrait of a searing gay encounter in the Melbourne suburbs, and wrote and directed the award-winning You Won’t Be Alone, which was also set in Macedonia.

Kesting says Stolevski is a self-taught filmmaker who brings an original vision to the screen.

“This project [Housekeeping for Beginnings] was made in Europe but the post-production was in South Australia,” he says. “Goran is on our [AFF] jury as well – he is a very interesting filmmaker.”

Other products of this year’s AFF Investment Fund are You Should Have Been Here Yesterday, an archival tribute to early surf culture from filmmaker Jolyon Hoff; the documentary Isla’s Way, from Marion Pilowsky, about the formidable rural character and carriage driver Isla Roberts; and the documentary The Musical Mind, from Scott Hicks, which takes a deep dive into the minds of neurodiverse musicians. Hicks also directed the closing night film, My Name’s Ben Folds – i play piano, featuring Folds with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

A still from Scott Hicks’s My Name’s Ben Folds – i play piano.

In total, the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival, which runs from October 18 to 29 across five cinemas, will feature 27 world premieres and 38 Australian premieres.

Despite the actors’ strike, a strong field of international features are programmed, including Anatomy of a Fall, which examines the aftermath of a man falling to his death and won the 2023 Palme d’Or at Cannes; May December, with Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in a story about a woman in her 30s who fell in love with a teenage boy; romantic drama Fingernails, starring Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed; a new Christian Petzold film about sexual jealousy, Afire, starring his muse Paula Beer; and Club Zero, a satire on eating disorders that caused controversy in Cannes and stars Australia’s Mia Wasikowska as a dietitian teaching conscious eating in a private school.

Kesting says there was no shortage of films to choose from for the AFF competitions, and he tried to prioritise early-career directors and Australian premieres.

“We want the competition to be fresh and distinctive and we also seek work that pushes the artform,” Kesting says. “Some of them will push buttons and challenge you as a viewer, and that’s what we want.”

One exceptional inclusion in the program is Strange Way of Life, an extended short film from Spanish director and screenwriter Pedro Almodovar that is described as “a ravishing queer short western”. It stars Pedro Pascal (The Last of Us) and Ethan Hawke as gay lovers.

Kesting says Almodovar released his film – which runs for 31 minutes – to Adelaide on the condition it ran as a stand-alone event. “We are on his radar and we are very pleased to have it.”

This year’s festival will have a focus on Indonesian film after Kesting last year served on the jury at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival and came away inspired to build closer ties with filmmakers in Indonesia.

There is also a strong music strand which includes a documentary shining light on the long career and glorious voice of Joan Baez (I Am a Noise) and a film about British rock star and addiction survivor Peter Doherty (Stranger in My Own Skin).

On the sleeper hit list is Late Night with the Devil, a new satire by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, the makers of cult classic 100 Bloody Acres, which was filmed in Adelaide. Set in the 1970s, the brothers’ new movie features a talk-show host overseeing a Halloween segment that goes off the rails with guests including a satanic cult survivor and a paranormal investigator.

“They have done an exceptional job with this – it is super-stylised and has a tonal feel akin to Carrie and others of that era,” Kesting says. “In Sydney, it was one of the first films to sell out and they sold out multiple sessions so we think it will play really well.”

The ‘super-stylised’ satire Late Night with the Devil.

Other local films to watch for are Speedway, an Adelaide-made true-crime investigation into a decades-old unsolved investigation in the US into the murder of four young employees at fast-food restaurant Burger Chef. The documentary, screening as part of the opening weekend gala, uses re-enactments and witness interviews. It is directed by Adelaide’s Luke Rynderman with Adam Kamien, and its Adelaide co producers include Lisa Scott, Bonnie McBride and Anna Vincent.

Kesting says the filmmakers were sensitive to the fact that the victims’ families are still alive.

“One of the things that make it compelling is the treatment of the story. There is a lot of audience interest in true-crime stories and this one may give the Scandis a run for their money.”

Showing in the AFF’s Feature Fiction Competition is an independently made Adelaide thriller, You’ll Never Find Me, from Josiah Allen and Indianna Bell, who previously made a short film, The Recordist, through the Investment Fund in 2020. Kesting says their new psychological drama about a strange hermit and a woman who knocks on his caravan door was made without festival support.

“I was keen to invest in their future but they just went and made it. They’re amazing; they’re unstoppable,” he says.

You’ll Never Find Me has already been picked up for commercial release, but Kesting wanted to elevate the filmmakers’ work through the competition: “Watch this space…  It will be really interesting to see what their next film is.”

The 2023 Adelaide Film Festival runs from October 18-29.

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