By Digby Hildreth
The International Premieres of films by Michael Franti and Rob Stewart open and close the Byron Bay Film Festival this year – gala occasions with culinary delights from LaneWay Cafe
Michael Franti returns to Byron Bay next month – not in person to perform with his band Spearhead for the umpteenth time (he has a new baby), but as a first-time director in an uplifting documentary called Stay Human, which will open the 12th Byron Bay Film Festival.
Having its International Premiere at the festival, Stay Human takes us to some troubled corners of the globe to meet brave and optimistic individuals who are living examples of what being human really means.
Along with albums and concert tours under the same title, Stay Human is part of Franti’s mission to motivate people to hold on to their humanity amidst the suffering and seeming hopelessness of the modern world – something he admits even he doesn’t find easy to do.
“I’ve travelled the globe making music and throughout the years I’ve always hoped that it could inspire small steps towards making the world a better place,” he says. “Struggling with the challenges of the world I began filming this documentary, telling the stories of heroic everyday people who helped me to discover more deeply what it means to be and STAY HUMAN.”
In the film he meets folk in the Philippines, Bali, South Africa and elsewhere who have chosen to face adversity with optimism and tenacity. Franti reflects on his own tough times and shares the inspiration he finds in these people’s stories with the aim of encouraging viewers to utilise creativity, courage and love to meet their daily challenges, and thus inspire others.
Another champion of the planet, and someone who is also something of a legend in Byron Bay, is Rob Stewart, whose last film is the centrepiece for the festival’s closing night gala event.
Sharkwater Extinction is a celebration of the life of the shark conservationist, although somewhat muted by the knowledge that Stewart died in an inexplicable diving incident in 2017.
Stewart touched the lives of many locals, including “Shark Girl” Madison Stewart and pro surfer and artist Karlee Mackie, who describes him as “a beautiful man and a great humanitarian, with a deep understanding of animals and people”.
That charisma and passion are communicated in the film, which has the pace and tension of as a crime thriller – the crime here being the slaughtering of sharks for their fins, to make soup, and for other equally senseless purposes.
The film has its International Premiere at the Byron festival and will have special resonance for locals.
“Rob loved Byron Bay and would be honoured by this selection,” say his parents, Sandy and Brian. “He was passionate about the beaches, the ocean and the spirit of the Australian people. Rob spent his life defending the oceans and sharks – determined to change the world. His work will continue through the countless people he inspired – many of whom he met in Australia.”
As the film reveals, the conservation battle Stewart devoted his life to is as urgent as ever.
“Rob would certainly want the Byron screening of Sharkwater Extinction to be a call to action amidst what we are sure will be a true celebration of his life and mission,” say Sandy and Brian.
An environmental fighter in another arena is the star of one of the Festival’s highlight dramatic feature, Woman at War, which makes its conservation points in a highly entertaining way.
Middle-aged and respectable Icelandic woman Halla leads an apparently quiet life, while secretly waging a one-woman-war on the local aluminium industry. Her increasingly bold activism succeeds in delaying the construction of an aluminium smelter near her home – until a highly personal event changes everything.
Halla has to rethink her role as saboteur and saviour of the Highlands but she believes one final attack will deal the aluminium industry a crippling blow. It’s a serious story told with a smile; heroic and quirky, with a serious message.
An environmental and humanitarian threat of another kind informs an essential-viewing documentary set in our own backyard, Undermined – Tales from the Kimberley.
Award-winning director Nicholas Wrathall (Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia), investigates the true costs of development in the vast and unspoiled Kimberley region, whose environment and Indigenous communities are threatened by mining, pastoralism and irrigated agriculture.
Branded “the future economic powerhouse of Australia”, the Kimberley is home to the highest percentage of Aboriginal people living on country in Australia. They have lived there for millennia, but as pressure from industry exposes the limits of Indigenous land rights, what will remain of their more than 200 remote communities? In this powerful and urgent film, the traditional owners ask: for whose benefit is this development, and where is the social justice?
Audiences at both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals voted Backtrack Boys their favourite documentary, and it is easy to see why. By turns funny, moving and inspiring, the film meets troubled teens Rusty, Zach, and Alfie as their headlong course towards jail is interrupted by rule-breaking jackaroo Bernie Shakeshaft, who enlists them to tour with his legendary dog jumping team.
Backtrack is a youth program run out of Shakeshaft’s shed on the outskirts of Armidale. When he recruits the “boys”, it’s their last chance to prove that they are more than just delinquents with no future. The story follows the boys’ journey – and the dogs that help tame their wild ways.
Another big hit at the Sydney festival, where it won Best Film, is the ravishing Hungarian romance On Body and Soul, which was also an Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and won a swag of awards at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, including Best Film.
The Sydney judges acclaimed Ildikó Enyedi’s first work in 18 years as “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” filmmaking, and 2017 jury president Margaret Pomeranz said it is “a film that shows us that even in this divided world we are capable of sharing the same dreams, that amongst the ugliness of a slaughterhouse, kindness, gentleness can be found.”
The unconventional romance follows two lonely workers in a Budapest abattoir who discover that each night they have exactly the same beautiful dream of a pair of deer frolicking in the woods – basis, surely, for a romance to match their shared visions.
On Body and Soul is a film, like most at the Byron Bay Film Festival this year, that touches audiences deeply, encouraging us to stay human.
The full program and tickets for BBFF2018 will be available on September 20. Tickets for Opening and Closing Gala events, including beverages and taste treats from LaneWay, are on sale now at https://bbff.com.au/events/
Caption: Rob Stewart in Sharkwater Extinction.