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Byron Shire
October 4, 2023

Otelo wins BBFF trifecta

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The 7th Byron Bay International Film Festival has announced its first ever film to win a hat trick of awards. Otelo Burning, by Surfing Soweto’s Sara Blecher, is one of the most talked about films out of South Africa and won The Owners Club at Linnaeus Best Film Award, the Byron Bay Coffee Company Best Dramatic Feature Award and the Tavarus Best Surf Film Award.

Screening to a packed house, this powerful and emotionally charged film took audiences into South Africa in 1989, as society teetered on the brink of radical social change with the ending of apartheid. Based on a true story, it is a journey through surfing into a young man’s inner search for freedom amid the chaos of racial prejudice.

Blecher was thrilled by the news, saying, ‘We’ve screened Otelo Burning around the world at scores of festivals but we’re especially stoked to have the film recognised by Byron Bay International Film Festival. We really tried to capture that feeling of freedom in the film and if the surfers bought it, it means we achieved that.’

Festival director J’aimee Skippon-Volke is delighted by the success of Otelo Burning, explaining, ‘This is the first time in BBFF’s history that a film has taken home three awards. But it makes sense. Apart from being an exceptional film, it’s a perfect reflection of BBFF’s diversity because it’s politically educational, has a lot of heart and in a way it’s a surf film’.

Australian-Egyptian comedian and Byron local Akmal Saleh’s debut documentary film Pharaoh vs The Egyptians picked up The Echo Best Byron Film award, which includes a prize of three nights’ accommodation at ultra luxurious private beachfront estate, The Owner’s Club at Linnaeus, plus an iPad Mini from Mullum Mac. The blistering documentary about the Arab Spring received a standing ovation from audiences at its sold out screening last weekend,

Saleh’s producer wife, Catie, accepted the award on his behalf saying, with a sense of humour to match her husband’s, that he couldn’t be there as he was ‘out working to pay for the film’. She credited Akmal for his bravery in making the documentary. Saleh said from his current comedy tour, ‘I’m really pleased! Everyone in Byron’s been so supportive; it’s such a great community to live in.’

Brilliant opening night film, The World Before Her, directed by Nisha Pahuja, won the Screenzone Byron International Documentary Prize of $5,000 cash. A lively, provocative portrait of the world’s largest democracy at a critical transitional moment, it provides immense insight into the changing identity of women in India through two opposing groups with a common dream of equality; the modernist finalists of the 2011 Miss India pageant and the traditionalist Hindu fundamentalists of militant camp, Duga Vahini, on the northern border.

American filmmakers Blis and Wayne DeVault were present to collect their award for The Byron at Byron Best Environmental Film for their impassioned documentary, Sanctity of Sanctuary: Paul Strauss and the Equinox Farm. The film, which world premiered at BBFF2013, is an account of one man’s love of nature and a call to live a sustainable life, taking us inside the breathtakingly beautiful herbal medicine sanctuary Strauss created and the mining interests that threaten it all.

Guillaume Legrand travelled all the way from France to screen his film, Le Souffle Court (Short of Breath), which won the SAE Institute/Qantm College Best Short Film Award. The film explores the challenge a carefree young couple faces when they are drawn into human trafficking for a smalltime crook.

The GDC Best Cinematography Award was the latest in a long list for director Wim Vanacker for his superb short dramatic film, The Naked Leading the Blind, which he describes as ‘a dissection of the human condition’ as it considers the consequences of one man’s epiphany.

Andy Prendergast of Melbourne production house Oh Yeah Wow picked up the Cheese Please Best Music Video Award for one of his two fantastic nominated music videos, Easy Way Out, by three times Grammy award winning artist, Gotye, depicting the monotony of the daily grind.

The title of Young Australian Filmmaker of the Year went to a talented rising star from Melbourne, Lucy McKendrick, for her short film and also Best Cinematography nominee, Toombaworth, which tells the story of young woman Tayla and her friend Maggie, and the drugs and society that rob them of a childhood.

A gong that many in the northern rivers were keen to see awarded, the Sustain Northern Rivers Sustainable Shorts Award, went to Ira Chute and Angus Cann for The Garden Pool, a film about a man living in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona who turns his backyard swimming pool into an incredible, nearly self sufficient food production system for his family.

The Fox Creek Wines Best Experimental Film went to French director, Christobal de Oliveria, for Aalterate, about the experience of extreme inner tension. While GreenhouseFX Best Animation went to eastern European film Father, about the dialogue between a father and child when the reality of life is turns upside down.

A very special part of the awards program, the BBFF Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Northern Rivers, this year honoured highly respected northern rivers film pioneers and documentary maker couple Paul Tait and Jeni Kendall. The pair met during their careers with ABC TV in 1971, moved to Nimbin to become avocado farmers, then instead happened upon long and distinguished film careers documenting some of the most contentious sociopolitical issues of our time. As a sign of the integrity and empathy for which they are renowned, Tait and Kendall are currently being entrusted by Indigenous communities to archive the stories of the stolen generation.

Tait and Kendall were completely surprised by the award, with Kendall saying, ‘It’s a totally overwhelming honour’. Reflecting on her career, Kendall says Tait calls documentary making ‘the university of life’, adding, ‘We’ve been in many jungles around the world, worked with many indigenous peoples, monks, princesses. We couldn’t have had much more of a charmed life.’ Tait explained, ‘We do this as heart work, not for fame or anything. It’s stuff that we feel needs to be done and we’ve gained trust at many levels of the community. It’s a great privilege to be able to do this work’.

Asked about their secret to a loving and professional relationship that’s lasted decades, Tait says, ‘It’s a privilege that we’re still able to be together and work together. We’re very lucky to have the kind of relationship that can survive being together 24/7. We think creatively and environmentally and our heart politics are the same.’ Kendall adds, ‘We have mutual respect. We worked together first before we had a relationship and in a way we’re used to working together. Maybe if it was the other way round the work wouldn’t have been so easy.’ Tait is quick to laugh and add, ‘It would have worked either way’.

When asked about the current momentum of the northern rivers film industry, Kendall describes it as ‘very exciting’. She says, ‘We saw the Young Australian Filmmakers session today and were blown away by the quality, standard and complexity of their films. There seems to be no end of talent.’

Tait and Kendall join a distinguished list of past recipients including two times Oscar nominee David Bradbury, TV and film producer Lois Randall, and acclaimed director Cathy Henkel, whose film Show Me The Magic about Don McAlpine showed at BBFF2013 and just won her best Woman Cinematographer at the World of Women’s Cinema Film Festival.

Finally, two honourable mentions were also given to Dutch short film, I Am a Girl! and paddle boarding documentary H2IndO.



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