Discovery is at the heart of every good film festival. Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) makes it easy to chart the next wave of big names with its Bright Horizons film competition. Following its successful debut last year, the competition once again presents audiences with features from exciting first- and second-time directors from across the globe.

This year, 11 features are vying for the $140,000 Bright Horizons Award, as chosen by an international jury of directors, actors, documentary-makers and creatives. It’s one of the richest film prizes in the world, and brings some of the sharpest and smartest early features to screens around Melbourne.

The entire program is well worth checking out. But if you can’t catch them all, here are our five picks for must-see films – and the rising star directors behind them.

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Shayda (dir. Noora Niasari)
Iranian mother Shayda and her six-year-old daughter find refuge in a suburban Melbourne women’s shelter, and over Persian New Year they take solace in both the rituals and the connections they’ve made. But when her estranged husband returns, Shayda realises the path to independence will require even more from her.

This Sundance Audience Award-winning feature debut comes from Australian-Iranian filmmaker Noora Niasari, and kickstarts this year’s festival as the featured Opening Night Gala film. It’s a powerful look at the challenges that come with healing from domestic abuse, as well as a celebration of the characters’ resilience and determination to move forward.

How To Have Sex (dir. Molly Manning Walker)
In her directorial debut, Molly Manning Walker refutes the cliches of the coming-of-age drama with this sun-and-sex-soaked look at a holiday where personal trauma pushes teenage social dynamics to the brink.

For British teens Tara, Em and Skye, their trip to Crete promises to be the best holiday ever. Boozy nights and constant clubbing await – but fault lines are already obvious in the friendship, and when one of the girls finds herself increasingly isolated, the party mood swiftly sours into regret, dismay and a seedy hangover vibe.

The feature won the top gong at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, which typically features and awards up-and-coming filmmakers.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (dir. Pham Thien An)
When his sister-in-law dies in a motorcycle accident, Thien is tasked with returning her body and her surviving five-year-old son Dao to their village in rural Vietnam. Together, the two cross a landscape Thien thought he’d left behind forever, as they search for Dao’s father, make their way home, and find a place to lay his mother to rest.

Winner of the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes, this three-hour film from Pham Thien An (who based it in part on his 2019 short Stay Awake, Be Ready) is an epic examination of grief and family, with Vietnam’s natural beauty as the backdrop for a journey that’s both physical and spiritual.

The Rooster (dir. Mark Leonard Winter)
The feature debut from Australian actor-turned-writer-and-director Mark Leonard Winter, The Rooster is a nuanced and thoughtful examination of modern masculinity, told through crime, camping and an unlikely friendship.

After a childhood friend dies following an incident at the local high school, rural cop Dan is suspended and goes bush, where he encounters a jazz-loving, people-hating, shotgun-toting hermit (played by Hugo Weaving). A rough friendship slowly develops, but when you’re isolated in a forest far from civilisation, trust might not be the wisest thing to give so freely.

Tótem (dir. Lila Avilés)
Seven-year-old Sol is looking forward to her father’s surprise birthday party. The entire extended family is there, preparing and putting on the final touches for the big evening. But with her father nowhere to be found, and not all the pieces around her falling into place, Sol begins to suspect that she doesn’t know the full story.

Set over the course of a single day, Tótem is a powerful look at a family full of life and energy, even as they struggle with something Sol can barely grasp.

Mexican actor-turned-director Lila Avilés filmed her second feature largely with non-professionals, lending it an almost documentary-like feel. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it also competed for the coveted Golden Bear.

Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 3–20, 2023. See the full program.

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