Running over 12 days in June, the Sydney Film Festival (SFF) returns for the 65th year with a program that includes 250 movies alongside free and ticketed talks and parties. And while the full line-up will be announced in May, the first 26 flicks have been rolled out, along with a new venue for 2018, the Hoyts cinema at the Entertainment Quarter.

Nashen Moodley returns for another year as festival director. He says when hand-picking this year’s films it was hard not to notice the heightened discussion around female empowerment and gender equality. Awards season was dominated by the Time’s Up movement, which has pulled back the curtain on sexual misconduct and the abuse of power in the film industry. The Screen Actors Guild Awards had only female presenters, and the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) focused on domestic-violence activists.

Asked whether this political discussion influenced Moodley’s curation for SFF, he says his festival will focus on great films, not the cultural movement surrounding it. “For me, it’s important to choose the best films that are available,” he tells Broadsheet.

That said the program announcement does include some great young female talent. “While there is still a great deal of work to be done, some countries have made a conscious effort to deal with gender disparity and have funded more films by women filmmakers. In the past year, at the festivals I’ve been to, there’s been some evidence of this and it’s fantastic to see.”

One film made by a female director that Moodley is particularly excited about screening at the Sydney festival is Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This Iranian-American’s coming-of-age film (based on the novel of the same name) won the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Award and is a gentle study of sexuality. It stars Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie), Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant). “It looks at friendship and self acceptance and it’s really an inspiring film,” says Moodley. “It’s a film that’s empowering, dramatic and has tragic moments.”

Leave No Trace by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) is another film that made a huge impact on Moodley. The American director was responsible for discovering Jennifer Lawrence, and for this flick he is working with young Kiwi actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie to play Tom, a teenager who lives on the edges of society with her veteran father Will (played by Ben Foster).

“They’ve lived off the grid for some years now, completely outside mainstream society. They seem to live a happy existence foraging and surviving in the wilderness. When they are discovered by authorities they are forced to integrate into society,” he says, which in turn blurs the line between right and wrong. “It’s a tremendous performance by a young actress.”

Moodley is also proud to show Bart Layton’s American Animals, which was the talk of the town at Sundance. The movie is based on a true crime, but blends in interviews from the real students behind a heist, and the as-yet untold stories of their families. “The feature film is very innovative and looks at the true story of four college students who decide to pull off one of the most audacious art heists in American history,” says Moodley. “They have very different points of views about how things went down.”

Foxtrot, written and directed by Israel’s Samuel Maoz (Lebanon), is a 2017 Israeli drama that was screened at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Lion. “It’s one of the great films,” says Moodley. “It took quite a while to make. It’s so meticulously crafted and looks at the repercussions of Israeli military culture and war with incredible twists and turns, leaving you feeling exhilarated and shocked.”

Mug, directed by Poland’s Malgorzata Szumowska, follows the story of someone who undergoes a facial transplant. It doesn’t sound like a comedy but it had Moodley in stitches. “A young group of men who, despite living in a conservative and dangerous society, decide they want to form a heavy-metal band. It’s a really entertaining, moving film about this love of art in desperate circumstances, and the compulsion to create,” says Moodley.

Here are the first 26 films announced for the festival:
American Animals, Bart Layton
Anchor and Hope, Carlos Marques-Marcet
Chef Flynn, Cameron Yates
Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, Joe Berlinger
Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio
Foxtrot, Samuel Maoz
Genesis 2.0, Christian Frei, Maxim Arbugaev
Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, Jessica Leski
Inventing Tomorrow, Laura Nix
Leave No Trace, Debra Granik
Lots of Kids, A Monkey and A Castle, Gustavo Salmerón
Maya the Bee: The Honey Games, Noel Cleary, Sergio Delfino, Alexs Stadermann
Mug, Malgorzata Szumowska
My Brilliant Career, Gillian Armstrong
Pick of the Litter, Don Hardy Jr., Dana Nachman
Piercing, Nicolas Pesce
RocKabul, Travis Beard
Samui Song, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey
The Deminer, Hogir Hirori, Shinwar Kamal
The Insult, Ziad Doueiri
The Long Season, Leonard Retel Helmrich
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Desiree Akhavan
West of Sunshine, Jason Raftopoulos
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 6 to June 16 this year. The full film line-up will be announced in May.