After last year’s digital-only festival and a first-time summer season at the State Theatre in January, Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley is excited, confident (and a little nerve-racked) to announce the first 22 films in this year’s event, which will run from August 18 to 29.

“People are really ready to return to the festival in cinemas,” says Moodley, who is marking a milestone 10 years as director. He’s planning for a 100 per cent capacity event with a slightly reduced program (about 20 per cent smaller), taking into consideration longer turnaround times between screenings. And though there won’t be any international guest speakers this year, he says they’ll use the technology explored in 2020’s virtual edition to still have “the presence of these filmmakers” at the festival.

There are a number of directorial debuts in this first announcement. One of which is a Canadian-New Zealand co-production, Night Raiders, by Cree/Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet, executive produced by Taika Waititi.

“It’s set in the near future, in a world in which children are taken from their parents to fight these wars over resources,” says Moodley. “What the film does so tremendously well, within a sci-fi genre, is it looks at what so many First Nations people have had to face over a long period of time and it uses a genre film to really drive that point home in a very clever, very moving way.”

Another film first is “a wild and unusual film” called Zola, based on a 148-tweet thread from 2015. It sent the internet into a whirlwind and the feature film stars Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun and Colman Domingo. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a film made in this way,” says Moodley. “I’m not really a Twitter [user], but this tweet storm was about this mad trip between a stripper and a sex worker and people went crazy for it. It’s been turned into a feature film with a great deal of energy and it’s a really funny, fun film.”

One of the themes emerging in the first 22 films is a struggle for justice. “Dear Comrades, for instance, looks at a massacre that happened in the USSR in the ’60s. Information about the massacre was suppressed for decades, and though that film is set so long ago it is about political beliefs, how one can become deluded by those beliefs, and this idea of loyalty and the need for dissent,” he says.

The historical drama about the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, in which Soviet army and KGB officials killed almost 30 unarmed protestors, is directed, produced and co-written by Andrei Konchalovsky. There’s also a documentary about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests called When a City Rises, directed by Cathy Chu. Plus a documentary, The Magnitude of all Things, which features activist Greta Thunberg, looking at the impacts of the climate crisis. “The fight for the protection of our climate is one of the key issues of our time and this theme will be very present in other films that will be announced down the line,” says Moodley.

Making her directorial debut, Blerta Basholli directs a story about a Kosovo war widow gaining independence in Hive. It’s the first film in Sundance Film Festival’s history to win all three main awards: the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and the Directing Award.

There’s a film that pays tribute to ’80s band the Smiths starring Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood) and Joe Manganiello (True Blood). Anders Thomas Jensen’s wry revenge-comedy Riders of Justice stars Mads Mikkelsen (Another Round) about a soldier avenging the death of his wife. And in The Kids we find out what happened to the unpaid actors from 1995 Larry Clark film Kids.

Two documentaries follow Australian legends of the music and fashion worlds. Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow shows Archie Roach AM and the late Ruby Hunter as they prepare for a performance, and Step into Paradise shares the story of fashion duo Jenny Kee AO and Linda Jackson AO.

And homegrown talent Essie Davis (The Babadook and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) plays a mother whose children have been taken into care in The Justice of Bunny King. The New Zealand film co-stars Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace, JoJo Rabbit).

“It’s a wonderful performance by Essie. Bunny King is a really feisty character, but it shows the tendency of society to be very judgemental and rigid and not necessarily do what’s best for the people involved.”

Sydney Film Festival returns from August 18 to 29. The full program will be announced on Wednesday July 21. Flexipasses and subscriptions are on sale now.