Melbourne International Film Festival reveals 2021 program

MIFF21-Language-LessonsCelebrating its 69th edition, Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has revealed its 2021 program, with an astonishing lineup of 283 international and Australian films and transformative screen experiences.

Presenting 199 feature films, 84 shorts and 10 XR experiences, the program includes 40 world premieres – the most in the festival’s history – and 154 Australian premieres, with 62 films available on MIFF Play – the festival’s online screening platform.

The 2021 festival will span Melbourne city, suburbs, regional Victoria, and the nation online, immersing audiences in world-class cinema once again. Two overlapping programs will encompass 18 action-packed days, with in cinema experiences running for 11 days from 5 – 15 August and MIFF Play expanding into homes Australia-wide for 9 days from 14 – 22 August.

“This year, MIFF continues to evolve – to meet the moment, and to meet audiences where they are,” said MIFF’s Artistic Director, Al Cossar. “What will not change is the extraordinary lineup of cinematic adventures, from home and afar, waiting for them.”

“These are anticipated festival blockbusters, experimentations, breakthrough discoveries, and a huge lineup of incredible Australian talent. We will again share a world of cinema, reignited, to welcome Melburnians back to places far beyond the familiarities of the last year.”

MIFF will premiere one of the year’s most anticipated films in its celebrated Centrepiece Gala – the stunning and spine-tingling Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).

An astonishing feature debut from The Roots drummer Questlove, the film opened Sundance and went on to win the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, with critics hailing it a “masterpiece.” After spending 50 years hidden in a basement, footage of the forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 makes for a pioneering concert documentary rich in the rebellion of Black resistance music set against the backdrop of a racially turbulent 1960s.

Interviews and archival footage are seamlessly pieced together with a treasure trove of performances – from Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight – and pulsating panoramas of crowds. An exuberant time capsule, Questlove’s film will have audiences mesmerised throughout.

Premiering on MIFF Play, the festival’s Closing Night Gala will present the Australian premiere of Language Lessons. Starring Mark Duplass and filmed completely over Zoom in 2020, director Natalie Morales’ platonic rom-com sees a man and woman forge a connection through technology, meeting via online Spanish lessons. Premiering at MIFF off the back of screenings at Berlin and SXSW, the film is bittersweet, honest, and completely in sync with the moment.

Straight from opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival comes the Australian premiere of Annette – the English-language debut from maverick French film director Leos Carax. Co-written by Ron and Russell Mael, the duo behind US pop group Sparks, Carax’s outrageous musical stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and tells the story of a provocative stand-up comedian (Driver) and his wife, a world-famous soprano (Cotillard). The pair’s glamorous life takes an unexpected turn when their daughter Annette is born with a unique gift.

Another extraordinary distillation of covid era filmmaking, Year of the Everlasting Storm comprises seven shorts from some of the filmmaking firmament’s most acclaimed names. Screening direct from Cannes, this love letter to the storytelling power of the moving image includes deeply personal responses to life under lockdown from Jafar Panahi (3 Faces, MIFF 2018), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendour, MIFF 2015) Laura Poitras (The Oath, MIFF 2010), David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, MIFF 2013), Anthony Chen (Wet Season, MIFF 2020) Dominga Sotomayor (Too Late to Die Young, MIFF 2019) and Malik Vitthal (Imperial Dreams).

After a six-year wait, Palme d’Or–winning visionary Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes an extraordinary return to MIFF with Memoria – his highly anticipated English-language debut direct from its Cannes competition premiere. Tilda Swinton (The Human Voice, MIFF 2021; The Souvenir, MIFF 2019) stars as a Scottish orchid farmer visiting her ailing sister in Bogotá who meets French archaeologist Jeanne Balibar (Les Misérables, MIFF 2019), and in true Weerasethakul style, strange events ensue.

Set in Fårö, the home of legendary auteur Ingmar Bergman, French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve’s (Things to Come, MIFF 2016) touching new film Bergman Island comes fresh from its competition berth in Cannes. The film is another instalment in the director’s oeuvre of delicate, semi-autobiographical investigations into love, longing and growing up and features Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction), Mia Wasikowska (Judy & Punch, MIFF 2019) and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread).

Palme d’Or winning Nanni Moretti’s (The Son’s Room) highly anticipated new drama Three Floors also comes straight from its competition premiere at Cannes, with a stellar cast including Alba Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro, MIFF 2018), Riccardo Scamarcio (Pasolini, MIFF 2015), Anna Bonaiuto (Il Divo) and Margherita Buy (Mia Madre) alongside the director himself. Set over a 10-year period, the moving adaptation of Eshkol Nevo’s acclaimed bestseller follows the stories of three families whose lives entwine as each resident makes choices that trigger life-changing repercussions.

Premiering at Tribeca, Steven Soderbergh assembles another star-studded cast for No Sudden Move, headlined by Don Cheadle (Black Monday) and Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), alongside Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Brendan Fraser (The Mummy), and Kieran Culkin (Succession). When two small-time crooks discover they were set up, they are propelled around the many layers of Detroit society evading both pursuers and police in an explosive period crime caper buzzing with the auteur’s distinctive visual style.

Another stylistically bold film, Flee plays with animation and archival footage to tell the story of an Afghan refugee’s coming home – and coming out – via a conversation between the lead and Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance, Rasmussen’s poetically provocative memoir expands the definition of documentary and was executive-produced by Riz Ahmed.

A shocking, dystopian thriller and incendiary indictment of class, racism and power that speaks to our times, New Order is the latest provocation from director Michel Franco (April’s Daughter, MIFF 2017). Attacking prejudiced systems and abuses of power in Mexico City, New Order is a confronting, yet vital film that won the Silver Lion at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.

These cinematic masterpieces from around the world join the previously announced headliner films: Jasmila Žbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, Celine Sciamma’s Petit Maman and the MIFF Premiere Fund-supported Nitram from Justin Kurzel – the first Australian film to screen in competition at Cannes in a decade.

Australian films are at the heart of this year’s program, with a record 11 Premiere Fund films already announced including Ablaze, Chef Antonio’s Recipes for Revolution, Hating Peter Tatchell, Little Tornadoes, Lone Wolf, Off Country, Paper City, and Uluru & The Magician, and a plethora of further homegrown films and filmmakers throughout the program.

Bruce Lee’s martial-arts classic gets an Indigenous twist in Fist of Fury Noongar Daa the first feature film ever to be fully dubbed in an Aboriginal Australian language. Noongar multidisciplinary creative Kylie Bracknell (Little J and Big Cuz) teams up with Perth Festival’s Noongar Advisory Circle in giving a local voice to a compelling critique of injustice and colonial brutality with this audaciously entertaining reimagining of a cult classic.

The impressive feature debut of James Vaughan (You Like It, I Love It, MIFF 2013), Friends & Strangers puts the drift of twentysomething life under the lens, following Ray, a self-absorbed Sydney videographer, who loses control of the situation whilst filming a fancy wedding at a waterside McMansion. This Aussie slacker satire about the mishaps of young middle-class urbanites is hilariously offbeat and the first ever Australian title selected for IFFR’s Tiger Competition.

Jennifer Peedom follows her 2017 MIFF hit Mountain with a stunning new cine-sonic journey along the world’s waterways in the rousing and propulsive River, narrated by Willem Dafoe. A deep dive into our planet’s arteries, Peedom and co-director Joseph Nizeti’s vital film is a breathtaking visual and musical odyssey including original compositions, and vocals by award-winning Kalkadunga musician William Barton.

The campaign to free Julian Assange takes on intimate dimensions in a portrait of the WikiLeaks founder’s elderly father’s fight to save his son with Ithaka – a piercing documentary by director Ben Lawrence (Hearts and Bones, MIFF 2019; Ghosthunter, MIFF 2018) which paints a portrait of a tireless advocate and a prickly and fascinating figure in his own right.

Based on the experiences of the legendary Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe, Streamline follows a teenager fighting to stay afloat in the world of competitive swimming. The feature debut of Tyson Wade Johnstone shines a light on teenage masculinity and includes stunning performances from Jake Ryan (Underbelly, Savage) and the inimitable Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter), and was executive produced by Thorpe himself.

Award-winning filmmaker Eddie Martin (Have You Seen the Listers?, MIFF Premiere Fund 2018) also explores adolescent pressures, as he revisits the cultural landscape of Larry Clark’s iconic 90s film, Kids, Drawing on archival footage and interviews to reveal just what happened to the teens in Clark’s film. Martin’s Tribeca-premiering fifth documentary The Kids probes a fine line between celebration and exploitation, publicity and pressure, whilst examining a vanished cultural moment.

Showcasing the largest selection of international films in Australia – including 27 films direct from Cannes – this year’s international strand brings audiences the best of global cinema, right to their doorstep.

Nicolas Cage is back with a revenge thriller centred on a stolen truffle pig. The feature debut of director Michael Sarnoski, Pig is a composed exploration of psychological damage which allows Cage to deliver a soulful, finely calibrated performance, once again proving just how eclectic and magnetic an actor the Oscar winner is.

Equally revenge filled, the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen stars as an ex-soldier looking to avenge his wife’s death by the supposed hands of a bikie gang, whilst hiding his vigilante campaign from his daughter, in the ingenious, pitch-black Scandi comedy Riders of Justice. Mikkelsen reunites with Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken, MIFF 2016) for this deliciously absurdist deconstruction of the revenge thriller which opened Rotterdam in 2021.

Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon TattooAngel of Mine, MIFF 2019) stars in Lamb, a hotly anticipated supernatural drama set in the remote and mysterious wilderness of Iceland. Selected to premiere in Cannes’ distinguished Un Certain Regard, this dark debut from Valdimar Jóhannsson – who co-wrote the film with Oscar-nominated Icelandic novelist and frequent Björk collaborator Sjón – is a scintillating take on folktale and the intractable will of nature, that will unsettle and linger in the mind.

Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, director Amalia Ulman stars beside her real mother in the wittily droll feature debut based partly on her life, partly on the true story of infamous mother-daughter con artists. Charming and charismatic, El Planeta paints a playful and disarming picture of life on the edges.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Asako 1 + 2, MIFF 2018), returns with Drive My Car, based on the eponymous short story by Haruki Murakami, direct from its Cannes competition run. An ageing theatre director enlists a young twentysomething to drive him and his red Saab 900 across the country, their journey through Japan prompting a reparative relationship between two seemingly mismatched people. Drive My Car is another unique and intimate drama from one of Japan’s master storytellers of modern relationships, who also directed Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and wrote Wife of a Spy, both in MIFF’s 2021 program.

This year MIFF celebrates the extraordinary impact of Iranian films in a dedicated program – New Iranian Cinema.  Dual Oscar winner and auteur Asghar Farhadi’s (Everybody Knows, MIFF 2018) eagerly anticipated A Hero is a strand highlight straight from its competition in Cannes. Farhadi’s tale of redemption follows a man on leave from a prison sentence for debt who uses the time to seek amends. Infused with characteristic verve and suspense, A Hero sees the acclaimed director team up once again with his daughter Sarina Farhadi (A Separation, MIFF 2011), for an engrossing drama-thriller.

Questions of morality and duty play out against the backdrop of the Iranian justice system in 2020 Berlinale’s Golden Bear winner from dissident director Mohammad Rasoulof (A Man of Integrity, MIFF 2017). Four tales of reluctance, rebellion and escape unfold in There Is No Evil, a film about executioners and the people closest to them, Rasoulof making a courageous challenge to a corrupt system, with a film he shot clandestinely, whilst banned from filmmaking on political grounds.

With an increasing cultural emphasis on community and togetherness, It Takes a Village: Collective Filmmaking is a MIFF series dedicated to the work of collective filmmakers, spanning early queer self-representation, Japanese environmental activism, Black UK politics, Australian art, and international feminist movements. The retrospective strand includes three newly restored films by India’s first feminist film collective Yugantar Film Collective – Maid Servant (1981), Tobacco Ember (1982), Is This Just a Story? (1983).

MIFF21-The-Lair-of-the-White-WormSPECIAL PROGRAMMING
The 2021 program once again delivers a raft of interactive, multi-sensory only-at-MIFF experiences.

The world premiere of Jonathan Alley’s MIFF Premiere Fund-supported feature documentary Love In Bright Landscapes will be a night to remember, with audiences treated to a special live musical celebration with The Songs of David McComb and The Triffids concert at the Forum. The event will feature performances of the singer and band’s biggest hits, and some lost gems, by performers from The Triffids, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Blackeyed Susans, Magic Dirt, RVG, Frente, Youth Group and more.

The Witching Hour is a special folk horror double feature. From Australian-born Hammer veteran Don Sharp (The Kiss of the Vampire), Psychomania is the 1973 outlaw-bikie zombie-sploitation flick that wildly blends the more unhinged elements of A Clockwork Orange with fabulously B-grade occult folk horror and a psych-rock soundtrack.

Follow this with the freewheeling plot of “apostle of excess” Ken Russell’s delirious 1988 disasterpiece The Lair of the White Worm, a wildly erotic and campy tale that pits a pre-fame Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi against an ancient vampiric snake goddess played by Amanda Donohoe. Don’t try to make sense of it: just strap in and enjoy the truly wild ride.

Presented in partnership with the University of Melbourne, MIFF Talks will span online and in person events featuring filmmakers, artists, writers and academics. In conversations will include the MIFF Premiere Fund-supported Nitram’s director and screenwriter Justin Kurzel and Shaun Grant and The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson’s director Leah Purcell.

MIFF will once again stage a live table read, this year taking on Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade, directed by MIFF Accelerator alumna Corrie Chen (New Gold Mountain, Wentworth, Sea Change) to mark the 25th anniversary of its premiere and momentous Camera d’Or win at Cannes.

The 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival takes place in cinemas 5 – 15 August and online 14 – 22 August. Tickets are now on sale for MIFF Members. General public tickets will be on sale 16 July. For more information and full program, visit: for details.

Images: Language Lessons / Three Floors / Hating Peter Tatchell / Queen of Glory / The Lair of the White Worm (film stills – supplied)