Dubbed a “celebration of the imagination”, AFF expanded its scope in 2022 to include new venues across the city (Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Capri Theatre Goodwood), also touring films in regional sites and locations. A dedicated emphasis on youth, music and genre was evident throughout the festival’s programming: from the bone-crackling Huesera: The Bone Woman (Michelle Garza Cervera) (a great Mexican take on the ‘monstrous-feminine’) to a younger set of local Australian filmmakers who rose to the fore through their re-inventions of horror and science fiction. Across the festival, vulnerability (be it human, animal, ecological) emerged as a recurring theme. One particular animal, the humble donkey, appeared time and again in the festival’s standout international titles, calling attention to its vulnerable, creaturely presence.

Of Lost Friends and Animal Companions

A highlight at AFF (and one of my favourite films of the year) was the Italian-Polish co-production EO, made by now 84-year-old Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski (The Shout, 1978).  EO centres on a small grey Polish circus donkey (the titular EO).  In truth, EO is actually played by six different Sardinian donkeys (Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco and Mela), all of whom contribute to Skolimowksi’s vision of a film “made out of love for nature and animals”.1

Having previously shared the Jury prize at Cannes and since being put forth as Poland’s entry for the 2023 Academy Awards, EO featured at AFF in the “Change Award” selection (a strand dedicated to films that promote “positive social or environmental impact” and “new directions for humanity”).2 EO is a rare gift: a remarkable, cinematically soul-shattering experience that demands to be seen on the big screen. Co-penned with his wife and collaborator, writer-producer Ewa Piaskowska, Skolimowksi’s film follows EO after he is separated from his human friend and fellow circus performer, the animal trainer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska).  Kasandra is kind to EO – she later visits him with a gift his birthday. Nonetheless, she does not seek to recover EO once they are separated (EO, for Kasandra, is part of her job rather than family). The donkey is a creature that has long been associated with ideas of suffering, innocence and humility, as well as with epic journeying.  Foregrounding the donkey’s associations with journeying, Skolimowski deliberately structures his film around EO’s travels from Poland to Italy. We stay with EO as he treads through cities at dawn (narrowly escaping capture) or through fields at twilight, passing from one human encounter to another. Through EO’s journey, his gestures and his movements, Skolimowski reveals a spectrum of human-animal relations. Some people, like Kasandra, share moments of comfort and connection with EO. Others are by turns indifferent, vicious or cruel, to harrowing effects (some scenes in the film left me near breathless with tears).

In her book, Creaturely Poetics, scholar Anat Pick observes that, “when it comes to animals, power operates with the fewest obstacles”, be those obstacles moral or material.3  As Pick details, to consider the animal as a flesh-and-blood being (invested with its subjectivity and vulnerability) is still a radical act. Such a consideration destabilises the binary that pits human intelligence or ‘soulfulness’ against the animal. In the film’s closing credits, Skolimowski and Piaskowska dedicate EO to their love of animals and to their desire to foster awareness of their sentience and feeling.  

For me, one of the great strengths of Skolimowski’s film is its attention to EO’s physicality and his particular mode of being-in-the-world, with multiple close-ups lingering on EO’s grey fur and legs, his long ears, or darkened eyes. In interviews, Skolimowski openly acknowledges EO as being indebted to Robert Bresson’s donkey film, Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). “This was the lesson I got from Bresson”, he states: “That an animal hero is able to move you even more than a human hero”.4  Skolimowski makes some crucial departures from Bresson, however. Unlike Bresson’s signature restrained and ascetic style, Skolimowski’s film revels in overt uses of film style, bordering on the baroque with its continuous shifts in scale, ambient camerawork, textured close-ups and unexpected colour transitions.  In some of the film’s wildest moments, we follow EO as he moves through a bright red, hallucinatory landscape, accompanied by windmills and a sweeping camera. At another point, EO pauses on a bridge with a cascading waterfall behind him, completing Skolimowksi’s spectacular and symmetrically composed shot.  

While not anthropomorphising EO, Skolimowski (unlike Bresson) hints at the donkey’s own animal-based feelings and “desires — EO yearns for Kasandra, green pastures, soft caresses, freedom”.5 In other words, EO remembers his lost friend. He refuses to eat carrots when they are offered; he cannot stay still until he finds Kasandra again. EO’s search for Kasandra will be his undoing. As the many donkeys of EO made their way across the screen at AFF, they left invisible yet indelible hoof prints across my heart.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Capitalising on its position within the international festival calendar, AFF introduced a new strand of programming: “Special Presentations at the Capri”. In the lush, art deco surrounds of the Capri Theatre Goodwood, a number of popular titles screened, direct from their premieres at Venice and Toronto. In this section, Todd Field’s near three-hour epic, Tár, screened to a sold-out crowd. While all eyes were on the grandiose Tár (not least because of a red-carpet appearance and Q&A with actress Cate Blanchett), my attention was captured by a much tighter, more elegiac and restrained work, almost a chamber film, in fact: Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin.  

Set in 1923 during the Irish Civil War, The Banshees of Inisherin sees the cult filmmaker re-unite with his two former In Bruges’ (2008) leads, actors Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Foregrounding the painful loss of a friendship (human and animal), McDonagh’s latest film is a force to be reckoned with. Characters Colm Doherty (Gleeson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Farrell) live on a sparely populated (fictional) Irish island. One day, Colm does not open the door when Pádraic comes to collect him for a drink. At the island’s pub, Colm bluntly informs Pádraic that he no longer wishes to be friends; he requests that he no longer speak to him. In the context of the film, it is not that Colm does not care for Pádraic. In one heart-wrenching scene, he loads a recently beaten-up Pádraic into his wagon and then drives him towards home only to silently, tenderly, gesturally, part ways again. Aware of the passing of time and all that he has not achieved, Colm cannot sustain their friendship anymore.

In later scenes, Colm’s decision to end the friendship takes on darker and more violent inflections. It is a testament to the combined strengths of McDonagh, Gleeson and Farrell that they make us feel for not only the good-natured (if slightly dull) Pádraic but also for the brooding Colm on this front – and Gleeson absolutely towers in his performance here. As the feud escalates, a host of animals move in and out of the frame, appearing at windows and doorways or pausing to look directly out at the camera. These animals include goats, horses, Colm’s faithful border collie and Pádraic’s own constant animal companion, a wee miniature donkey named Jenny. Both donkey Jenny and a local eccentric lad, Dominic (Barry Keoghan), also steal nearly every scene they are in in this film – no small feat given Gleeson and Farrell’s rapport and chemistry.  

In interviews, cinematographer Ben Davis and McDonagh have spoken about how the look of the film was inspired by the westerns of John Ford. “There were a lot of John Ford-style shots, shooting through doorways and windows to separate the characters”, Davis recounts.6  After the loss of his animal friend, Jenny, Pádraic sets fire to Colm’s house – an act that recalls the dashed hopes and dreams of cowboy Tom Doniphon in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  For all of its cracking, laugh-out-loud moments, The Banshees of Inisherin is also a deeply sad film, steeped in male melancholia and a sense of loss.  As suggested by its titular evocation of the banshee, McDonagh’s film is haunted by death. The banshee’s keening (a cry that foretells of death) is evoked by the film’s soundtrack, by the importance of Jenny and also by McDonagh’s attentiveness to the island’s natural environs. Across the film, the distant sounds of the Irish Civil War echo the divide between Colm and Pádraic (just as their rift subtly stands in for Ireland’s own historic splintering). One of the best things that McDonagh has done to date, The Banshees of Inisherin is a lamentation of the differences that can emerge between friends and all that cannot be reconciled. 

UÝRA: The Rising Forest

Matters of Ecology

A concern with Indigenous issues, diversity, intersectionality, world politics, ecology and environmentalism ran throughout many festival titles. In the “World Documentary” selection, UÝRA: The Rising Forest (Juliana Curi) brought a number of these themes together. Curi’s documentary follows Emerson, a former educator and botanist based in Manaus, Brazil. Emerson is also Uýra, an Indigenous, non-binary performance artist whose drag critiques Brazil’s oppression of LGBTQ+ rights and its environmental destruction. (At one point in the film, one of Uýra’s performances occurs quite literally atop of piles of rubbish in a clogged waterway). Hybridity is essential to Emerson/Uýra’s sense of self. Botanical elements are also key to their “plant-person” performances: “I like to see persecuted groups as plants that will grow in violent and abandoned land,” Emerson/ Uýra asserts. In the film’s most striking moments, plant fronds and other botanical elements function as a form of costume, decoration and critique, helping to visualise Emerson/Uýra’s “intersected body”. While Uýra’s colourful and inventive performances captivate, too often, Curi’s film lapses into flat portraiture (a flatness that is enhanced by the fashion-model type shooting of Uýra). Overall, Curi’s film would have benefitted from a more dynamic, cinematic sense of movement, energy and choreography to help bring Uýra to life.

Two works associated with the AFF Investment Fund proved to be much more engaging in their ecological message albeit in radically different ways.  Former editor Sean Lahiff makes a solid, slow burn contribution to environmental horror and the creature film tradition with his debut feature, Carnifex. Filmed on location in the Adelaide Hills, Carnifex sees a documentary filmmaker, Bailey (Alexandra Park), join up with two conservationists, Ben (Harry Greenwood) and Grace (Sisi Stringer) to track and record native wildlife in the aftermath of the Australian bushfire season. As the group journey deeper into the bush, their phone reception drops out and they become aware of a nocturnal animal tracking them: the Carnifex (Latin for ‘executioner’). Lahiff’s ‘monster’ merges aspects of the extinct Thylacoleo Carnifex (a marsupial lion) with features of different Australian marsupials (the nose of a koala, the fur of a wombat) and the drop-bear myth. Citing influences such as Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) and The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005), Lahiff keeps the Carnifex largely hidden off-screen. Alternatively, it is revealed to the viewer through the traces that it leaves behind (claw marks that are riven into a piece of bark, a thermal silhouette). Mediating horror through the Australian landscape (its different textures, sights and sounds), through night-time scenes and the group’s technological devices, Carnifex makes for great hide-and-seek viewing. When the rains come in the film’s closing moments, it is clear that Lahiff’s film is also comment on the erasure of Australia’s natural environs and native species.

While EO was my standout title for unsettling the human-animal divide at AFF, The Giants (Laurence Billiet, Rachel Antony) proved to be another highlight, interweaving the story of one inspiring human life with the 65-million-year or so lifespan of Australian rainforests and trees. From the creative team behind Freeman (Laurence Billiet and Stephen Page, 2020), The Giants recounts the life history and activism of former Australian politician, co-founder of The Wilderness Society and staunch environmentalist, Bob Brown. Aptly described as a poetic, “cinematic portrait of Bob Brown and the forest”, the film is both visually stunning and urgent in its foregrounding of themes of climate change/grief.7 The filmmaker’s efforts to cinematically render the life of different species of trees or the complex ecology of mycelia networks are also nothing less than ravishing. As sunlight and shadow flit across huge Huon pines or footage of the forest floor, the film’s multi-layered use of scientific 3D scans, motion design art and music recall the sensuous symphonics of European visual music traditions, similarly reliant upon the use of abstract animation and its choreography.8 By intertwining Brown’s life with that of the trees and forests he has sought to protect, The Giants creates a cinematic portrait that is entirely befitting of its subject(s). Though Brown’s story unfolds in a continuous, relatively linear fashion (through archival footage matched with the voice-over and filmed presence of Brown), The Giants is very much grounded in the poetic documentary mode, creating an impressionistic and lyrical account of non-human time and the significance of the natural world.9

The Survival of Kindness

Ethical Provocations

Two films stood out for me in terms of their taut composition and their socio-political relevance: the Danish true crime thriller, Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi) and Rolf de Heer’s The Survival of Kindness, another AFF Investment Fund title. Based on the real-life case of Saeed Hanaei (the so-called “Spider Killer”), who murdered 16 sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad, Abbasi’s unnerving film alternates between a focus on the killer, re-named Saeed Azimi (Mehdi Bajestani) and a female investigative journalist, Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi). As Azimi rides through the city on his motorbike at night, hunting for his next victim, Holy Spider emanates a dark beauty, with the lights of Mashhad spread out like a sparkling web.  Night-time scenes shimmer and glow, accompanied by Martin Dirkov’s original score. When Rahimi goes undercover as a sex worker to try to catch the Spider killer, the tension further escalates.

In Holy Spider, Abbasi films Azimi’s process of killing with an unflinching precision, showcasing the banality of his evil. In extended sequences that are not for the faint of heart, we see him offer fruit or tea to the various women he brings to his family’s home. He strangles them with their own headscarves, the sheer physicality of his violence intensifying with each kill. Due to the nature of its subject matter and its critique of religion-fuelled violence and misogyny, Abbasi was denied permission to shoot Holy Spider in Iran (the film was shot by the Danish-based director in Jordan). While the third act (Azimi’s capture and trial) lost some of the film’s previous tautness for me, Abbasi’s re-telling of Hanaei’s crimes and their ideological aftermath feels urgent and necessary, especially in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death in Iran.

In his book, Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film, Robert Sinnerbrink argues that cinematic ethics is not just about representation—that is, “narrative content including dramatic situations that involving morally charged situations, conflicts, decisions”.10 For Sinnerbrink, it is when aesthetics joins “forces with ethics (and politics)” that we encounter the immersive potential of cinema to “evoke ethical experience and invite philosophical reflection”.11 Inviting us to think or, more precisely, fostering “an experiential approach to thinking through ethics” is an idea that shapes the bold, near-dialogue free film from the renowned Dutch-Australian director, Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes, 2006 and Charlie’s Country, 2013). Dubbed an “allegorical examination” of race, power and strength of will, de Heer’s latest film clearly trusts its audience. From the first, the film’s opening images and sounds immerse us in the physicality of a deliberately unexplained situation. A woman (Mwajemi Hussein), known only as Blackwoman in the credits, is locked in a metal cage somewhere in the Australian desert. The heat of the desert radiates around her, palpably. In close-up, ants are brought into focus, crawling about the dry, cracked earth. For minutes on end, we stay with Blackwoman until she eventually frees herself from her metal prison.  

As with other sequences in The Survival of Kindness, de Heer dislodges our spatial and temporal coordinates. Aside from certain markers (the desert, a mountain, an unnamed city, a hut), it is unclear exactly where the film’s events take place or even when. Are we located in the past or in some kind science fictional future? Ultimately, de Heer’s re-imagining of the Australian landscape might best be aligned with the “what if?” imaginings of speculative fiction. As Blackwoman moves across a series of different terrains, de Heer’s film advances an alternate but also disturbingly familiar world in which skin colour determines fate. In later scenes, Blackwoman (and other non-white characters) must literally adopt ‘whiteface’ behind gas masks to evade capture and certain death. Bordering on the experimental in its privileging of gesture, landscape and environment, The Survival of Kindness is a must-see film. Through his use of a largely non-verbal aesthetic, de Heer invites us to feel our way into the harshness of Blackwoman’s world and to reflect upon all the ethical and social-political implications that is raises.

Black Bricks and Demonic Hands

Thanks to its longstanding investment in Australian screen production, AFF has always punched well above its weight on the festival circuit, premiering new AFF Investment Fund works (and oftentimes, major Australian titles) alongside its international selections. This year, the festival premiered 15 Investment Fund works, with many of these titles likely to go on to live a dedicated life after their festival run.12 On opening night, the South Australian-made music documentary, The Angels: Kickin’ Down the Door (Madeleine Parry), made for a crowd-pleasing film about the rise and fall of Adelaide band, the Angels, bringing out Aussie pub rock bastions in droves. Two other AFF Fund titles are deserving of special mention. Both proved to be adept at genre-based filmmaking, innovative and also grounded in a strong, overarching concept.

A collaboration between the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) and the AFF through their Film Lab: New Voices” initiative, Monolith is a very precisely structured take on the science fiction/thriller. Directed by Matt Vesely and scripted by Lucy Campbell, the film takes place in one single location and centres on one onscreen character, the journalist-turned podcaster, Lucy (brilliantly played by Lily Sullivan).  After a retired housekeeper contacts Lucy for her podcast, “Beyond Believable”, Lucy is alerted to a black, alien-like object known as the ‘brick’. She starts tracking the appearance of black bricks across the world, seeking out the stories of those who have come into contact with them and their strange powers. Through the calculated use of interviews, podcast excerpts and phone calls between Lucy and others, Vesely’s ability to open up a science fiction-oriented world through one character/location is impressive. For all its play upon science fiction tropes (strange symbols, a floating black monolith), it is to the film’s conceptual credit that the origin and power of its objects is never fully explained. While the film’s play on doubling started to veer a bit too much towards horror (especially towards the end), Monolith remains a stellar achievement from a local creative team. Shot throughout with blue-grey tones, it exudes a cool minimalism—showcasing the kind of detailed attention to architecture, sound and setting that would make any Kubrick fan happy.

Talk to Me

It was the AFF’s closing night selection (another collaboration with the SAFC) that proved to be an absolute knockout and an incredibly accomplished contribution to art-horror. Produced by Causeway Films – the production company responsible for stellar Australian horror titles such Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) – Talk to Me marks the feature film debut of the Adelaide-based YouTube mega-stars, brothers Danny and Michael Philippou (“RackaRacka”). Written by Danny Philippou in collaboration with Bill Hinzman, Talk to Me is bound to have global appeal. Given the bright red, slightly-out-of-focus publicity image (above) of the film’s lead, Mia (Sophie Wilde), I was expecting a low-fi horror exercise or perhaps something along the lines of a gritty found footage horror film … I was wrong. Talk to Me is both polished and unrelenting in its physicality, featuring a number of expertly choreographed set pieces that do justice to the film’s well-crafted premise.  

Talk to Me centres on a group of teenagers who access the spirit world through the power of an embalmed hand. They take turns strapping each other into a chair, allowing spirits to possess their bodies. When one of the younger characters, Riley (Joe Bird), stays too long with the hand, the borders with the spirit world start to collapse for him and Mia. While recalling horror films of the 1970s and ‘80s and the kind of existential horror that haunts The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Talk to Me still manages to feel new, fresh and contemporary. As the teenagers take turns strapping each other into the chair, using the hand’s power over and over again, the Philippous’ energetic, circulatory filming conveys access to the spirit world as a heady, drug-like high. The film also features a scary-as-hell bathroom sequence that needs to be seen to be believed. YouTubers and social media platforms get a nod, too, as the teens delight in filming their individual possessions. Now scheduled for the famous “Midnight” section of The Sundance Film Festival – the section that has also premiered art horror titles such as It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) and Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018) – Talk to Me is (deservedly) going to be huge.

“Woohoo!” enthused Adelaide Film Festival CEO and Creative Director, Mat Kesting, to the closing night crowds, suggesting that such an exclamation ought to be the catchcry of the 2022 festival. Having spent the last two years living through socially-distanced times, AFF saw a spike in its box office (up 56% from the last pre-pandemic festival, back in 2018). While box office numbers help indicate just how much audiences want to be back at live events and in the cinemas, the vibe of this year’s festival felt like more than post-pandemic recovery. In 2022, the festival hummed with a new sense of curatorial energy, outreach and purpose, oftentimes bringing very different audience demographics together (a dynamic that was clearly evident on the opening and closing nights). With the festival now officially shifting from its former bi-annual status to an annual event, it will be interesting to see where the film festival and its programming goes next. By knocking down metaphorical doors, creating opportunities for new Australian filmmakers/creative teams and by offering a diverse, inclusive program that endeavoured to provide something for all, this year’s AFF echoed the small-but-mighty power of the donkey. EO, forever…

Adelaide Film Festival
19 – 30 October 2022
Festival Website: https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/


  1. Skolimowski in Ryan Lattanzio, “Meet the 6 Donkeys Who Played EO in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Oscar Contender”, IndieWire, Dec 14th 2022, https://www.indiewire.com/2022/12/eo-donkeys-jerzy-skolimowski-1234792241/
  2. “AFF 2022 announces Audience Award winners, and wraps up record-breaking 12 days”, 1st November 2022, Adelaide Film Festival website, https://adelaidefilmfestival.org/aff-2022-announces-audience-award-winners-and-wraps-up-record-breaking-12-days/. On the awards front, the “Change Award” was ultimately awarded to Luke Ngaarra: The Law of the Land (Sinem Saban), an Indigenous-funded documentary on Arnhem Land. The “Feature Fiction Award” went to Makbul Mubarak for his Indonesian political thriller and his debut feature, Autobiography. The Feature Documentary Award went to The Hamlet Syndrome (Elwira Niewiera & Piotr Rosolowski), a documentary in which the traumatic experiences of a group of young Ukrainian men and women are refracted through stage pieces based upon Hamlet (Niewiera, a guest of the festival, also accepted the award).
  3. Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film, Columbia University Press (2011), p.16.
  4. Skolimowski in Manori Ravindran, “Cannes Donkey Film ‘EO’ Unveils Trailer”, Variety, October 6th 2022, https://variety.com/2022/film/global/eo-donkey-film-trailer-jerzy-skolimowski-1235394628/
  5. Manohla Dargis, “EO Review: Imagining the Lives of Other Creatures”, The New York Times, 17th November 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/17/movies/eo-review-donkey.html
  6. Davis in Jazz Tangcay, “How John Ford Inspired ‘Banshees of Inisherin’ Cinematography”, Variety, 31st October 2022, https://variety.com/2022/artisans/awards/banshees-of-inisherin-cinematography-ben-davis-john-ford-1235418764/
  7. “The Giants”, General Strike website, https://www.generalstrike.com.au/?pgid=j13dn0q5-7c741d8a-9be1-43b0-b415-2ecd6f4be71b
  8. Here, I am thinking of the abstract animated works of European animators/filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967).
  9. On the poetic documentary see Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Indiana University Press (2017), Third Edition, pp. 116-121.
  10. Robert Sinnerbrink, Cinematic Ethics: Exploring Ethical Experience through Film, Routledge (2015), p.10.
  11. Ibid, p. 3.
  12. Other AFF Investment Fund titles included the debut feature, Carmen by choreographer Benjamin Millepied (Black Swan, 2010) and two documentaries that foregrounded human rights/social justice issues in Australia: Watandar, My Countryman (Jolyon Hoff) and The Last Daughter (Brenda Matthews, Nathaniel Schmidt), about Matthews’ lifelong efforts to reconcile her memories of growing up in a white foster home in Australia with the Aboriginal family from which she was taken (and later returned to).

About The Author

Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies and Associate Director of the Creative People, Products and Places (CP3) research centre at the University of South Australia. She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Her current book project deals with the embodiment and ethics of a contemporary cinema of poetry.

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