PUBLISHED10 May 2024

Documentary Australia at Sydney Film Festival 2024

10 Australian documentary films compete for the Documentary Australia Award at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival.

Sydney Film Festival has announced its 10 finalists for the 2024 Documentary Australia Award for the Best Australian Documentary. Recognising the incredible artistry and tenacity of independent filmmakers, this prize acknowledges excellence in Australian documentary production.

This is our 11th year supporting the award and the second year of the increased prize of $20,000. The winner will be announced at the Festival’s Closing Night and will also be Academy Award eligible.


Documentary Australia Award Nominees


The dawning of the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin 1973 – an alternative gathering embraced by activists, hippies, and radicals that changed a town (and a generation) forever.

The small northern NSW dairy town was the perfect location, surrounded by farmland and rainforest. The inhabitants (all 300 of them) hoped the event would bring young people to their struggling town. Thousands arrived, all willing to contribute to the festival, whether by playing instruments or digging drains. It wasn’t quite all saunas, nudity, acrobatics, and chilled-out bliss, however: festivalgoers faced down police interference, internal chaos, drugs and personal dramas. Nonetheless, countless participants found kinship as well as a blueprint for a sustainable life. The story of the festival is lovingly told with newly uncovered footage and interviews with festival co-founders and attendees.

Support this project through Documentary Australia. 

The Blind Sea

Professional athlete Matt Formston confronts a new, awe-inspiring challenge: surfing the biggest wave ever tackled by a blind surfer.

At the age of five, Matt lost 95% of his vision. It never stopped him from living the life he wanted and he became a Paralympic cyclist and world record holder. Matt’s life today isn’t just about sport – he’s also a husband, a father of three, and a corporate executive leading Diversity and Inclusion programs. Now a 4 x World Champion Para Surfer, Matt shares his experience by offering special blind goggles to Layne Beachley AO that recreate his vision on the waves. But the waves of the Sydney shoreline are nothing compared to Matt’s biggest challenge yet: taking on the infamous waves of Nazaré, Portugal, with support from big wave legend Dylan Longbottom.

Dale Frank – Nobody’s Sweetie

A charmingly intimate portrait of Dale Frank, hardworking artist and hermit, laying bare his creative process and his place in today’s art world.

By turns irreverent and brash, charming and vulnerable, Dale Frank is not easily pigeonholed. He’s an abstract painter, with occasional forays into ready-mades and sculpture. Contrasts abound even between his current cutting edge artistic output and his beautifully restored 19th century mansion in the NSW Hunter Valley. Eight weeks to his next exhibition at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, and with commissions coming in from overseas, Frank is working at pace. At the same time, he’s creating a vast botanical garden and battling ongoing pain. Director Jenny Hicks (The Stranger, SFF 2021) revels in Frank’s provocations, painting a cinematic and, er, frank portrait of a singular artist.

Support this project through Documentary Australia.

Every Little Thing

Exquisite hummingbirds fill the screen in Australian filmmaker Sally Aitken’s captivating story of a woman finding herself as she cares for the tiny birds. Selected Sundance and CPH:DOX.

Los Angeles resident Terry Masear nurses the many hummingbirds who fall foul of the environment. In nesting season, she takes hundreds of calls from people who’ve found traumatised mothers and chicks. Aitken (Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, David Stratton: A Cinematic Life) follows Terry as she goes through her meticulous, time-consuming routine of feeding and grooming her fragile charges. In caring for hummingbirds, Terry finds a graceful way through her own traumas. The birds’ journey from injury to first flight is breathtakingly captured, revealing their oft-spunky personalities and resilient spirit. A compassionate and shimmering film to leave you humming.

Mozart’s Sister

The story of the other Mozart, Maria-Anna, a child prodigy forgotten to time, as seen through the eyes of musicians, musicologists, and researchers.

Like her younger brother, Maria-Anna Mozart was a keyboard genius from an early age and the siblings toured Europe performing as wunderkinder to royalty. As a child it was acceptable for Maria-Anna to play in public. But when she reached 15, societal norms compelled her to retire. Tantalising clues exist of her continued virtuoso playing as well as her interest in composing music. Using recreations and expert interviews, Madeleine Hetherton-Miau (producer, China Love SFF 2018) explores the fascinating theory that Maria-Anna Mozart played a larger role in her brother’s music than is previously known. Like Charmian Clift – Life Burns High (screening at the Festival), Mozart’s Sister turns our gaze towards the unrecognised female creators of our time.

Support this project through Documentary Australia.

Revealed: Otto by Otto

Gracie Otto (Under the Volcano, SFF 2021; The Last Impresario, SFF 2014) attempts to capture the memories of her father, iconic Australian actor and artist Barry Otto (Strictly Ballroom, SFF 1992), before they are lost forever.

Barry Otto’s career has spanned more than 50 years and close to a hundred theatre credits, encompassing the golden days of 1970s and ’80s Australian theatre and film and cinema classics as Bliss (1985), Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Cosi (1996). Creative, eccentric, and endearing, Barry is a true original. Gracie’s absorbing film is not a traditional biopic, but rather a deeply personal reflection on her relationship with her father shot over five years, in the twilight of his career and as his health deteriorates. Revealed: Otto by Otto both honours this outstanding artist and actor and preserves his memory.


A young boy’s dream to become a pro skateboarder is captured in all its kinetic glory by renegade graffiti artist and acclaimed music video director Van Alpert.

Leandre Sanders, aka Skategoat, was born into a world of gangs and crime in Hawthorne, California. While his older brothers followed his parents into LA’s violent street life, Leandre spent his days at Venice Beach Skatepark, where he caught the eye of filmmaker Van Alpert. Van documented the talented youngster’s life for over a decade, as his family unravelled and his skills – including his unique ‘no stance’ skate style – took off. At 16, Leandre followed a girl to Melbourne, where he lived for over two years, and where his dream of becoming a professional skater started to become a reality. Van Alpert’s documentary debut pulses with a tactile sense of street style and an incredible soundtrack from Tyler, the Creator, Tame Impala, and more. From the producers of acclaimed documentaries Bra Boys and Fighting Fear.

Welcome To Babel

An absorbing documentary about Chinese-Australian artist Jiawei Shen’s plans to create an epic work depicting his homeland’s tumultuous recent history.

Jiawei Shen is an obsessive, determined man. But his latest project – ‘Tower of Babel’ – is crazy even for him (at least according to his wife, fellow artist Lan Wang). His goal is to create a monumental painting of the turbulent history of Communist China. It will take him years to complete, and the work is three storeys high, so he decides to build a new house and studio near his old Bundeena home. We learn about his fame in China through the story of his life: growing up in Mao’s China, surviving the Cultural Revolution, emigrating to Australia, and winning the 2006 Sir John Sulman Prize. Director James Bradley has previously edited several SFF-selected titles (including Finke: There and Back, SFF 2018). In his feature-length debut, he has crafted a miniature epic as ambitious as his subject.

Support this project through Documentary Australia.

Welcome to Yiddishland

An upbeat, witty, and timely exploration of a global community of artists creating innovative work in their quest to rediscover and revitalise the endangered Yiddish language.

From behind-the-scenes with an acclaimed Yiddish-language version of Yentl in Melbourne, to enjoyably transgressive punk-Klezmer musicians, and Barrie Kosky’s latest trailblazing production in Berlin – the endangered Yiddish language is alive and well in this rousing documentary. The language originated amongst the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, but almost disappeared when more than half of the world’s Yiddish speakers were murdered during the Holocaust. Most of the artists and performers (aka Yiddishists) in the film didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, but all have found solace, identity, and inspiration in its rich traditions and culture. Ros Horin (The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, SFF 2016; Rosemary’s Way, SFF 2020) has mapped a fascinating cultural history.

Support this project through Documentary Australia.

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday

A cinematic ode to Australia’s early surfing culture featuring evocative restored footage, a chilled-out soundtrack, and narration from surfing aficionados and heroes such as Tim Winton and Wayne Lynch.

In 1960s Australia, a generation travelled Australia’s coastline seeking waves – and a different kind of life. Their odyssey was captured on 16mm film, now lovingly restored by The Surf Film Archive. Director Jolyon Hoff (Watandar, My Countryman) combines this never-before-seen footage with stories from the original filmmakers, surfing gurus and more. One enthusiast likens surfing to being “kissed by God” – a sentiment in keeping with the blissed-out vibes that permeate this sun-filled, salt-infused movie. The original soundscape is from Australian music collective Headland (led by Murray Paterson, a Tex Perkins collaborator).