Belgian film Close, about teen male friendship, wins Sydney Film Festival’s top prize

Belgian director Lukas Dhont has won Sydney Film Festival’s $60,000 Sydney Film Prize for “audacious, cutting-edge and courageous” film for his queer teen tragedy Close, about a powerful friendship between two 13-year-old boys that is ruptured by their transition to high school — with tragic results.

The film, which screened in Sydney off the back of winning the Grand Prix (second prize) at Cannes, was praised by the Sydney Film Festival jury as “a tender, moving, powerful film. A mature film about innocence”.

Two boys, and a man and a woman in the background, walk through a field of flowers
In Close, Leo helps out on his family’s flower farm in a small village. “That is the world I grew up in,” says director Lukas Dhont.(Supplied: Madman Entertainment)

Dhont’s film won against a field of 11 other films that included Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Utama, Berlinale Golden Bear winner Alcarràs, three films straight from Cannes’ Un Certain Regard line-up, and two Australian films: Archibald Prize-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton’s feature debut Blaze, and Goran Stolevski’s witch fable You Won’t Be Alone.

It was a line-up notable for stories with teen protagonists: a boy searching for his father, in Mexican drama The Box; a 12-year-old girl whose imagination becomes a tool for surviving trauma, in Blaze; an under-loved nine-year-old who blossoms over summer with relatives, in Irish-language film The Quiet Girl; and the gaggle of children and teens enjoying one last summer on their family’s land, in Catalonian drama Alcarràs.

Presenting the award at Sydney Film Festival’s closing ceremony on Sunday evening at the State Theatre, the jury, led by actor/director David Wenham, said Close “displayed a mastery of restraint, subtle handling of story, astute observations and delicate attention to finer details”.

Five men and women standing in a line on a red carpet against a blue photo wall with the logo for Sydney Film Festival.
This year’s jury was led by David Wenham, alongside Jennifer Peedom, Yuka Sakano, Mostofa Sarwar Farooki and Semih Kaplanoğlu.(Supplied: Sydney Film Festival)

Close is highly personal to Dhont, who found inspiration when he returned to his primary school and re-examined his early male friendships and sexuality: “The memories came flooding back of going to school at that time, when it was really tough to be my true, unfiltered self,” he said in press notes for the film.

In Close, we meet 13-year-olds Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) on the cusp of secondary school, and experience their powerful, intimate but uncomplicated friendship — then watch as this bond is strained, and ultimately ruptured, under the scrutiny of their peers.

Accepting the award via a video message, Dhont said: “We wanted to make a film about friendship and connection after a moment in time where we all understood its necessity and power.”

The film will be released in Australia by Madman Entertainment.

A 30-something white man with short brown hair in a suit stands next to a blond teen boy in a suit, on a red carpet.
Close is the second feature by Lukas Dhont (pictured here with actor Eden Dambrine at Cannes) following his acclaimed 2018 film Girl.(Supplied: Getty/Lionel Hahn)

This year’s Documentary Australia Award was awarded to Luke Cornish for Keep Stepping, which takes viewers into the street dance subculture, through the prism of Australia’s flagship annual competition, Destructive Steps.

In their statement, the jury, led by Documentary Australia CEO Mitzi Goldman, said:

“The community showcased in the film have much to tell us about family, identity, belonging, hard work, testing our limits, love and acceptance. The film is sensitively crafted, beautifully shot and edited and its characters mesmerising. This is a generation that have something to say and are asking us to listen. It is far more than a film about the dynamic subculture of street dance.”

2022 represented a ‘return to normal’ for Sydney Film Festival, which was online-only in 2020, and postponed twice in 2021 due to COVID-19, before opening in November — initially with a reduced audience capacity of 75 per cent.

This year, the festival opened in June as normal, with full capacity audiences. While masks were worn by all venue staff, they were not mandatory for audience members.

While last year’s festival was a hybrid of in-cinema and digital screenings, this year was in-cinema only.

Artistic director Nashen Moodley told ABC RN’s The Screen Show: “The turnaround from November to June is extremely tight for us; usually we have a year between festivals.”

But he said the festival is considering bringing back an ‘at home’ component for future editions: “We know what the technology can do; we appreciate it a great deal. And I think looking forward, we’ll see where we can best employ it for the festival to connect with audiences.

“At the same time, we know very clearly from our audience research, from our own experience, that the fundamental thing about the Sydney Film Festival — and I think all film festivals — is that in-cinema experience; that is best not just for the audience, and for the filmmakers and for the festival, it’s [also] in terms of how the business works.

“And whereas [previously] you had an eagerness for people (rights holders, filmmakers, sales agents, distributors) to explore this technology, as cinemas reopen there’s greater reluctance to put films online.”

Full list of winners

Sydney Film Prize: $60,000 cash prize
Winner: Close, Wri/Dir Lukas Dhont

Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award: $10,000 cash prize
Winner: Caitlin Yeo (composer, New Gold Mountain; Playing with Sharks)

Documentary Australia Award for Australian documentary: $10,000 cash prize
Winner: Keep Stepping, Dir Luke Cornish

Deutsche Bank Fellowship for First Nations Film Creatives: $20,000 grant
Winner: Kylie Bracknell

Sustainable Future Award: $10,000 cash prize
Winner: Delikado, Dir Karl Malakunas

Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films — Dendy Live Action Short Award: $7,000 cash prize
Winner: Luisa Martiri and Tanya Modini for The Moths Will Eat Them Up

Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films — Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director: $7,000 cash prize
Winner: Luisa Martiri and Tanya Modini for The Moths Will Eat Them Up

Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films — Yoram Gross Animation Award: $5,000 cash prize
Winner: Jonathan Daw and Tjunkaya Tapaya for Donkey

Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films — AFTRS Craft Award: $7,000 cash prize
Winner: Jonathan Daw and Tjunkaya Tapaya for Donkey

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