In this week’s Film and Television column, Lynden Barber reviews Operation Buffalo on ABC TV and ABC iView, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich on Netflix, as well as the various digital offerings from Sydney Festival.

Operation Buffalo, ABC TV, iView)
Operation Buffalo © ABC TV

It took me at least half of the first episode to work out that Operation Buffalo, the new series centred on the British atomic bomb tests near South Australia’s Maralinga in the 1950s, was meant to be a comedy. I mean, I had my suspicions, but kept catching my reflection in a wine glass and realising there were no signs of a smile, let alone a laugh. Such a shameful national episode – Indigenous people were left to die – is not usually the subject of televisual merriment.

But there were clues, including the strange performances of usually reliable actors like Tony Martin and James Cromwell, so laden with ham it was tempting to search for the mustard.

The plot outline: it’s 1956 and an escort, one of a gaggle brought in from Adelaide “for the scientists” at the remote desert military installation, goes missing. Inconveniently this happens just as the Brits unexpectedly bring forward the date for their next atomic bomb detonation to the following day. Oddly, though, we never seem to glimpse any actual scientists, even though the settlement is just a small handful of tin sheds.

The above sounds like the blueprint for a melodramatic thriller or a pitch-black comedy – a sequel to Catch 22 or Dr Strangelove, say. It’s neither of these, though it probably wants to be closer to the latter. Still, by the time we got to episodes two and three I’d learned to stop worrying and started to at least like the bomb story a little bit.

One issue is that the series wants to be humorously ridiculous as well as having its moments of drama and thoughtful contemplation about social and political ills. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition in principle, but it’s an extremely hard thing to pull off.

To its credit, it does manage this occasionally. A scene where Cromwell’s British general meets with Indigenous people in the desert (whose presence in the nuclear test area is flagrantly denied by the Australians) is one of the strongest moments in the three episodes made available for review. But even this leaves behind an uncomfortable feeling that the Indigenous characters are just a brief scribble in the margins of the white man’s entertainment. They’re severely under-developed as characters.

Operation Buffalo (originally to have had the far better title of Fallout) was written and directed by Peter Duncan, best known as the creator of that often-admirable comedy Rake. The best parts capture something of the satirical flavour of that series’ best episodes, when lead actor Richard Roxburgh knew he was playing a disreputable joke of a character and mined it for all it was worth.

Here the lead role of Major Leo Carmichael, the officer in charge of the base (and for bringing in the sex workers), is taken by Ewen Leslie, a terrific performer with the kind of charisma that makes you wonder why he wasn’t swallowed whole by Hollywood years ago. But he’s not really a comic actor. Or maybe it’s the way he’s been directed.

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Netflix
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The four-part Netflix series, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, is definitely not a comedy. The late Epstein is of course the billionaire and society paedophile who either hung himself in jail or was murdered by… (feel free to insert your favourite conspiracy theory).

Before viewing I feared I’d seen all this before – there have been at least two TV documentaries centred on the role of Prince Andrew in the ring of famous associates around Epstein. But quickly it becomes apparent this is a far deeper dive into the murky story of Epstein, his female teenage victims and the milieu that allowed him to get away with his crimes for years, despite the large number of traumatised women willing to testify against him, many interviewed here and all angry and frustrated at the lack of serious FBI action.

The title indicates a key theme: the idea that the extremely wealthy live in a world of their own, where they have the power to do whatever they wish. Clearly there are aspects to this story yet to be told but there’s only so much that defamation law will allow to be spoken so we may have to wait. It’s a chilling series, and not a minute too long.

Sydney Film Festival
My Little Sister. Photo courtesy of Sydney Film Festival

This is the time of year when the major Australian film festival season kicks off with Sydney as first cab off the rank. When COVID-19 hit, the Sydney Film Festival was cancelled, but has since launched no less than three on-line initiatives. Here things get a little complex.

Firstly, there’s a heavily reduced festival program which you can access via the festival website for a fee and watch at any time during the festival’s official dates (June 10 to 21).

The event’s most prestigious section, the international competition, has been temporarily cancelled but there are sections devoted to Australian documentaries and shorts and another for European women filmmakers. These will include filmmaker introductions and Q&A sessions.

Package deals are available for those who want access to the entire festival or a single program strand. Note two films looking at the world of theatre: My Little Sister, starring leading German actors Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger, set in the German theatre world. Eidinger played Hamlet in the Schaubühne production that played in Sydney Festival a few years ago – a role referenced in this fictional story.

From Estonia meanwhile comes a delightful documentary, A Year Full of Drama, which follows a young woman with next to no experience or knowledge of theatre given the job of watching and writing about 200 Estonian stage productions in a single year. We watch as she explores a new world – sometimes entranced, at others bored – and discovers truths about herself and her views on life along the way.

The second SFF initiative is called SBS Collection: Sydney Film Festival Selects – an arrangement with the broadcaster that sees 40 films from previous festival programs made available to screen for free at SBS On Demand. All have been selected by SFF artistic director Nashen Moodley and will be available between June 10 and July 10 (note this is a longer period than the main on-line festival described above).

There are many terrific films here that were reviewed favourably in Limelight at the time of their original cinema release. For example, Chilean trans story A Fantastic Woman; powerful Iranian drama A Separation; lively Turkish teen girls drama Mustang; Belgium domestic drama in the world of bluegrass musicians, The Broken Circle Breakdown, and Michael Haneke’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning chamber drama on mortality, Amour. Plus a few titles this column is looking forward to catching up with for the first time.

The final online initiative has almost slipped past already: We are One: A Global Film Festival, an online collaboration between a number of significant international festivals including Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sydney, began on May 29 and continues this weekend, ending after June 7. Note that while this is being promoted by SFF, it is a separate initiative to the main Sydney event and has a different modus operandi. Note that the free screenings all start at a different set time.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.