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The making of a Tasmanian film industry

Simon Sellars


In RT58 (p22), I interviewed a group of Melbourne directors and producers about the environmental factors that influence their films. Besides the weather, the main aspect cited was Melbourne’s geographic, financial and aesthetic distance from Sydney. The result: low-budget, gritty urban dramas. But what about Tasmania?

It’s difficult to locate historical information on Tasmanian film, except for the obligatory Errol Flynn references (and he, as we all know, fled the state in order to make it). Just 2 features have been made in Tasmania, the first being Roger Schole’s The Tale of Ruby Rose (1987), a richly observed psychological drama set in the highlands. The second was Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998) which related the experiences of Slovenian immigrants in the island state.

Up until a few years ago, making films in Tasmania was pretty much a pipedream, but now the Tasmanian screen industry is finally taking off. Infrastructure is being formed despite the same problem facing the rest of Australia: not enough cash to go around (Screen Tasmania has a budget of just $1 million).

As well as the state government body, Screen Tasmania (www.screen.tas.gov.au), there is the Mobile Media Access Facility (funded by Screen Tasmania to provide accessible resources, training and contacts) and Fearless Media, which represents the Australian Film Television and Radio School, initiating a diverse program of short courses in film and broadcast production. There are also professional Tasmanian production companies such as Roar Film and Edward Street Films. Animation specialists Blue Rocket relocated to Hobart from Brisbane and have gone on to build an enviable reputation producing series and interstitials for European markets, as well as successful longer projects.

Craig Kirkwood is well placed to comment on this recent spurt of activity. Now the CEO at Fearless, he was on Screen Tasmania’s first advisory board. He cites the election of the Labor state government 5 years ago as the catalyst for screen culture in Tasmania. Jim Bacon and his team came to power with a “huge cultural agenda” and set up Screen Tasmania as well as the state’s first international arts festival (10 Days on the Island). Kirkwood also highlights the sense of positive growth in Tasmania: “the population is finally rising rapidly, housing is booming, the arts are growing.” As a result “screen culture and industry is beginning to take on a sense of confidence.”

Early this year Kirkwood launched the Tasmanian Screen Network (www.tasscreennetwork.org) with the aim of “increasing communication between screen practitioners and developing a professional infrastructure for Tasmanian filmmakers and producers.” Its central tenet, he explains, is to maintain “an industry body which represents the screen sector in Tasmania independent of government and enterprise.” Kirkwood’s vision is similar to the thinking that’s informed the formation of the Screen Industry Council in South Australia (see p21): “Screen Tasmania has acted as a de facto mouthpiece, but this is inappropriate really. If someone, like yourself, needs to know about Tasmania’s film culture it’s better to consult the industry rather than a government funding body. Not only that, but the industry needs to lobby and respond to actions that government take. Screen Tasmania is a funding body and while they play an important and strategic role, they should answer to, and respond to industry needs rather than the other way around.” Kirkwood is quick to add that the Tasmanian Screen Network was set up with Screen Tasmania’s blessing.

Despite Kirkwood’s hopes for the network, it seems inevitable that the government body will shape the direction of Tasmanian film in the immediate term. In recent funding decisions, there has been a strong focus on documentary: grants, workshops and a co-production initiative with SBS are among the developments. Is this out of necessity (limited funding precluding the production of feature films) or is it driven by a cultural agenda? Tasmanian society certainly seems to be focused on history (especially in the tourist industry) and documentary may be the perfect form for unravelling Tasmania’s turbulent past. Kirkwood agrees: “The bleak history is quite remarkable. The extermination of the tiger, Port Arthur’s past and modern histories, and the virtual annihilation of Aborigines are just some of the stories that need to be told. But it’s also breathtakingly beautiful here and the natural environment is very much in people’s consciousness. Documentary seems a logical area to specialise in.”

I asked Kirkwood if Tasmania stood any chance of producing more feature films? “The rumour mill has it that Richard Flanagan is working on a new production. Roger and Katherine Scholes have a feature called The Broken Hill, which came within a hair’s breadth of attracting funds, and Screen Tasmania has about a dozen feature scripts on the desk at any time, but of course they’re such a difficult thing to do.”

Kirkwood is optimistic about the future of the industry, citing promising names like documentary makers Paul Scott and Ella Kennedy, and productions company Miro Films. Tasmanian screen culture is building a unique and independent identity, and a reputation that’s certainly in sharp contrast to traditional mainland perceptions of the state. As Kirkwood notes, “I’m an ex-Sydneysider and I remember when Tasmania was considered a real backwater. Now it’s in danger of becoming fashionable!”

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 20

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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