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Short features

The short feature: stepping stone or dead end?

Daniel Edwards

Wayne Munroe, John Moore, Cold Turkey Wayne Munroe, John Moore, Cold Turkey
Where does the short feature film sit in the film industry as a creative form and something to sell? While Australian-made documentaries can fill an ABC or SBS 50 minute slot with some regularity, how often is it we see an equivalent drama on television? And what life is the short feature likely to have in the cinema, except in the most subsidised of circumstances? The Australian Film Commission AFC commenced regular funding of 50 minute films several years ago, partly as a response to cutbacks which had made the funding of low-budget feature length films increasingly difficult. The 50 Minutes From Home—An Australian Film Festival, touring the country throughout September and October, showcases 9 of these recent short-feature productions.
The 50 minute film program has undoubtedly been successful in maintaining a level of production for new directors in a time of increasing financial strain for Federal Government funding bodies, but the turn to 50 minute features also highlights an underlying problem in the Australian film industry. In the 1990s, and into the present decade, directors lucky enough to get their debut features off the ground have rarely been given the opportunity to develop their talent with follow-up features. Audiences are constantly given glimpses of nascent talent never allowed to develop beyond the embryonic stage. 50 minute features have allowed a group of new directors to move from shorts to longer-form dramas, but the program does not address the fact that true directorial development requires a sustained career in feature production over many years. Furthermore, like the current crop of full-length Australian features, most of the 50 minute films reflect a broader stylistic conservatism that seems to plague Australia’s screen industries.

A career bridge?

Carole Sklan, Director of Film Development at the AFC, believes that television is the ultimate home for 50 minute films, since they are generally not viable in a commercial distribution context. This fact is reflected in the heavy involvement of broadcasters in funding these films. Of the 9 short-features in the 50 Minutes From Home festival, 6 were co-funded by SBSi, one was co-funded by ABC drama, and one is an SBSi and NSW Film and Television Office (FTO) co-production. Only The 13th House was entirely funded by the AFC, without any pre-sales to television. The makers instead intend to rely on festival exposure. But as director, Shane McNeil points out, the 50 minute length can present problems in a festival context. Depending on the event, the film is sometimes expected to compete with full-length features, while at other times it is classed as an overly-long short. The AFC and SBSi are to be commended for recognising these difficulties by programming cinema screenings.

While it’s impossible to predict that the 50 minute program will succeed in assisting a new generation of Australian filmmakers to make the leap to full production, Sklan believes it has played a vital role in maturing the filmmakers involved: “When you have to tell a story on screen for a sustained amount of time, it requires the development of story and structure, explorations of character, and a range of emotional tones. I feel that these teams are now in a much stronger position creatively, and in terms of their craft and technical expertise, to handle a feature-length film.” McNeil concurs: “Previously, a director would make a couple of shorts and if they were lucky they would be given a feature. They’d jump in and have to sink or swim. If they sank, it was a long time before they swam again.”

While there can be little doubt that a 50 minute production provides valuable experience for a filmmaker, the program does not solve the problem of the overall shortage of funds for feature production. As already noted, the Australian film industry is full of filmmakers whose careers consist of several shorts and one feature. Unless the AFC can continue to support most of the 50 minute filmmakers, there is a real danger that the scheme will simply produce a generation of directors whose career instead consists of a few shorts and a 50 minute feature. This is not a criticism of the AFC or the 50 minute initiative per se: the organisation has effectively managed to maintain a level of production in a funding environment not of its own making. There is, however, a certain fruitlessness in fostering talent in this way if we, as a nation, are not prepared to then support its full flowering.

The films

Without the financial risk of a feature production, the 50 Minutes program also potentially offers the opportunity to explore the kinds of formal and thematic possibilities so rarely seen in contemporary Australian features. Judging by the films of the festival, however, this has not generally occurred. With the exception of The 13th House, and to a lesser extent Cold Turkey, the films remain firmly within the naturalistic dramatic tradition that has dominated Australian cinema for decades.

Whether this is a result of the AFC’s selection process, or the nature of the projects applying for funding, is difficult to tell. It’s also possible that the involvement of television broadcasters has played a determining role although SBSi is certainly the most adventurous funding body associated with free-to-air television in this country. But it is perhaps significant that The 13th House, by far the most stylised film in the festival and the only work to operate outside the conventions of naturalistic drama, is also the only project made without the involvement of a broadcaster. A metaphorical tale about employees brutalised by corporate culture, the film was originally conceived as a television pilot for a Twilight Zone-style anthology series, which was unable to attract any interest from the Australian television sector. The makers of The 13th House were able to realise their project exclusively on AFC money by working within a budget several hundred thousand dollars below the average of the other films in the program.

Steven McGregor’s Cold Turkey (RT 56, p18), like The 13th House, is formally challenging and continues the trend in Indigenous Australian cinema of powerful dramas not afraid to engage with the country’s social, political and historical conditions. Jessica Hobbs’ So Close to Home also manages to engage, to an extent, with issues outside the interpersonal familial concerns of most of the films, centring on the plight of a young immigrant whose mother is in an Australian detention centre.

Overall, however, the films in the 50 Minutes From Home festival remain within the sphere of the family or interpersonal relations, and tell their stories in a very traditional naturalistic style. Which is not to say they are not of a high standard. Martha’s New Coat in particular is distinguished by an outstanding script and a searing performance from Matilda Brown in the title role. Roy Hollsdotter Live offers an intriguing rumination on the performative nature of the faces we show our friends and lovers, through the tale of a disintegrating relationship between a stand-up comedian and his girlfriend. The film also features some effective passages of expressionistic editing and lighting, punctuating an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative.

50 Minutes From Home played in Sydney’s Valhalla Cinema just a few weeks after the venue hosted the Next Generation 2003 showcase of short films by new German directors, as part of the BMW Festival of German Cinema. The contrast between the range of styles and subject matter on display in the German shorts was striking when compared to the relative homogeneity of the Australian films.

50 Minutes From Home-An Australian Film Festival, presented by the AFC and SBSi, various cinemas around Australia, touring from Sept10-Oct 25

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 15

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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