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2004 AFI Awards

Feature film: Hope...on the edge

Sandy Cameron

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide writer and graduate in Screen Studies and Law from Flinders University.

Ten films? After perusing the entries of the 46th Australian Film Institute Awards, it becomes immediately apparent that the chief concern regarding domestic cinema is no longer the quality but the quantity of films. The sparse field (there were 20 entries in 2003 and 14 in 2002) is more in keeping with the glamour and scope of a greyhound race than a prestigious showcase of a national industry. Despite this significant problem, for the first time in some years there are positive signs when it comes to content. Against the backdrop of a severe production downturn, 2 trends are revealed: it appears that we have seen the last of misfiring conservative comedies, and a stronger art cinema presence means that we can face the future with cautious optimism rather than outright fear.

In the slew of attacks on recent Australian cinema, the critical knives have been most often brandished against the ocker comedies—not only because of their triteness, but because they fail to meet their ambitious box office targets. They are created as popular entertainment but, because of marketing resources and domineering international competitors, cannot be promoted as such. Critics and punters will sleep easier in the knowledge that the run is finally closing, with a small but ignoble class of 2004: the dismal The Honourable Wally Norman (director Ted Emery) lamely attempts to translate small screen talent to theatres; Thunderstruck (Darren Ashton) is an AC/DC film with no AC/DC music; and the ironically titled Under the Radar (Evan Clarry) completely avoided detection during its theatrical release. In the wake of the Film Finance Corporation establishing its new funding process, in which creative merit has become the chief criterion, the ‘popular’ comedy will surely become the most endangered species in our cinematic landscape.

Now to the glimmers of hope. Among the few films in contention for this year’s awards, there are some notable entries from both new players and old hands. Though Somersault (Cate Shortland, RT62, p. 19) is suffering from the syndrome of over-praise from quality-starved film reviewers, it is an impressive work with a style and subject matter which is assuring its success at European festivals: moody cinematography, sparse dialogue and a teenage girl’s sexual journey. Somersault, Shortland and lead Abbie Cornish (giving a memorable performance in a year otherwise bereft of important female roles) are all frontrunners in their respective categories.

Other members of this year’s art cinema contingent are a flawed yet interesting cache. Rolf De Heer’s annual offering will be remembered as a genuine curiosity of Australian cinema. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories was made 4 years ago with a Hollywood cast in Guyana as a French co-production, which meant it only just scraped into eligibility for the AFI Awards. It is one of the director’s most personal and sensitive works. In contrast to De Heer’s magic realism is The Finished People (Khoa Do, RT59, p. 16). This film’s digital grittiness is borne of a production, financing and development process ostracised by the industry, interestingly reflecting the alienated lives of the Cabramatta youths which the film depicts.

Similarly, Alkinos Tsilimidos is a graduate of the ‘shoot first, finance later’ film school, and his first fully-funded feature Tom White is another modest yet poetic look at the disenfranchised. Not all of the 2004 art house projects are as successfully realised. Beneath the meticulous production design of Love’s Brother (Jan Sardi) is a conservative, flimsy romantic comedy.

In the face of damning box office figures and vitriolic critical analysis, the immediate (and understandable) response of the marketplace has been to offer fewer products. Amongst this small collection, the more impressive projects are downsized, personal pieces about society’s fringe dwellers, aimed squarely at the middle-class art house market. This more boutique approach will perhaps raise the quality of the Australian slate, but it is worth noting the wider industrial effect: many freelance crewmembers and postproduction houses will become redundant, there will be shrinking professional and technological resources and attempts at other genre films will become more difficult. And there are further, even graver risks in this approach. In the current rationalist environment, if gross receipts do not significantly increase, it will take a hell of a lot of international awards to convince the wider public that Australia possesses a sustainable, worthy industry, and production opportunities will dwindle even further.

We are at a crucial junction where the next 2 years will dictate the further viability of cinematic expression in this country. It will be interesting to see whether filmmakers rise to the occasion, financers display vision, and audiences pay any attention at all.

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide writer and graduate in Screen Studies and Law from Flinders University.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 24

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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