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2004 AFI Awards

Short film: Playing it safe

Dan Edwards

While the range of feature films eligible for this year’s AFI Awards signals some potentially important new directions for Australian cinema, the short film nominees are a less inspiring, more predictable bunch. Judging by the shorts I’ve seen at festivals in the past 12 months, this is probably more indicative of a general malaise in Australian dramatic short filmmaking than a fault in the selection process.

Three of the 4 short nominees are ‘mini-features’, part of the wave of 50 minute films that have dominated the AFI selections since the AFC launched its ‘short feature’ initiative several years ago. As I noted in my piece on the program last year (RT57, p. 15), the potential offered by the form for experimentation without the financial risk of a feature has generally not been taken up. Two of the mini-features nominated this year are straight, naturalistic dramas, while the third is another in the long line of Australian crime films.

So Close To Home (director Jessica Hobbs) is an engaging tale of a young refugee (Arbenita Fejzullahu) adrift in Australia, who is taken under the wing of a young local professional named Maggie (Kerry Fox). The girl appears in Maggie’s train compartment in the dead of night as a silent, slightly unnerving presence. Especially in its early scenes, So Close To Home effectively conveys the alien nature of the refugee presence for most Australians living comfortably in the suburbs. As the story progresses, however, the air of mystery gradually dissipates and the narrative becomes a conventional tragic scenario climaxing in an appropriately weepy conclusion. So Close To Home is a heartfelt if unadventurous film, that nevertheless looks beyond the individual concerns of white, middle class Australians that often dominate our cinema.

Floodhouse (Miro Bilbrough) is a less successful mini-feature centring on Mara (Victoria Thaine), an adolescent dumped by her self-obsessed ‘artistic’ mother on her hippie father, who lives in a primitive shack in what appears to be northern NSW. The film offers an insight into the contemporary vestiges of Australia’s counter culture of the 1970s, a social milieu that receives scant attention on our screens. The portrayal of the suffering endured by many children whose parents have uncompromisingly pursued an ‘alternative’ lifestyle is also a subject rich in potential. While the sense of cultural and geographical isolation endured by these kids is well conveyed, the drama is badly undermined by a saccharine guitar soundtrack, intermittent doses of forced humour and a reliance on cliched dramatic devices. Having successfully evoked the dank semi-tropical environment and primitive conditions Mara and her father live in, Bilbrough falls back on the themes of alienation, loneliness and awkward sexual awakening that characterise countless coming-of-age films the world over. The story ends predictably with the young protagonist moving out into the world, all the wiser for having endured and transcended her restrictive childhood.

The one stylistic surprise in this year’s short nominees is Paul McDermott’s The Scree, a suitably grim fairytale about a group of travellers stranded on an island and being devoured, one-by-one, by the formless horror named in the title. The images are an imaginative mix of drawings on paper cut-outs and live actors. While it was refreshing to see an Australian short operating outside the conventions of psychological drama, The Scree is essentially an illustrated poem in which the images add little to the words delivered in voice-over. The poem itself is rather childish one-dimensional verse lacking any metaphorical or symbolic resonance. Despite the simplistic tone, the fates meted out to the travellers are genuinely gruesome, making it difficult to tell whether the The Scree is intended as a children’s film or an adult story in fairytale form.

The final nominee is Lennie Cahill Shoots Through (Charlie Doane), a sub-Blue Murder depiction of Sydney’s changing crime scene. Unlike Blue Murder, Lennie Cahill unashamedly romanticises Sydney’s criminal past. Although set in the present, the characters are left-overs from a time when the city was populated by grizzled, straight-talking cops and a gallery of lovable roguish villains. These crims may occasionally knock off an innocent bystander in the pursuit of an honest day’s crime, but they always feel bad about it afterwards. The film does effectively capture the few remaining physical traces of pre-Olympics inner-Sydney, and offers some wry comments on the contemporary shift from blue to white collar crime. But the style is marred by an uneasy combination of gritty realism and ill-conceived comedy which at times makes it feel like a group of aging Keystone Cops have stumbled into an episode of Wild Side.

The nominated short films reflect a broader bind facing the industry. We are too culturally timid and hamstrung by economic rationalist notions of creating a ‘sustainable industry’ to unequivocally embrace a cinema of adult themes and/or experimentation. As a result, our dramatic films, feature length, mini-feature or short, tend to fall into one of 2 categories: unprovocative, middle-of-the-road dramas that even with strong material pull their punches, or populist films that take on genres while sending up their conventions. Neither seems to resonate with committed cinema goers or the broader public.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 24

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

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