Australian feature films: where we are now

Sandy Cameron surveys film awards nominees and others

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

Cassandra Magrath, Wolf Creek

After the nadir of the past 3 or so years, even the mainstream press has noted the improving Australian feature film landscape: increased box-office figures; warmer critical response; and notable, if not prolific, representation at festivals such as Cannes, Sundance and Toronto. The 2005 Australian Film Institute Awards reflect these more encouraging trends, with the most pertinent fact being that there is genuine competition for the main categories to the point where it is difficult to pick a winner with certainty, and there are films conspicuous in their absence of nominations. It is refreshing to have genuine discussion, let alone something approaching controversy at the AFI Awards, where the usual easy task is to predict which underwhelming piece will receive multiple gongs. Admittedly, this is far from a renaissance, but more of a time of continued rebuilding. While we do not have the provocateurs of global cinema or any unified stylistic movements, we do have some assured directorial debuts and some welcome returns to form.

Look Both Ways

It’s perhaps most logical to start by focussing on the pool of nominees who appear in several categories. For Best Film, the Institute’s general membership unsurprisingly offered the 4 top grossing films, at least at the time of writing. Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways plays the well-worn emotional 3 card trick of challenging the viewers’ perceptions of their own ephemeral mortality, yet does it extremely well. This involves more than simply depicting tragic events, though the narrative is very much a sequence of fatal circumstances surrounding its unheralded ensemble cast. There is an integrity to the scenarios, authenticity of characters and intelligence of observation that staves off any swerves towards melodrama. Stylistically, the successful use of rich watercolour animations and rapid photo-montages to provide insight into the mindsets of the central couple provides welcome visual departures in a film where the cinematography and production design are fairly pedestrian, more reminiscent of low-rent television drama. Nevertheless, Look Both Ways is a thought-provoking film that at least deserves the Best Screenplay award; though admittedly this is the only nominated script I managed to get my hands on.

The Proposition

The Proposition (director John Hillcoat) is an intriguing beast; ambitious and exciting in concept but distancing in practice, the genius in making an intermittently violent, discursive Western is slightly let down by the simplicity of its titled premise. Once a brooding Guy Pearce is charged with a task of sibling assassination in the second scene, the film wanders towards inevitability against a backdrop of sunsets, biblical allusions and the star screenwriter/composer whispering over the soundtrack. It’s difficult to get too involved; what Hillcoat calls Pearce’s “quiet iconicism” may just be a case of a passive protagonist. Still, one can hope it opens up possibilities for the genre, as this country’s recent history is an obvious canvas for broad strokes and blood. But considering The Proposition was a large international co-production with high profile names that took several years to finance, it appears unlikely to pave the way for further weighty historical dramas or Australian Westerns. In any event, the film can expect to walk away with a decent share of the craft awards considering its production designers constructed a semi-mythical 19th century township.

Little Fish

With its triumvirate of global household names and long-awaited second coming of its director Rowan Woods, Little Fish looms as a difficult contender to beat in terms of profile, and in the populist democracy of the awards this may count towards the end result. The film itself is a very watchable, if restrained in terms of incident, drama of the seedier underbelly with visual affectations echoing recent Asian art cinema; languid camera movement and rack focuses punctuate throughout. Everything fits in the right place, but there is something amiss in that the material doesn’t resonate as well as Woods’ The Boys. An unfair comparison perhaps, but while Little Fish shares a similar milieu its familiar commentary on personal histories and material aspiration is not as powerful as a debut that still lives in the memory. Perhaps it is Little Fish’s overproduced score that betrays an erstwhile grittiness.

The Oyster Farmer

The Oyster Farmer (Anna Reeves) is the most unlikely inclusion in the mix for the highest award. It is the prime example of the worst kind of middle-of-the-road local cinema, the type of film where a middle-aged, middle-class audience confuses idyllic setting for good cinematography. Neither dramatic nor comedic, it relies on tanned bodies and frayed denim mini-skirts for its chief appeal. Although to attack such deliberately benign fare seems truculent, it is equally distressing that this film ranks highly in the minds of domestic audiences when other more enterprising and less bloated filmmaking goes unrewarded.

Wolf Creek

In terms of craftsmanship and economy, Greg McLean’s feature debut Wolf Creek takes some beating, and is nominated for Best Direction, Screenplay, Sound, Editing as well as Best Actress and Supporting Actress. The case of Wolf Creek and its digital production methodology, festival circuit tour, rapid and expensive international sale and subsequent perceived snub for Best Film in the AFI Awards has been documented elsewhere, but it is worth investigating further for its revelations about both Australian product and its consumption. It is a well executed horror/thriller with a tight 2-act structure, and like its psycho-ocker protagonist, goes about hitting its targets with disturbing efficiency. An interpretation of the AFI Awards response could be that its filmmaking skill is acknowledged, but it’s merely a genre or commercial piece whose worthiness lies outside ceremonial recognition. An anti-genre conspiracy could be dispelled by the Best Film nomination of The Proposition, albeit its more meditative themes and languorous tone instil it with a greater sense of nobility than the explicit nihilism of Wolf Creek. However, the simplest reason for the fact that it is missing from the top category is that its November release has limited the general groundswell of support: despite the overseas interest, many AFI members hadn’t seen it at ballot time. In any case, it is doubtful this ‘controversy’ has distracted McLean from production on his next horror piece, this time with US studio money.

The Magician

Scott Ryan’s The Magician has not been recognised in the award categories, but is this year’s highest profile film born outside the financing models involving government funding agencies, at least during the actual production phase. As a premise The Magician has much work to do to make it stand out: the ‘mockumentary’ is starting to feel like a tired gag and the hitman is one of the most over-used character profiles in all of cinema. However, The Magician proves to be more than a facsimile of Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992) or You Shoot, I Shoot (Ho Cheung Ping, 2001) and with its loose, relaxed structure has a roguish, jokey charm mirroring Ryan’s central performance. Much of the fun comes from satirising Australian notions of machismo and masculinity, whether it is the sophomoric, homoerotic humour, deadpan observations about paternal responsibility, or arguments about footballers’ ethics.

Life after the awards

Beyond the nominated films there are signs of a shift in the types of domestic projects that can gain distribution. 2005 witnessed the end of the infamous slate of the Macquarie Film and Television Investment Fund, an investor closely linked to a collection of unsuccessful comedies in recent years. As You and Your Stupid Mate (Marc Gracie) and The Extra (Kevin Carlin) vanished over the horizon only to ever be seen again on Channel Nine’s graveyard timeslot, it is hoped the current call for licensing considerations is enacted with regard to these lessons.

Things had to get better, and they have. Whilst the cyclical nature of the industry means that some years will produce a greater vintage than others, there is more to the recent improvement in quality than natural ebb and flow. The Film Finance Corporation, the principal investor in the vast majority of theatrical release features, has had a high profile evaluation process implemented where projects are judged on creative merit rather than initial marketplace attachments. While some cynics have dubbed the organisation “Studio Rosen” after its Chief Executive, initial signs are encouraging. An extensive slate of projects approved through the evaluation door is yet to be released, but upcoming titles include Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne and Ana Kokkinos’ Book of Revelation. A focus on mid-range budget art cinema with recognisable casts and highly competent directors is no bad thing; hopefully it ensures the healthier competition at the 47th AFI awards is sustained and increased in the coming years.

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This article was written before the winners of the AFI and IF Awards were announced.

Look Both Ways took out the AFI Awards for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor; Little Fish won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress; The Proposition won Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and Best Musical Score; and Janet Merewether won Best Documentary for Jabe Babe. Look Both Ways and Little Fish likewise dominated the Inside Film Awards, whose winners also included Janet Merewether and a special award to Wayne Coles-Janess for his documentary, In the Shadow of the Palms. Anthony Lucas won Best Animation in both the AFI and IF Awards for The Mysterious Goegraphic Explorations of Jasper Morello.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 17

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005