Flickerfest: looking for signs

Dan Edwards

Bush Bikes

Bush Bikes

Bush Bikes

With the exception of Khoa Do’s The Finished People, (see p16) the 2003 crop of Australian features seemed like forlorn cultural objects, hopelessly isolated both from the challenging trends in global cinema and the audience they purport to represent. I approached the Flickerfest International Short Film Festival this year wondering if our shorts would be as uninspired as our features. The generally high standard of the Australian programs came as a pleasant surprise, although interestingly the short films often reflected the same strengths and weaknesses of the broader Australian industry.

Most of the dramas, for instance, continued Australian film’s obsession with rural settings. This is possibly a product of the high cost of permits for filming in urban areas, especially in Sydney, which is always going to be a serious issue for cash-strapped emergent filmmakers. But the result is a highly de-urbanised cinematic world which is utterly foreign to the majority of Australians. This sense of disconnectedness from actual experience is a phenomenon I’ve written about previously and to my mind is one of the major weaknesses of contemporary Australian cinema.

Furthermore, most of the Australian dramas were very much in a conventional naturalistic vein. Which is not to say they didn’t succeed on their own terms. The Rouseabout featured an impressive performance from its young lead Tom Budge and a strong script by writer/director Scott Pickett. There was, however, little at Flickerfest to indicate anything new on the horizon for Australian drama in terms of subject or style.

Similarly, the comic shorts generally worked well and raised laughs, but past experience has clearly demonstrated that our flair for snappy, sharp amusing shorts does not necessarily translate into an ability to produce substantial features, be they comic or otherwise.

So while the dramas provided some strong, if conventional, entries Flickerfest confirmed that the most interesting innovations in Australian cinema are currently occurring in documentary and animation. Australian animators are taking off on surreal, imaginative flights of fancy while our dramatic filmmakers stay close to the ground. The lovesick character of the AFI Award-nominee Hello (RT 58, p.21) with a tape deck for a head is hardly your typical Australian protagonist. Nor was the naked purple claymation man of The Diamond Cutter (directors Dominique O’Leary and Darren Hughes). Although the film’s story couldn’t quite justify its 19 minute length, The Diamond Cutter featured some beautifully crafted scenes devoid of dialogue, as the central character moved through his town on a nocturnal quest for warmth.

It was the documentary programs, however, that showcased the best in emerging Australian filmmaking talent. Although both of Flickerfest’s documentary programs were international, they featured several outstanding Australian works which illustrated the diverse approaches that now characterise the form. Out of Fear (director Bettina Frankham) featured the voices of 5 refugees who have endured time in Australian detention centres. Although we hear the refugees’ voices and see them engaged in various activities around their homes, we never see their faces. We are so used to a physiognomic accompaniment to the sound of human speech that initially this device made the film quite difficult to watch. But over time a complex relationship developed between image and sound that reflected the twofold experience most of us have of refugees: on the one hand asylum seekers represent a largely faceless social and political phenomenon; on an individual level these people have horrific stories that would leave most of us open-mouthed with disbelief. Out of Fear not only gave voice to some of these stories, but in its form subtly reflected the relationship between the audience and the film’s human subjects.

In contrast, David Vadiveloo’s Bush Bikes employed no dialogue at all to portray the extraordinary lengths a group of young Aboriginal boys go to in order to build and maintain their bikes. The film relied on the camera’s rendering of these boys’ faces and their physical interactions with their environment and each other. Bush Bikes illustrates how documentary, perhaps more than any other form, is able to play upon film’s dual status as a record of people and places and a means of creative expression, opening the viewer to whole new ways of seeing.

More conventional in style, Rebecca Barry’s The McDonagh Sisters used a mixture of archival footage and re-creations to excavate a story from Australia’s filmmaking past. The McDonagh sisters made a series of successful features in Sydney during the 1920s only to have their careers curtailed by a financially overwhelming Hollywood film machine. Films like The McDonagh Sisters play an important rehabilitative function in rescuing forgotten historical episodes from oblivion, but like all effective historical documentaries, the film also managed to blast a piece of history out of the past and make it a relevant part of the living present. Barry’s film does this by demonstrating that the difficulties faced by contemporary Australian filmmakers are far from new, and that without an awareness of this fact we are destined to constantly repeat our history of wasting our best artistic talent.

This year’s crop of Australian films at Flickerfest indicated that there is plenty of talent and originality in the local filmmaking community. If we can bring the imaginative flights of our animators and our documentary makers’ willingness to push the boundaries of subject and form into the realm of feature filmmaking, we might once again have a local cinema of which we can truly be proud.

The 13th Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, Jan 3-11

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 19

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004