Managing risk

Jake Wilson

Mon Tresor

Mon Tresor

How does anyone learn to be a visionary? It’s one thing to make the notion of “visionary filmmaking” a rallying cry, as Peter Sainsbury did in his wonderful 2002 speech (RT53 & 54) urging filmmakers and members of funding bodies alike to take more risks and trust their individual judgement. But it’s quite another for a government organisation to put this philosophy into practice in a systematic way. If you believe the publicity, this is the Australian Film Commission’s aim with their new IndiVision initiative, which draws on the $15 million promised last year by the federal government to fund low budget features.

Besides funds for script development and production, the program incorporates an annual Project Lab (held for the first time in February) where 8 filmmaking teams get to discuss their projects with local and international advisors. According to the AFC’s Director of Film Development, Carole Sklan, one aim of the Lab was to encourage participants to try new approaches, in an exploratory rather than prescriptive fashion. Thus the workshops were accompanied by a touring program of recent international low budget features (most from first time directors) meant to illustrate the range of stylistic and dramatic options possible on a low budget. The blurbs for the screenings even hint that lack of resources can benefit a film by stripping it down to essentials like script, performances and a strong basic concept–though Sklan stresses that it’s films, not just scripts, which are being developed.

Some cracks in the IndiVision approach start to become visible here, and while the screening program was a worthwhile experiment, the actual films shown proved less than inspiring for this viewer. It’s easy to imagine Australian equivalents to Tully (Hilary Birmingham, USA, 2000), or The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy, USA, 2003) but by the same token they don’t add much to the local tradition of understated naturalism. A tasteful heart-warmer about misfits bonding, The Station Agent is the kind of movie where a set piece consists of the main characters taking a stroll along a railway track, eating some beef jerky and coming home (“That was a good walk!”).

Other selections register as more hip but not necessarily more substantial. Heavily reliant on post-production effects and attractive young faces in close-up, Reconstruction (Christoffer Boe, Denmark, 2003) is a lightweight metaphysical enigma, typical of one brand of current European art cinema in its reality shifts and musings on the contingency of love. Stylistically the most thoughtful of the bunch, Mon Tresor (Keren Yedaya, Israel/France, 2004) shows a teenager’s descent into prostitution in long takes that lend a classy austerity to the sordid subject matter. But by the end it’s hard to see what purpose was intended, unless the spectacle of misery is taken to be fascinating in itself.

Asked about the weaknesses of current Australian cinema, Sklan cites “a certain emotional timidity” as a problem to be addressed. “Audiences want to laugh and cry…they want a special, unique, transporting experience.” Though I wholeheartedly agree, her words suggest a potential difficulty with the entire initiative: the ‘visionary’ aesthetic outlined in Sainsbury’s address is basically a refurbishment of modernism, hence reliant on ambiguities that often block easy emotional response. Yet the evasion of direct feeling tends to be experienced by at least some viewers as a betrayal. This may explain why the screening program steers away from the zanier and more wilfully baffling trends in modern film narrative, from Gerry (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2002) to Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004). As professional performances and well written scripts aren’t priorities in films like these, it’s unclear how far they’d be aided by a craft-based development process, while the maximalism of a film like I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004) might be problematic in a different way.

Of course there are approaches allowing filmmakers to combine emotional directness with unobtrusive formal experiment–some of Mike Leigh’s recent films are exemplary here. It’s easy to see why the program flashes back a few years to include Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark, 1998), the best-known example of the supposedly gritty, truth-telling Dogma style. But as Lars von Trier’s antics made clear at the time, there was always a satanic side to the Dogma pact. Paradoxically flaunting its lack of artifice, Festen’s camera work mocks the ‘transparent’ innocence of home movies, while its shock-horror revelations remain close to the conventions of the well made play [the post-film stage version of Festen is playing internationally, including Australia in 2005. Eds].

Though this gloating duplicity is undeniably ‘modern’, later works that draw on the Dogma idiom tend to indulge the craving for raw emotion without irony–as in the mawkish if sometimes affecting 16 Years of Alcohol (Richard Jobson, Scotland, 2003), also included in the screening program. Again, it’s hard to see what purpose is served by this emotional button-pushing, apart from “working through” personal trauma which here as elsewhere arises from the family, with broader significance implicit at best. But in a postmodern, anything-goes context, it’s hard to find the shared vocabulary which would even allow such issues to be debated.

More easily discussed are the challenges of economics. It’s little wonder that local filmmakers are reluctant to take risks given the restrictions imposed by low budgets, the difficulty of attracting audiences to any kind of Australian cinema and the ongoing need to locate additional funding sources to stay in the game. Yet in the ever expanding international marketplace there’s no way anyone can sustain an art film career by playing it safe. In Australia today, it takes all the ingenuity of a Rolf de Heer to walk this tightrope, and while his shifts and dodges command admiration it’s questionable whether his movies have gained as a result.

Still, one can hope that the would-be filmmakers who consulted with him at this year’s Project Lab picked up a few tips. As Sklan ruefully admits, whatever can be done to facilitate ‘vision’, everything ultimately comes back to the resources of the individual. “We set up a low-budget initiative but it came from us, the AFC. It should have come from the filmmakers themselves. All we can do is set up the possibilities and say, ‘What do you want to do with them?’”

The next deadline for AFC low budget feature production grants is July 15. Applicants can apply for up to $1 million. The next deadline for the IndiVision workshop and development funding is September 2. The workshop is open to filmmakers of all levels. See www.afc.gov.au for details.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 22

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005