opening the field

sandy cameron at the sa short screen awards

Hard Rubbish

Hard Rubbish

IN A SEARCH FOR INDUSTRIAL RELEVANCE AND NATIONAL PROMINENCE, THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN SHORT SCREEN AWARDS (SASSA’S) HAVE UNDERGONE A SERIOUS FACELIFT IN THE LAST TWO YEARS. WITH REJIGGED ELIGIBILITY GUIDELINES AND A SLICKER PRESENTATION, THE REMODELLED FORMAT WAS AN APPROPRIATE FORUM TO REVEAL A CORNUCOPIA OF HIGH-CLASS DRAMA, COMEDY, EXPERIMENTAL FILM AND ANIMATION, AND TO SHOWCASE A TALENT POOL RICH IN TALENT. WHILE THE VENEER OF GLITZ MADE THE OCCASION INTERMITTENTLY FEEL SLIGHTLY OUT OF STEP WITH THE REALITY OF SHORT FILMMAKING, THE SASSA’S ARE NOW ELEVATED TO A FAR MORE MEANINGFUL STATUS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE WIDER INDUSTRY.

This year the eligibility guidelines were broadened to allow professional filmmakers to enter—which was always a grey area to police anyway—and has ultimately shifted the SASSAs away from being grassroots encouragement awards to a wider celebration of the South Australian industry. It did mean students were competing against hard bitten veterans with feature credits, but within this mix the 2008 awards managed to maintain a natural leaning toward the underdog and the previously unrecognised as well as a convivial and supportive atmosphere.

While there were many examples of technical excellence throughout the craft and genre awards, perhaps it would be felicitous to focus on the Best Film category, as the nominees provide a representative topography of the South Australian filmmaking community. The landscape is divided into quality higher end dramas financed by state and federal agencies (Spike Up, Swing), self-determined independently financed work (You Better Watch Out, Hole in the Water) and films by emerging talent in conjunction with local screen development agency the Media Resource Centre (Hard Rubbish, Caught in a Loop).

With a decision that defied the AFI Awards jury verdict of last December, Anthony Maras’ crime drama Spike Up did not walk away with the Best Film prize. Instead it went to the dark commercial comedy You Better Watch Out, directed by Steve Callen. Privately funded, and with the presence of Stephen Curry, Dan Wylie and Chris Haywood in the cast hinting that the level of entrepreneurship was high, You Better Watch Out tells the tale of two oafish brothers kidnapping a department store Santa under the delusion he is the genuine article, with the intent to extract revenge for their miserable childhoods. What hoists the piece above the Tropfest-style one-gag film is the polished production values and the droll investigation into belief systems. Callen also picked up the Best Screenplay award.

It is easy to see why Spike Up has been well recognised nationally and is already pushing into the international festival arena. An excellent Roy Billing plays a hapless cop whose day, involving the capture of a drug mule, a reunion with an old friend and shifting domestic fault lines, escalates towards a confronting revelation. Delivering assured direction and authentic performances, Anthony Maras is a filmmaker whose star is clearly on the ascendant. Aesthetically the hand-held cinematography manages to be unobtrusive while combining well with an under-lit, steel blue hue that faintly accents some of the interiors. Maras won Best Direction, and the film Best Drama.

Christopher Houghton’s Swing fits squarely in to the coming-of-age drama category, but does so in an emotionally engaging way. A Vietnamese-Australian teenager striving for independence from her family lands a job as a domestic for a blind Vietnam War veteran. The contrivance works through subtle narrative drive and the strong rapport between first time actor Vi Nguyen and the vastly experienced Chris Haywood. Nominated in multiple categories, Swing was unlucky not to collect any awards on the night. [It premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2007, won the Audience Award for Best Short Film, and at the St Kilda Film Festival won Best Short Film and $10,000. Ed]

Refreshingly unbound by convention, Dimitrios Pouliotis’ Hole in the Water is a deeply meditative, enigmatic and at times frustrating piece. In an extended short at 29 minutes and bereft of dialogue, a man suffering from a terminal disease faces up to his own mortality. Whilst the Tarkovskian pacing and straining for philosophical resonance occasionally misses the mark, the striking compositions and choreography of the camera do last in the memory. Well-articulated pastel neon light slices through the frame with powerful effect, and the protagonist’s desolate dreamscapes are vividly rendered. The opening shot, gliding in extreme close up along a river’s surface to pull wide and reveal a rowboat engulfed in flame, is indicative of the production. Aaron Schuppan beat a vastly more experienced field to take home the Best Cinematography award.

Sarah CrowEst also had a more abstract approach in her Caught in a Loop, a series of black and white vignettes of actors lip-synching to recorded personal testimonials of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The result is bittersweet and humorous, a mood piece rather than narrative driven, yet accessible enough to make the final 16 of the mainstream Tropfest competition. A well executed concept, it was a deserving winner of Best Experimental Film at the SASSAs.

The brightly designed Hard Rubbish, directed by Adam Lemmey, a cheerful and slightly twisted comedy about an 11-year-old girl who throws out her embarrassing family with the rubbish, rounded out the nominees. Its multiple nominations across nine categories reflects the consistent class across all elements of its production, despite not picking up a specific prize (though Director of Photography Maxx Corkindale won the Best Young Filmmaker Award). Although veering toward cutesy, the film’s climax subverts the general sentimental expectation.

It appears that in finally changing the SASSAs to allow an open field while maintaining a nurturing tone, the presenting organisation, the Media Resource Centre, has struck on a formula that reflects the structure and idiosyncrasies of the South Australian industry itself. The mutual support and tight networks on display here should further help the substantial creative talent blossom further in the short-term future.

SA Short Screen Awards, Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, March 6, www.mrc.org.au

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 26

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

1 April 2008