WA Screen Awards: keeping the pulse strong

Mick Broderick

Francesca Strano, Jack

Francesca Strano, Jack

Arriving from the east coast in 2001, I was intrigued by several disparaging comments from local cineastes and filmmakers who suggested that it was often hard getting WA (read Perth) punters to attend screenings. After a few months it seemed to me that Perth had a cornucopia of screen activities in readily identifiable clusters all around the city. I’m not quite sure what yardstick the jaded critics had applied other than perhaps their own previous attempts to float and sustain festivals or screenings, but my early immersion in Perth’s film scene suggested a robust and vibrant sector.

Many of these extraordinary screenings take place throughout the long hot months from October to April, when climate is everything, consistently offering mild, rain-free evenings across the city and suburbs. There are outdoor screenings aplenty, many have become Perth institutions. In Kings Park, not far from the Botanic Gardens, a mixed program of contemporary films and classics has Crackerjack screening with Casablanca. On special nights, local bands (often jazz) accompany the screenings. It’s a program repeated with variation in other inner-city locales and suburban parks. For the annual Festival of Perth, the Lotteries Film Season shows international cinema outdoors at the UWA and northern suburbs Joondalup campuses of Edith Cowan University. Around Fremantle, regular summer screenings take place in a central public park. A few kilometres away in Spearwood’s Manning Park, the local council helped arrange an outdoor festival that ran over 3 months and screenings are planned for near the Swan River in East Fremantle.

In keeping with this al fresco exhibition practice, this year’s 16th WA Screen Awards gala evening was preceded by the Fremantle Outdoor Film Festival (FOFF), a 2-week program of screenings showcasing the state’s emerging and established filmmakers. Before staging the event, the Film and Television Institute (FTI) Marketing Manager Jon Cope looked for a new way to present the awards while building on the momentum from earlier incarnations. Cope’s marketing brief was to address the divergent and peripatetic history of the WASAs. “When they started they pretty much focussed on early career filmmakers. There were genre awards and craft awards and there was the WA Young Filmmaker of the Year award, which was the pinnacle of achievement. Over the years there have been different coordinators but there was no continuity, changing venues and style with expensive sit-down affairs.”

This year FTI deliberately set out to reposition the awards. Part of the strategy was to centre them around Fremantle, with the ceremony in the Town Hall and a post awards supper at the same venue where the industry and early career filmmakers would “have the opportunity to interact in the same room.” Also the previous year’s festival collaboration with Sunset Cinemas was retitled as the Fremantle Outdoor Film Festival, an FTI coordinated 2-week event which kicked-off with Tropfest and ended with the WASAs. The rationale, according to Cope, was to complement the single evening awards ceremony with a festival “to improve the accessibility of products coming out of early career filmmakers to the public.” The free opening night saw nearly 2000 attend Fremantle’s Princess May Park for Tropfest. “It was extraordinary,” says Cope. “People brought their kids, their dogs; it was a real family celebration, and that’s what we were after.” Similarly on consecutive Wednesday nights FOFF showcased the early career nominees in well patronised free screenings.

Somewhat disingenuously Cope admits “there’s the old adage that Freo people don’t travel north of the river,” adding with a laugh, “I guess I’ve sort of been relying on that to boost our audience.” Fortunately, Cope says Luna and Sunset Cinemas have been helpful and supportive. There hasn’t been a ruthless demarcation where FOFF has been regarded as a commercial competitor taking market share from established venues.

The awards night ran remarkably smoothly without the ostentatious razzle-dazzle associated with the national awards (AFI and IF). The welcoming address by FTI Chief Executive Graeme Sward was interrupted briefly when Sward removed his tuxedo jacket to reveal a second layer of clothing bearing the new Institute logo, launched that evening. This was no mean feat considering the sweltering temperature. The day’s 40+ degree heat and unusually high humidity no doubt dissuaded many from donning black tie or formal apparel. Yet as former WASA event director and current awards judge, Richard Sowada, said, “I thought the level of production was pretty good, pretty slick, and people are starting to embrace the sense of occasion. They made an effort, particularly the young people.”

However there is an undercurrent of dissent and some dissatisfaction within the film community over the judging criteria and rationale since it’s not always obvious why some films and filmmakers are eligible and others not. But the history of such ceremonies, as witnessed in the AFI Awards over the years, demonstrates competing interests from constituents, which frequently leads to changes in voting and awards criteria.

Local Australian Screen Directors Association (ASDA) head, academic and filmmaker Melanie Rodriga (Teesh & Trude), judged industry and early career sections. “There’s always been lively discussion and lively debate about the best format for the awards and how the awards are being judged.” But Rodriga recognises that competing voices will always lobby in their own interest.

As for perceptions that the WASAs are a strange, and perhaps incompatible mix of established and emerging talent, Cope is pragmatic. “It’s an evolving thing. We sent out a proposal to industry for comment and we’ve tried to respond.” One response to the client base was the inclusion of more documentaries in the screenings. “The industry understands…what we’re trying to do here and we’re trying to accommodate them,” says Cope. “There are 5 Outstanding Achievement Awards, so it’s not so competitive. We see the industry as working within a national context. The AFIs are the main awards for the WA industry. WASA is about encouraging early career filmmakers and showing their achievements.”

Regardless of any perceived shortcomings in the event’s identity or process, most seem to agree the unifying and celebratory focus of the WASAs is essential, particularly for an industry that’s so ephemeral. A case in point was filmmaker John Beaton’s recollection on receiving his Outstanding Contribution to the WA Screen Industry award. After his impressive CV was read, duly noting the odd jobs, gigs and teaching needed to sustain his career, Beaton echoed the industry advice he had heard many years ago. It’s important to prevail, despite the obstacles and adversity, to “just keep breathing…”

Given the record number of entries to this year’s WASA (160 including about 30 from established players), the pulse out west seems strong and vital.

16th WA Screen Awards, Fremantle Town Hall, Mar 8. Winners included: Early Career Genre Awards: Best Short Film, Francesca Strano, Jack; Best Documentary Production, Glen Stasiuk, The Forgotten; Best Animation/Mixed Media Production, The Davison Bros, Medusa; Best Experimental Production, Diana Ford, Edit; Early Career Craft Awards: Directing, Matty Limpus, Jack; Writing, Tim Maricic, John ‘Rocky’ Robinson—Roll With the Punches; Cinematography, Peter Finkle, Fixing a Hole; Sound Design, Christopher Trappe & Vincenzo Perrella, An Evening with Robert Valentine; Editing, Christopher Trappe, An Evening with Robert Valentine; Acting, Deanna Cooney, Men’s Room; Animation/Mixed Media, Timothy Merks, Mr Gough. Industry Awards: Outstanding Achievement Awards: Outstanding Television Series, Goolarri Media (Dot West & Joan Peters), The Mary G Show; Outstanding Screenplay, Vanessa Lomma, Teesh & Trude; Outstanding Editing, Frank Rijavec, A Million Acres a Year; Outstanding Cinematography, Torstein Dyrting, Gifted Thumbs, Alley Kat Productions; Outstanding Documentary Filmmaking, Alan Carter, The Accused. For a complete list of winners go to www.fti.asn.au

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 20,

© Mick Broderick; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003