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Some Pre-Cannes thoughts about where we are...

When all the announcements for Cannes, the Competition and Official Selection, The Quinzaine and Critics’ Week had been made I thought it may well represent another of those very low points for Australian feature film production. Not a single film had been selected for any of these selections. A solitary short film was the only entrant.  Things had gotten more than a little rickety. Or at least they seem ricketty for those trying to make, and those attempting to encourage, quality film-making. Over the first six months of the year only one new feature film, Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here had been selected for any official part of the various major film festivals. Otherwise,  New Australian films had been submitted to Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, and Cannes and come up blanks but for WYWH. The next opportunity, and it’s a far cry from those international competitions in the northern hemisphere would be at the Sydney Film Festival where, if Clare Stewart’s policies are continued, at least two Australian feature films will premiere and compete in the SFF’s competition. Another handful will get a screening somewhere in the program. But it was still not looking good.

After last year’s efforts when Sleeping Beauty, Toomelah and Snowtown all got official nods of some kind at Cannes, this year’s crop have failed to impress. Just a matter of luck perhaps or is there something flawed in what we make and who we select and back to make it. Some would seek solace in how we allow our good film-makers to head off to the United States. Two of those who have, Andrew Dominik (a New Zealander who may have just been passing through when he made Chopper)  and John Hillcoat, have US-made films in Cannes. Good luck to them. But still I have to ask myself how is it that we have heard nothing from AFI Award-winner Elissa Downe, director of The Black Balloon. She is, as I understand it, located in Los Angeles and ‘developing projects’ over there. So too is David Michod, director of another AFI winner Animal Kingdom.

Then out of the blue, a week after all the other announcements came the news that Wayne Blair’s debut feature The Sapphires had been put into ‘the Official Selection’. It had been awarded a midnight slot in the Palais. There, we were quickly reminded by the various entertainment journalists, it would follow in the footsteps of Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Talk about set the bar high but there you are.

Still Screen Australia’s Dr Ruth weighed in, probably with a sense of palpable relief, with a press release advising “There’s something very special about this film and there’s a huge amount of buzz about it already. I’d like to congratulate the filmmakers on this wonderful achievement.” She followed this with the note that twelve other Australian feature films will also be on show this year at Cannes, screening in the marketplace, presumably all of them offered to Cannes but not registering interest.

The director Wayne Blair is all over the news at the moment, at least for observant cinephiles. To add to his achievement in getting his debut movie into Cannes, he’s seen, in one of the more unlikely bits of casting, in Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here playing the middle-aged slightly dishevelled, tie a bit askew,  hair needing a trim and a comb, Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade bureaucrat. Not sure how many middle-aged blackfellas have reached such positions in DFAT but there you are.

Lest it be said, in the light of this modest official recognition at Cannes that Australian film producers and the people, including Government bureaucrats, have made conscious decision to steer away from quality towards populist success, there’s not much to show there either. With the exception of Red Dog and to a lesser extent Happy Feet 2 nothing we have made in recent times has struck a chord with audiences and had them rolling up in numbers. The Inside Film Chart which was updated after the first very successful week of Wish You Were Here, indicates that so far this year Australian feature films, including Happy Feet 2  which opened in the last week of 2011, have pulled in $16m+ at the box office. Those same films cost somewhere round $280 million to produce.

Investors and production facilitators have floundered around for much of the last couple of years. It appears that yet again those with the money are not backing the right horses, though in my view it’s not near enough quality horses. A few years ago now Bruce Hodsdon and I submitted a paper to one of the many reviews of Australian film production. (These occur with great regularity and are often done in concert with a downturn in our reputation for quality film-making. Expect another one to be announced shortly now that the so-called Convergence Review has been released and somewhat underwhelmed those who might be affected by it.) In that paper we argued that there needs to be a strong, forthright and full commitment on behalf of all funding and investment bodies to ensure that our best film-makers, those whose work has been internationally or locally recognized and rewarded, and our best writers, are working more fruitfully and more often. Needless to say such a view was treated with ignore at the time. But we warned the Kaiser.     

Instead it would appear that the measures in the tax system introduced after that review to provide significant cash rebates to investors have distorted things once again. The pursuit of a ‘film industry’ whereby achievements are measured in terms of dollar investment and jobs created seems to have diverted attention away from what should be the key reason why we make movies in this country, indeed in any country.

Posted 7th May 2012