In a frank interview, filmmaker Paul Cox talks about his fight against liver cancer.
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24 Mar 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2016 - 5:23 PM

**This article was first published in 2009 and is being recirculated in light of Paul Cox's death. Scroll down to watch two of Cox's films via SBS On Demand.** 

Paul Cox is in reflective mode. After 35 years of making feature films in this country he feels battle-weary, flat and disillusioned – at the moment. Philosophical is a permanent mode for him but the chemotherapy treatment he is currently undergoing for liver cancer is taking its toll on his ironic, buoyant spirit.

He had to miss his Q&A in Melbourne, his home town where he has an ardent fan base, for the March 22 screening of his latest film, Salvation, a satire of commercially exploitative new age evangelism and a love story between two very unlikely protagonists, the husband of a leading tele-evangelist and a good-hearted Russian prostitute.

Salvation reviews have been polarised, but Cox hasn't lost his pungent wit or resilience, attacking the humourless critics who 'don't get' the film's playful irreverence, which includes a delightful cameo of a fit-looking Barry Humphries as a massage client who asks about a seniors' discount prior to returning to his nursing home.”Where is their sense of humour, for Heaven's sake?” asks Cox.

Increasingly, the auteur who enjoyed cult status particularly with his early films in the late 80s with the acclaim of Lonely Hearts, Man of Flowers, and My First Wife and a revival with the acclaimed Innocence (2000), is feeling marginalised and misunderstood.

Watch 'Man of Flowers' below or at SBS On Demand

“Only one person has detected that his tele-evangelist Gloria (Hughes) has been sexually abused by her own father at some point,“ he explains. “I'm not condemning her: I think she has severe problems but quite obviously something has happened in her youth to explain her attitude to sex.”

For critics who object to the fusion of satire/parody and realistic seriousness, Cox responds: “Life is a mix of all things, surely – there aren't any borders between comedy and seriousness.”

Even pre illness, for some time now Cox has felt battered from the struggle of making films in what he feels has become a hostile climate for independent filmmakers like him. He's critical of the distribution and release of Australian films that are dwarfed in their marketing/publicity budgets by the Hollywood juggernaut, and even star-driven foreign movies. “By the time people find out the (Australian) film is running, it isn't. Our films are not eccentric films, for us they're realistic films. Why can't we use this wonderful medium to make a better world out of it?”

Cox has never minced his words but somehow illness has injected even more bravado. “I can make a splendid feature film for $500,000. I'm not ambitious but this is also about survival.”

Ultimately, he confesses the battles take their toll. “It finally catches up with you,” he reflects, citing the example of his pet project, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, the famous Russian ballet dancer.

“It took me 30 years before I got the chance to make that film and then I worked so hard on it that I went half-mad for a year. I couldn't get myself away from this cloud, it was really hard to escape and yet somehow I had to find my own bearings again,“ says Cox. How did he finally escape?” I went to the countryside in France – and cried a lot. But all that creation; it was really difficult to let go.” At its world premiere screening at the St Petersburg Film Festival Nijinsky received a euphoric reception.

Watch 'Human Touch' below or at SBS On Demand

One of Cox's locomotives has been the compelling desire to engage with art and culture, evident in the above film and Vincent (87), his documentary about Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh and the beautiful music scores, many operatic, subliminally underscoring his feature films.

”Why can't people see that throughout the history of man all that remains of man's endeavours is art – everything else disappears,“ he adds. “But in Australia at the moment we only appreciate the arts in retrospect: not in the present. It's totally pathetic at the moment.”

Many of Cox's films deal with the metaphysical and artistic, and have been more enthusiastically embraced in Europe and North America, particularly Toronto and New York, where (in 1992) the Lincoln Centre of Performing Arts honoured him with a major retrospective. “I can't judge any more but I think the current lack of cultural heritage here is appalling. It didn't used to be like this,” he adds.

Cox can't resist a volley directed at the lavish spending on sports events. “Look at the Grand Prix that's taken $43m from the city of Melbourne – it's hideous. People spin around in endless circles: it's pathetic to do that in the middle of the town. What is the cultural significance of this? “

Cox's mantra has always been “don't underestimate the public: people want to see something that touches them. In Reflections, his poetic autobiography he states: “I have always believed that people are basically starving to see a bit of humanity on the screen.” If he has a religion, it's humanism.

He's driven by compulsion to tell the stories of ordinary people who may fall under the radar, ordinary people with poignant stories like the awkward lovers in Lonely Hearts, an elderly female battling terminal cancer in A Woman's Tale, two septegenarians falling in love in Innocence or a priest looking after a leper colony in Molokai: The Story of Father Damian.
Equally strong is his rejection of sham, Hollywood superficiality, hypocrisy, or often exploitative evangelical zeal, the inspiration and butt of Salvation. “It's totally out of hand,” comments Cox.”

For the sake of various religions we've slaughtered billions of people through the centuries. And now we have situations where we clinically make up a new religion. All of us have metaphysical needs – and it's very easy to slot into that by people who say they've got the answer to everything. People are so desperate for metaphysical support that these manipulators take horrible advantage of that.”

Another film set in Ireland (where he can get funding) was on his slate but it may have to be put on hold – for now. Between chemo treatments, and honouring a few media commitments (to media he trusts) to Salvation, he has other priorities. “I'm slowly winding down till I can find the very core of my being: I'm almost there. When I come out of this 'cloud'…I'll give it a good fight…"

Increasingly, the Dutch-born Australian (who came here on an educational exchange and returned as a migrant in 1965) is turning his thoughts to Europe and Holland where he still has a country house. “I'm very home-sick now,“ Cox says simply. “I've always been homesick but I never knew where it was but now I know. I need to feel home soil under my feet, I need to stand in front of a Vincent Van Gogh, I need to walk through the forest. The heart of Europe, I suppose, is in my bones.”

In Salvation, the Russian prostitute, naturalistically and empathetically played by Natalia Novikova, forcibly separated from her young daughter, echoes the feelings of a deep, almost primal, longing for her country's soul. Is it deeper than nationality and borders?”Yes, it's belonging, belonging and belonging,“ echoes Cox.

It's not a simple issue: here he has been surrounded by deep love and respect from his daughter, Keira, and staunchly loyal group of collaborators – the close group of actors, composer Paul Grabowsky and other friends who protectively have stood by him for decades, appreciative of the inspiration he's brought into their lives.

A close source of support is America's top critic, Chicago Sun Times' Roger Ebert, syndicated in over 200 newspapers, a long-time Cox admirer and friend who on numerous occasions has invited his films (and those of several other Australians) to the Most Overlooked Films Festival that he runs each April.

For years they shared a similar cinematic sensibility and sense of humour. Now they both have enormous courage – and cancer. Cox tells me they e-mail almost daily. “We're a great support to one another,“ he says. “He's lost his speech but he writes more beautifully than ever. He's a great champion of meaningful films. That's what film needs: people who say what they really think and steer away from crap.”

Cox and Ebert are planning, hoping, for a reunion at this year's Cannes Film Festival, poignantly aware it may be their last. But if artistic tenacity, passion and courage count, their battles may continue for years to come…

Browse Paul Cox interviews and full-length films at SBS On Demand

Browse Paul Cox movie reviews at SBS Movies