Some of the local films Australians will see in cinemas this year willhave already been sampled by film festival audiences in Adelaide andMelbourne. Sandy George reports on Australia’s new trend of festivalsinvesting in film.
7 Apr 2009 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

The most anticipated films at the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF), held in February, were the five Australian features that the festival helped to finance. Some of the hype was generated by festival publicists but, in the end, it proved justifiable: mostly, these films turned out to be the most celebrated of the event.

Watch for them in cinemas soon. They are: the domestic drama My Year Without Sex (releasing May 28), writer/director Sarah Watt's follow-up to Look Both Ways; father-and-son story Last Ride (July 2); My Tehran for Sale (release date to come), Australia's first filmmaking venture with Iran, the extraordinarily moving indigenous story Samson and Delilah (May 7); and Lucky Country (June).

My Year Without Sex is a portrait of a middle-class Australian family with young kids, laced with both comedy and fear of the unreliable hold we all have on life. The truthfulness underpinning it was the talk of the party that followed its opening night outing; it seemed to remind everyone of just how much artifice there is in films, Hollywood blockbusters and independent films alike.

The strength of Last Ride was the complexity embedded in its two male lead characters, although anyone who has seen writer/director Glendyn Ivin's short film Cracker Bag would not be surprised at the assuredness of his first feature. The volatile father, played by Hugo Weaving, has spent a life-time running from his misdemeanours but is facing the enormity of knowing that, this time, he has gone too far. The son, played by 10-year-old newcomer Tom Russell, loves his father but also knows the dangers of associating with him – and the difference between right and wrong. With the cast and crew travelling 5,000 kilometres as they filmed, the diverse scenery is breathtaking, particularly that captured on South Australian salt lake, Lake Gairdner.

Writer/director Granaz Moussavi's My Tehran for Sale is not so much a story as a back story explaining why a young Iranian woman, who wants to live without the constrictions imposed on her in her country of birth, is in an Australian detention centre. It provides a peephole into the lives of many young people in Tehran and humanises an unseen group living in Australia. It is common for European and other international drama to tell stories on the big screen of people crossing borders in desperation but rare for Australia; this gives My Tehran for Sale a freshness and makes it a symbol of this industry's growing maturity.

Most audience members will be taken to a place they have never gone by Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah, which comes after two award-winning short films Green Bush and Nana. The audience hit of the Adelaide festival is a story of blossoming love between two teens in remote Australia, but also a story of survival.

Kriv Stenders' tense period drama Lucky Country, also tells of life in the harsh Australian land, but his characters are strangers to it and the film takes its cue from the Western genre. Alongside the other four films it looks competent rather than compelling but this says more about the other films than it.

Two years ago, when AFF director Katrina Sedgwick started scouting around for films that suited her investment criteria, she had expected the common thread to be “the sacred and the secular within society”. The themes that actually emerged, she says, were love and community: the individual's responsibility for community, the individual's ability to effect change, the individual's need for love.

“A lot of the films were about what it means to be a citizen in the world right now,” recalls Sedgwick, who also notes that this theme was present across the whole program. “There are big issues being faced now such as climate change and the global financial crisis and it is amazing how prescient many filmmakers have been.”

Sedgwick sees herself not so much as an investor, though, but as a curator, a term more closely associated with other visual arts than with film. She emphasises that the artistic strength of a project and the creative team's ability to deliver in time for the next festival are, overwhelmingly, her motivations for recommending a project to the AFF board for financial support.

“We are interested in the independent sector and the artist with something to say, we are not looking at the films in terms of commercial prospects or finding audiences.”

It is unusual for film festivals to get involved in the production of homegrown films. There are long-standing overseas festivals that invest in film – the Rotterdam Film Festival through its Hubert Bals Fund, for example, and the Berlin International Film Festival through the World Cinema Fund – but mostly they focus on the cinema of developing nations or the work of emerging filmmakers.

The biennial Adelaide Film Festival is a relative newcomer on the Australian festival calendar and investing in Australian films was always part of the grand plan, but it was a gutsy act: there was no local precedent and few in the world, and financing film is always a highly risky business. But, overall, the AFF's trailblazing is delivering great films and enormous buzz for the event, which insists that the films have their world premieres in Adelaide.

Look Both Ways
was the opening night film in 2005 at the second AFF staged, although delays experienced by Ten Canoes, the other feature that secured backing for that year, meant it was shown in the 2006 Adelaide Festival of Arts, which runs in alternate years.

Lucky Miles, The Home Song Stories, Boxing Day and Dr Plonk were those in the 2007 program. All were strong, fresh, interesting films, some of them astoundingly so.

The Melbourne International Film Festival has followed Adelaide's lead and is now involved in filmmaking too. This year's festival, which opens on July 24, will be the second to include films it has helped finance, although last year all were documentaries. Four features -- and one documentary, John Hughes' Indonesia Calling – will be in the program being Robert Connolly's political thriller Balibo, which explores the deaths of the Balibo Five during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, Blessed, Ana Kokkinos's story of mothers and children, Rachel Perkins' musical Bran Nue Dae, and first timer Sean Bryne's horror film The Loved Ones. Connolly (The Bank), Kokkinos (Head On) and Perkins (Radiance, One Night The Moon) are all experienced filmmakers.

In a few more years it will be easier to judge the extent to which local festivals will start to influence the content and style of the national slate. The only shoot entirely financed by the AFF was Stenders' Boxing Day, to the tune of $200,000. With Sedgwick never having put more than $300,000 into a film, most of which cost $1-$3 million, the AFF is a minor contributor. But it can also be significant as a trigger for other investors to get on board. In the case of My Tehran For Sale, Sedgwick actually encouraged Moussavi and local producing pair Kate Croser and Julie Ryan to team up together.

“The festival takes a lot of risks and a lot of the leading edge (Australian) work premieres there,” says Toronto International Film Festival programmer Jane Schoettle, one of a number of selectors from key festivals who attend the biennial event. If the AFF continues to cement its reputation for impeccable judgement it could become very influential indeed.

“Anything is good that breaks the monoculture of Hollywood, which we are all constantly fighting,” says John Maynard, the distributor of Samson and Delilah, My Year without Sex and Lucky Country. “They are constantly trying to put their imprint on the rest of the world but it is independent cinema that is the source of innovative ideas.”