Executive director Clare Stewart sees that there is a new kind of Australian film emerging into the market and a clutch of them have found their way into this year's Sydney Film Festival, the event's 56th.
Of the local features that Stewart has programmed, there is the Steve Jacobs-Anna Maria Montecelli's adaptation of JM Coetzee's bestselling novel Disgrace (set in South Africa); Andrew lancaster's Accidents Happen, which stars Geena Davis and is set in Connecticut, in the USA (but was filmed in Sydney); and Missing Water, the latest film from Khoa Do (Finished People) which deals with stories of the so-called Vietnamese 'boat-people', those refugees who bravely fled a war zone and undertook an arduous journey and finally settled in Australia.
“One of the things I feel really excited about is how internationalised these Australian films are,” Stewart says. “Disgrace for instance is absolutely an Australian production but it is also a South African film in many ways.” She says that Missing Water is like last year's Three Blind Mice, a low budget film, very under the radar. Khoa Do's film speaks to the current diplomatic and human crisis surrounding refugees: “But it does that in a very intimate and personal way.”
Stewart says that her selections add to a discussion that has preoccupied local filmmakers for nearly a decade: “There's a lot of debate at the moment in the industry about how to connect Australian films with audiences.” She says that the new Australian features in the program reflect new possibilities, both for filmmakers and the market.
There are three local features in the official competition this year: besides Disgrace and Missing Water there is the debut feature from Rachel Ward, Beautiful Kate, a drama centring on teen sexuality, starring Maeve Dermody, Rachel Griffiths, Ben Mendelsohn and Bryan Brown. These three will compete for the $60,000 prize money with entries, amongst others, from Ken Loach (whose Looking for Eric, opens the festival tonight), The Maid from Chile, directed by Sebastian Silva (a big winner at Sundance this year), and The Girlfriend Experience, from Steven Soderbergh, whose two part epic Che, is also screening at the festival, out of competition.
Stewart says that the real importance of the competition for the Australian pictures is it can really mean the difference for its journey into the market; she points to the success of Three Blind Mice since its debut at SFF competition last winter. “It's a great way to elevate Australian filmmaking into an international context both for local audiences and in terms of in the way that sale agents look at the films that are being made here.”
Still, for those Australian features not in competition, there's a lot of anticipation and excitement, she says. Alongside Accidents Happen, there is David Caesar's Prime Mover. Shot by Hugh Miller and produced by the director's long time friend and frequent collaborator Vincent Sheehan, Stewart suggests that the film, which stars Emily Barclay and Michael Dorman is both a return to the directors pre-occupations explored in Dirty Deeds and Mullet is also something of a departure. “It's much more of a romance than David has ever done before and it also has a visual playfulness that's very engaging.”
Cedar Boys, the debut from writer-producer-director Serhat Carradee is a part-romance, part-crime story set in the Western suburbs of Sydney in the Lebanese community. “It's terrific and it's already a sell out,” Stewart says.
The other major highlight for local filmmakers is the documentary prize, which offers a cash gift of $10,000 for the winning entry, the largest of its kind in the country. “One of the things I've observed over the years is that we've had a short documentary prize in the Dendy's (the festivals long running competition for short form filmmaking across all genres and categories) but the majority of the entries were industrial models,” she says. “That is, they were made for the TV half-hour or one hour programming slot and there were fewer films made with the short form in mind. It seemed obvious to me to create a competition for documentary of any length.”
The final line up includes features as well as a nine minute film called Cicada, about an eyewitness to an a murder made by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose Bastardy, already a prize winner at the Film Critics Circle Awards this year, is also in the competition.
“There's work that is very Australian like Bentley Dean's eighty minute feature Contact, about a woman who saw her first white people for the first time in 1964 and there are some very international films like Stolen and a couple of great films about photographers: Salt, from Michael Argus and Murray Fredericks and David Bradbury's My Asian Heart.
Stewart says that has already been a lot of talk about Safina Uberoi's A Good Man, which tells the story of an Australian farmer who plans – with his quadriplegic wife – to open a brothel.
One of Stewart's major programming changes this year is the decision to revamp the Dendy awards. Where interested punters could once sit through a daylong marathon of all entries, Stewart has changed the categories and the screening schedule. “The marathon screening model went untested and unchallenged for quite a while. It's no longer the way audiences engage with film.”
The Dendys are now Oscars-accredited and the film categories now reflect that: best live action short, best animation, etc. “All films for the Dendy prizes, valued at $19,000 screen in the Australian documentary competition program and for those people who like to run the marathon there will be a screening of all entries on the last day of the festival.”
Stewart says she hopes that this new strategy will open up the filmmakers to a new audience beyond the traditional enthusiasts and industry punters.