On the eve of the Toronto Film Festival, meet the woman responsible for helping local films crack the lucrative North American market.
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8 Sep 2009 - 5:23 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Australian cinema is represented by its largest slate ever at this year's Toronto Film Festival: 17 films will fly the flag in what's shaping up to be a vintage year of vibrancy and diversity. And the one person responsible for the record haul is the event's international programmer, Jane Schoettle.

Whereas Cannes and other festivals select by committee, Toronto's Schoettle is in a uniquely powerful position as artistic gatekeeper and sole selector, responsible for Australia and New Zealand, American independents and Israel. With the US indie scene currently in disarray, Schoettle has allocated more slots to Oz cinema this year, because she believes the industry is “sizzling”.

Her excitement has been fuelled by the vast range of genres and styles in this year's crop of films, by the diversity of voices represented and their original and contemporary edge.

“This slate of films represents a great break with tradition,” she says. “These movies subvert what the world has come to expect from Australian films. There are urban stories, films about Australians outside of their country (as in My Tehran For Sale), you have deep and richly textured family stories like Beautiful Kate and Blessed ; it's an extraordinary range of subject matter that grapples with a huge breadth of scenes and subjects. It's quite remarkable and Australians should be very, very proud.”

According to Schoettle, the slate represents the current momentum of Australian cinema, “but even beyond that it makes a statement: 'We're here, we have a deep and diverse pool of talent, and we're not going away'.”

Forget Hoges, Baz and Lara Bingle. When the Australian Tourism Commission seeks their next cultural ambassador, they should seriously consider Schoettle as a contender. At the very least, her passion for Oz cinema deserves an honorary citizenship.

Schoettle joined TIFF as selector/programmer in 2002, having previously founded the renowned Sprockets International Film Festival for Children, and developed several programs aimed at increasing cinema accessibility for the disenfranchised.

For the first five years of her TIFF tenure, she worked to a broad brief and looked at “virtually anything that came through our offices”. She quickly gained a reputation as discerning supporter of new talent when her selections – Hotel Rwanda (2004), Tsotsi (2005), and Bella (2006) – won the prestigious Cadillac People's Choice Award three years running

By then she wanted to specialise in specific territories, getting to know cultures in depth. Australia was at the top of her wish list. So when previous Oz selector/programmer, Noah Cowen, moved to another position, Schoettle says she lobbied for the Aussie gig.

“Interest in films starts someplace in your gut,” Schoettle explains. “You just feel drawn to certain things, and there are strong cultural similarities between our two countries. In both to some degree geography is destiny, we are part of the Commonwealth, we share similar aspects in our history as countries of very strong first nation cultures – the secondary European invasion has not always been dealt with in a positive and proper way. All of those things really spoke to me; I felt a kinship.”

Despite her admiration for Oz cinema's potential, her selection for her first year on the job was conservative; she programmed only four films, the lowest number in years. But her her visit to the bi-annual Adelaide Film Festival in February of this year marked a turning point. She was very impressed with a number of films and has continued to build on her early enthusiasm, viewing screeners of films completed since then.

The record number of films selected this year is impressive but there is more at stake here than cultural honours. Toronto is a major favourite festival for buyers, particularly to the lucrative and prestigious North American market, which has proved elusive for most Australian films in recent years.

And the main attraction for buyers here is the public.

Unlike Cannes, Berlin and Venice which predominantly attract 'the biz' – industry, filmmakers and international press – TIFF is one of the world's largest public festivals. It has no formalised market but functions as an ideal 'laboratory', a litmus test of audience reaction where they can observe (and test-run) the alchemy between the movie and the public. For instance , a number of US distributors and buyers have been circling Warwick Thornton's Cannes Camera D'Or winner, Samson and Delilah, ever since its Riviera outing but wanted to see (despite its Cannes and Australian standing ovations) how it runs with a non-industry, non-partisan audience.

Toronto is a favoured by industry and filmmakers due to its non-competitive atmosphere (the only major prize awarded is for the Discovery section for upcoming filmmakers); it also lacks the intense critical scrutiny of Cannes, which can be detrimental (even toxic) for a film's prospects. Yet despite TIFF'S the huge program of over 300 films, buzz movies still have the opportunity to shine with the 1,000 predominantly North American press corps and 3,000 industry registered industry participants.

“I think what's key this year when someone looks at this extraordinary slate of films that we're presenting, is the fantastic combination of new films by established filmmakers and new films from emerging filmmakers. That's the exciting thing to me. Because what that says is we have a continuum happening here; it's not an anomaly, it's not a one pop thing,” Schoettle observes.

“When you have the breadth of talent that Australia has and you are able to produce this combination, it's very exciting because it's the merging of the past, present, and future. It's a convergence and I really do believe that we are just going to have to make more room for Australian films in the future – not just at our event but all over the world.

One of the areas she finds particularly invigorating is the high level of participation by female directors and producers – in this year's selection close to 50 percent. among them Jane Campion's Bright Star, Sarah Watts' My Year Without Sex, Ana Kokkinos' Blessed, Rachel Perkins' Bran Nue Dae, and impressive feature debuts from Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate) and first time director/producer Granaz Moussavi (My Tehran for Sale).“It's so disproportionate (per capita) compared to the rest of the world. It's incredibly rare,” says Schoettle.

The rest of Australian selection presents a much less introverted Australia, with Bruce Bersford's Mao's Last Dancer and Robert Connolly's Timor-set political drama, Balibo. Oscar nominee (Shine) Scott Hicks' The Boys Are Back, and Cannes Short Film Palme D'Or winner Glendyn Ivin's debut, Last Ride, tackle male-oriented family dramas.

In the weeks leading up to the festival Schoettle says she has already seen positive feedback about the Australian selections, at advance patron/long-time subscriber and supporter functions. “I'm telling you I'd be doing well if I had a dollar for every person who came up to me and said 'Wow, what's with all these Australian films? Why are there so many this year?'. There's a huge amount of interest on the part of the public.

“I'm very, very optimistic about the international response to all of these films,” Schoettle adds enthusiastically. “I'm really am very excited to see how this plays out.”