French cinephiles are getting the scoop on the best new Australian releases this week, at an annual festival dedicated to celebrating antipodean cinema.
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14 Oct 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

St Tropez is the summer rage with the international celebrity jet set but by the middle of October it sheds its (odiously) glitzy image. Without a G-string, fake tan or silicone breast in sight, nature reclaims this beautiful spot as a different invasion takes over the resort village central square. For one week each autumn French cinephiles as well as Australian and Kiwi ex-pats mingle with occasional tourists at their annual pilgrimage: the Festival des Antipodes.

This low-key unique event offers audiences free screenings (yes, free!), the opportunity to rub shoulders with internationally acclaimed stars like this year's jury president, Without a Trace and Balibo star, Anthony La Paglia, and acclaimed 'down-under' directors such as Ivan Sen and Jane Campion, whose latest film, Bright Star, screens at the festival well in advance of its Australian and French public releases.

For that one week the famous resort transforms into a mecca of cultural cross-fertilisation as the quaint local cinema and nearby restaurants and cafes, operating at off-season prices, become the hub of activity.

“I never know what the audience demographic is going to be,“ says event's founder and festival president, Bernard Bories, whose brain child is celebrating its 11th year. “It started out with just local movie-lovers, now some ex-pats and Parisian audiences attend it as a regular event. It changes according to the program but our goal is to build different audiences.”

Over the past decade the event has grown from strength to strength. It marks the culmination of Bories' passion for Australian and later New Zealand cinema, ignited in 1977 when the (then) impressionable 17 year old cinephile saw his first Australian film, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock – and was hooked.

Iniitally he was mesmerised by the poster : “the image of those beautiful girls in period costume was so haunting and mysterious, “ recalls Bories. “It really had a powerful hold on me.” The movie itself lived up to the promise, leaving an indelible impression.

“It was a magical film – visually so stunning and yet complex, ambiguous and so strong. It was the first Australian film I ever saw about a country which was totally unfamiliar. But it was a discovery which completely changed my life,“ he says.

He obsessively sought out other Peter Weir and Australian films.“ I was really lucky because it was a very exciting time during the industry's renaissance in the 1970s and 80s when there was a bunch of really strong films - by directors like Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, Phil Noyce and others”, according to Bories who have since visited his festival as luminaries but were then relative novices.

The Oz-film obsession became a significant distraction during his university medicine studies, later prompting him to switch to post-graduate biological sciences. When that didn't result in a job, Bories took a course in data processing leading to a career at IBM, which has partly financed his Oz cinema interests.

Subsequent retrospectives in Paris, particularly the 1988 Bicentennial showcase, fuelled his passion. Not content to be a mere fan, Bories wanted to share his passion with others. When he heard from members of a French- Australian association of the existence of a defunct movie club, Bories revived it in 1989, organising screenings at the Australian Embassy theatrette in Paris (now audiences include French industry professionals). Film festival screenings in other French urban or regional centres followed.

Still driven to expand his repertoire, he decided to move his screenings to larger arena – why not the Cannes Film festival? Through tireless efforts in 1995 he established Cinema des Antipodes, a non profit association, dedicated to organising official market screenings and director forums of short films by students from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, during the prestigious event. He became a one-man promotional machine for Australia's upcoming talents.

Impressively, the Cannes event became a regular annual side-bar program. More recently it has expanded to include features, and become a regular part of Cannes Cinephile, one of four sections (along with Cannes Juniors), which is organised by the local municipality of Cannes, in partnership with the official Cannes Film Festival to re-screen films for public and schools.

Bories' next progression was the launch of the Festival des Antipodes, solely dedicated to showing Australian and New Zealand films in France. Whilst searching for an appropriate location to stage the event (originally he toyed with Antibes), Bories was tipped off that the mayor of St Tropez was looking for a cinema or television cultural event for his resort, ideally off-season.

“It was perfect timing because I came with a ready concept/project which appealed to the mayor, “says Bories. “His response was 'Okay, that's an interesting idea. I trust you – you can go ahead'.”

The inaugural Festival des Antipodes was programmed as a trial three day event in 1999. Attended by Fred Schepisi, David Wenham, Nadia Tass, and Jane Campion with their films, the event was an immense success. Subsequently, it was green-lit to become a week-long program with juries comprising of French, Australian and Kiwi luminaries.

This year it launches a new strand – the documentary section showcasing 12 films headed by a tribute to award winning Australian film-maker Ian Darling, screening his three very diverse films – Alone Across Australia, In the Company of Actors (about the making of Cate Blanchett's Hedda Gabler), and 2008 AFI Best doco winner The Oasis.

From the outset Bories sought the involvement of local schools. This year the introduction of a short film program will be judged by a jury of 100 local 14 -17 year old high school students. Animation such as this year Yoram Gross' Magic Pudding target younger children, with post screening school activities scheduled.

The feature competition showcases recent Australian and New Zealand films, which this year includes Cannes Camera D'Or winner, Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah, Kriv Stenders Lucky Country.

Following custom of screening a work of the jury president, the festival is showing Lantana, very successful at its French release, starring La Paglia as part of its outstanding ensemble, whose highly acclaimed performance in Robert Connelly's Balibo is likely to be a competition contender next year.

Ivan Sen's (Beneath Clouds) long-awaited second feature, Dreamland, will be unveiled in the non-competitive Feature section along with Jane Campion's Bright Star well ahead of its European and Australian releases.

Another addition this year is the New Zealand Script award, with the three finalist screenplays judged by a four member French industry panel, to be reciprocated at the Wellington Film festival in February where Kiwi experts will assess three French finalists. With sponsorship, Bories hopes to extend this to an Australian screenplay award in the near future.

Considering he is unpaid for his services, Bories' long term drive and commitment to antipodean cinema is remarkable. Each year he buys his own airline ticket, spending his total annual holiday time at screenings in Australia particularly at Melbourne and Brisbane film festivals to select films for his programs. He takes off extra time from his IT job to plan and organise the events. In these financially challenging times airline sponsors are scarce yet he continues his program expansion.