The local up-and-coming festival gets set to kick off another year.
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23 May 2011 - 3:15 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Allanah Zitserman has often spruiked the similarities between a certain film festival in the south of France and her decidedly more rural gathering, the Dungog Film Festival. Who'll ever forget the all-Australian event's inspired tagline from years gone by: 'Done Sundance, done Cannes, Dungog'.

The distance between the two grew a little closer this year when Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty premiered at the Palais Des Festivals last week. “We had it as a script reading,” boasts Zitserman.“It was one of the 'In the Raw' works in 2008. We were very proud of it being selected, though it is a strange film. It was strange from the (early) script stage.”

In The Raw has proven to be one of the most popular strands of the annual programme, which launches into its fifth edition on May 26. Zitserman and her co-founder, event CEO Stavros Kazantzidis, recognised that the sessions – in which highly-skilled actors vocalise early drafts of a screenplay – were the best way to promote the festival beyond its picturesque Hunter region locale. Another key initiative in securing wider recognition for the event is the Student Film Project, a statewide secondary school short film contest.

Brand growth is crucial for the event as it has had to cope with NSW Mining, the major sponsor partner since the festival's inception, shifting its status to a supporting 'strategic partner' role. (Vid-rental outfit Oovie have stepped up to major sponsor duties.) “Having a presenting sponsor for an event this size is an incredibly important partner,” says Zitserman. “There's no doubt we were really sad to see NSW Mining no longer able to sit in that position, but we were happy that they were able to come back and play a part and be quite a significant partner.”

Befitting the glass-half full outlook for which Zitserman is well known, the change in sponsor also meant a fresh set of positives for the festival. “It has been harder on us not having that support but it also challenges you to think of new ways to organise and engineer the festival. It makes you value where your strengths lie and where you should put your effort.”

The Dungog Film Festival is first-and-foremost a celebration of Australian screen culture and the schedule reflects the vastness of the local talent pool. Opening Night honours went to Jim Loach's highly-anticipated Oranges and Sunshine (pictured), starring Hugo Weaving, Emily Watson and David Wenham; preceding the film will be the Oscar-winning short The Lost Thing, accompanied by a live performance by composer Michael Yezerski. World Premieres include debut works such as Winston Furlong's Taj, a particularly unique and gritty look at life amongst the local Indian community; Nick McGee's Frank & Jerry, a coarse but lovable blend of bromance and film industry satire; and Paul O. Gardner's unhinged romantic comedy, Up the Aisle. Making its NSW Premiere is Mario Andreacchio's soaring fantasy epic, The Dragon Pearl (Australia's first treaty movie co-production with China); and continuing their ongoing festival run are Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen's Little Sparrows and Amanda Jane's The Wedding Party (billed as a 'Director's Cut', no doubt following the mixed response it received after debuting at MIFF last year).

In addition to a large range of documentaries (including attendee Robert Connolly's Mrs Carey's Concert and Nicholas Hansen's volatile Breaking The News) and shorts (“We received a record number of short film submissions this year”), Zitserman cites the festival's multimedia and education strands as evidence of the all-encompassing commitment her team have towards Australian screen culture. Locals, tourists and industry players can bone up on: the digital realm (The Project Factory's Guy Gadney hosts 'Digital Media: Thief or Saviour?'); post-production skills (Getty Images' Jane King talks stock footage and music licensing in her 'Listen Learn See' workshop); the wisdom of some of the industry's most experienced practitioners (panelling iTunes 'Meet The Filmmaker' events); and the pitching of spec ideas – SPAA Fringe have corralled writer/actor Matt Okine, journalist Sandy George and SPAA's own Deb McBride into presenting two sessions on the art of the script sale.

For Zitserman, the crowning moment of the festival will be her Masterclass sessions. Composers Lisa Gerrard (Heat; Whale Rider; Gladiator) and Michael Yezerski (The Black Balloon; The Waiting City) will speak onstage about their bodies of work. And accompanying retrospective screenings of his iconic films The Club, The Man from Snowy River and an NFSA-restored print of Gallipoli, writer David Williamson will speak at length about one of the most fascinating careers in the history of our cinema. “I have been trying to get David to come since year one,” says the excited Zisterman. “He and his wife and his kids will all be coming up and staying the weekend. We are all so thrilled. It doesn't get better than David Williamson.”

Dire box office for Australian films should cause Allanah Zitserman countless sleepless nights, given her festival is wholly geared towards Aussie screen content. But, she states assuredly, it doesn't. “It was tough from the get-go,” she says. “[We set out] trying to achieve a connection between Australian films and Australian filmmakers, to educate the audiences about the talent that we have in this country and the diversity of what we can create. Our storytelling style is always going to be different [from other countries]; we've got our own stories to tell and I think that is what Dungog is all about.”

For more information on the 2011 program visit the Dungog Film Festival website.