Given the spotty track record of Australian films, artistically and commercially, over the past 10 years, organisers of the 61st edition of the Melbourne International Film Festival are showing remarkable faith in Oz cinema.
The festival will be bookended by home-grown comedies with Wayne Blair's Cannes fest hit The Sapphires as the previously announced opening attraction and the world premiere of P.J. Hogan's Mental as the closer.
Also flying the Oz flag will be the world premiere of Save Your Legs!, director Boyd Hicklin's debut feature which follows a suburban Melbourne cricket team as they pitch their luck in India.
Could all this herald a resurgence of Australian comedies, a notoriously hit-and-miss business which in the past 18 months has seen one big hit (Red Dog), a modest success (A Few Best Men) and duds including Any Questions for Ben?, Iron Sky, Big Mamma's Boy and Griff the Invisible?
Well, The Sapphires, the 1960s-set saga of four young singers from a remote Aboriginal mission who were branded as Australia's answer to The Supremes, adapted from the stage musical, looms as a crowd pleaser after being critically praised in Cannes and being acquired for multiple territories by those shrewd judges Harvey and Bob Weinstein; it opens in Oz via Hopscotch on August 16.
Mental boasts a formidable array of talent, with writer-director Hogan reuniting with his Muriel's Wedding discovery Toni Collette. She plays a hitchhiker who is hired as a nanny by a philandering politician (Anthony LaPaglia) to care for his five teenage daughters after his wife (Rebecca Gibney) suffers a nervous breakdown. Universal has pegged an October 4 release.
Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, Save Your Legs! (pictured, right) stars Stephen Curry, Damon Gameau and Brendan Cowell, who also wrote the screenplay. Australian distributor Madman Entertainment is looking at a January 2013 release.
Also slotted in the Australian Showcase is the world premiere of Jack Irish – Bad Debts, the first film in the ABC TV series based on Peter Temple's novel Bad Debts, starring Guy Pearce as the eponymous debt collector. The local line-up also includes Luke Walker's Lasseter's Bones, which follows the folk hero behind the legend of Lasseter's Reef; Amiel Courtin-Wilson's haunting love story Hail; and the previously announced 100 Bloody Acres, a comedy-horror film from first-time directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes.
Among the Oz documentaries to be unveiled are The First Fagin, a MIFF Premiere Fund-supported account of the infamous convict Ikey Solomon, rumoured to be the inspiration behind the villainous character in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist; and a pair from Blackfella Films, Coniston, which tells of the last-known massacre of Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory in 1928, and Croker Island Exodus, set in the outback during WWII.
Further afield, TeleScope: Visions from the EU will showcase 12 films that celebrate European filmmaking and will compete for the TeleScope Award, judged by the Film Critics Circle of Australia. The contenders include L, the story of Man as he struggles to find answers in a world where nothing is certain, from first-time director and festival guest Babis Makridis, one of the leading lights of Greek absurdist cinema; Davide Manuli's The Legend of Kaspar Hauser, a surreal, post-Apocalyptic film starring Vincent Gallo; Shock Head Soul, fest guest Simon Pummell's interpretation of mental illness; and the 2012 Berlinale Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear award winner Just The Wind, which traces the racially motivated violence in a Romany village, from Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf, who will also attend.
A new sidebar, Through The Labyrinth: Latin American Cinema, will feature such offerings as Argentine director Celina Murga's documentary Normal School; Santiago Mitre's The Student, a coming-of-age story set in a Buenos Aires university; the 2012 winner of the Sundance fest World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury prize, Violeta Went To Heaven (pictured, above right), a portrait of famed Chilean singer and folklorist Violeta Parra; and Miss Bala, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival.
Facing North: Swedish Cinema in Focus will highlight Swedish classics from various eras including fest attendees Axel Petersén, the director of Dogme-influenced Avalon, about the decline of a middle-aged party-boy; Fredrik Gertten, who traces the repercussions of making his corporate expose BANANAS!* (which screened at MIFF in 2010) in Big Boys Gone Bananas!*; and Malik Bendjelloul, director of the doco Searching for Sugar Man, about two South Africans who went in search of the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller Rodriguez.
The works of Albert Brooks, Carl Reiner, Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen when they changed the shape of comedy in the '70s will be examined in New Hollywood Comedy, showcasing classics such as Harold and Maude and lesser-seen films including Modern Romance and Where's Poppa?
The eclectic Accent on Asia section spans Gangster: Rules of the Time (pictured, left), a Korean movie that pays tribute to classic American gangster films; The Blindfold, the harrowing story of three young Indonesians lured into Islamic fundamentalism; and Postcards from the Zoo, a tale of longing set in Jakarta's zoo.
Saluting two French auteurs, Jean Epstein: Bonjour Cinema spotlights the works of the French Impressionist filmmaker while Leos Carax: The Last Romantic focuses on the director of Holy Motors and earlier films such as Boy Meets Girl, Lovers on the Bridge and Pola X.
Among the highlights of the Documentaries program are Pink Ribbons, Inc., which looks at the corporatisation of the breast cancer industry; Crazy Horse, a behind-the-scenes expose of the famous nude dance revue; How to Survive a Plague, telling of the activists who helped turned AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable condition in the 1980s; Florian Habicht's Love Story, a not always-fictional love story set on the streets of New York; and Maori Boy Genius, the saga of a 13-year-old boy who's being groomed as New Zealand's
future Prime Minister.
The festival runs from August 2-19. For more information visit www.miff.com.au.