An inaugural festival in Sydney is devoted to boosting the profile of Australian films.
24 Feb 2010 - 5:46 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 2:30 PM

As festival director of the inaugural Australian Film Festival (AFF), Barry Watterson understands his role is to represent both the unsung creatives of this territory, as well as the audience who wants to support them.

“There are many great Australian films that don't get the screen time they deserve. They often don't get to the cinemas at all, or if they do, it's a run for a few nights and they disappear,” bemoans Watterson, on the eve of the launch of the festival's first screenings. “(And) Australians do not have the easy access to Australian films that they once did. The festival is a great place to assist in building long term audiences for Australian film by exposing films to new audiences.”

The program, which launches with the Popcorn Taxi event-screening of George Miller's Mad Max (1979), provides an insight into just how many Australian films fly under the public's radar, both during production and because of the lacklustre distribution machine. Watterson envisages a time when The AFF will have altered the landscape in which local product must exist. “We plan to have The AFF become a centralised platform for the screening and development of Australian film content,” he says, promising that he is ready for the challenge even if that means altering the landscape altogether. “We want to encourage filmmakers to adopt new filmmaking techniques and to make films with a broader idea of where their content can go. 'Film' is not only features, but shorts, webisodes, mobidocs, television, gaming and much more.”

The festival director, who got a taste for the role when programming the Australian Film Week at last year's Coogee Arts Festival, is proud of the broad range of films on offer for patrons.

“It wouldn't be an Australian Film Festival without genre films!” laughs Watterson.

“We have a long history of genre (films) - it fits with our inherent sideways take on the world - and we love nothing more than having fun at the flicks.” Highlights of this year's festival include Kelly Dolen's Gates of Hell, Kate Glover's Schooner of Blood, Jennifer Ussi's Girl Clock and Andrew Miles' Fragment.

Watterson is quick point out that The AFF is presenting a great deal more outside of the feature film program. A wide selection of Australian shorts will be screened (“Short films are a tailor-made medium for comedy, but what we've seen lately is the intense personal drama.”); seminars and workshops on such disciplines as writing and financing low-budget works; and a full-day community event, The Spot Food & Film Festival, embracing the beachside culture of its Eastern suburb locale and the population's enthusiasm for the film arts.

Of special pleasure to Barry Watterson are the retrospective screenings, primarily for the role they play in broadening the experience of festival going. In addition to Mad Max, The AFF will screen Rolf de Heer's Bad Boy Bubby (1993) and George Miller's family classic, Happy Feet (2006). “We deliberately chose films that Australian audiences could identify with, and turned them into events, to create a true 'festival' feel,” he enthuses, citing the open-air screening of Happy Feet on Clovelly Beach as indicative of the celebratory feel of the AFF. “We hope that by screening these films and having the filmmakers talk to the audiences, (The AFF) will connect with modern audiences.”

For the more adventurous festival attendee, Watterson programmed a collection of shorts from the 50s and 60s tagged 'Mental Hygiene' – films primarily made to warn the public of the many 'dangers' of modern living. He openly admits these films weren't his cup of tea, and was thrilled to have had the assistance of Sydney's underground film experts at Mu-meson Archives to prepare this freakish selection of 'scare cinema'. Watterson recalls with a wry smile, “Yeah, they are immersed in the unusual, genre films so we left it to them to organise those nights.”

But it is Watterson and his organisational team's dedication to our national film culture that ultimately drives the event and earns them bragging rights as the only film festival to wear the nation's name. “The AFF screens films,” says Watterson, “but we back that up by also providing the early word of mouth necessary to extend the life of Australian films and develop audiences for them.”