Arguably one of the most important filmmakers to come out of this country, and certainly one of the most prolific, director Paul Cox (Man of Flowers 1983, Lonely Hearts 1981, My First Wife 1984, Innocence 2000) occupies a unique place in the Australian film landscape.

A Dutch native who relocated to Melbourne his early 20's in the 1960s, Cox went on to make more than 22 feature films over the next four decades, all highly personal and artistically ambitious. All outside the Hollywood model.

Featuring a who's who of Australian film and intellectual life of the past 30 years - including David Stratton, Phillip Adams, Chris Haywood and Gosia Dobrowski - Bradbury's tribute to the great director delves into Cox's outlook on filmmaking and life, particularly in the wake of his remarkable recent brush with cancer.

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The artist, in the kitchen, warts and all.

It must be the season for documentaries about crucial but underappreciated Australian artists and their tangling with mortality. In the wake of Autoluminescent, the story of former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, comes On Borrowed Time, David Bradbury’s neatly concise exploration of filmmaker Paul Cox’s art and outlook. Mapped to a loose timeline of 2010, a year where Cox was initially told his diagnosis of liver cancer was terminal and that subsequently seesawed from hope to surrender and back again as illness and the hopes of a transplant came to the fore, the documentary offers an affectionate portrayal of the Dutch-born writer and director.

Director David Bradbury is best known for his politically orientated documentaries, such as Chile: Hasta Cuando? And Nicaragua No Pasaran, and if he appears an odd match for Cox, the maker of highly personal and intimate independent dramas, Bradbury is quick to establish he’s working as a friend of Cox’s, one of many to rally around the filmmaker as he struggled with illness.

On the whole that friendship works for the film’s better. Bradbury has a sense of the complex man he’s trying to get across – dedicated and irascible, blunt in person yet in love with art’s poetic possibilities – and if he’s rightly gentle to a friend who may well be approaching the end of his life, it doesn’t mean he pulls his punches. Others can recount Cox’s emotional swings, such as veteran film critic and friend of Cox’s, David Stratton, who admits to experiencing a 'distressing call" with Cox after negatively reviewing his last feature, 2008’s Salvation.

The best thing about Bradbury’s movie is how he allows Cox’s own observations and commentary to intermingle with his own art; when Cox talks about the realisation that death is now a very tangible concept for him, it abuts the same troubling realisations experienced by Charles 'Bud" Tingwell’s Andreas in 2000’s Innocence. You also get a sense of how Cox’s obsessions inform his protagonists, a link that proved to be painful on 1984’s autobiographical My First Wife, where the subject was marital discord.

'Paul prefers disciples to collaborators," Phillip Adams points out, but those who’ve worked with Cox, whether it’s Chris Haywood or Jacqueline McKenzie, speak with obvious respect, even if they don’t always understand his methods; Aden Young says his arguments with Cox on the set of 1994’s Exile became physical, but 'it sort of sealed our friendship".

Perhaps that’s a different Cox, for the acceptance of death – something he came to terms with before a successful liver transplant at the beginning of this year – made him appreciate what he had. Reading out his own writings, he speaks of the 'strange desperation" in the eyes of his worried children, and calmly notes that he had no time for depression once he believed the end was looming.

An hour is far too little time to go into the merits of Cox’s work, especially given his prolific output throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, when like Woody Allen, he was making a movie a year (22 features and 11 documentaries is the suggested total). 'So sumptuous, so European, so un-Australian," suggests David Wenham’s narration, which is a good throwaway line, but not one that gets to grips with his hermetic creative world or the question of whether Cox was an auteur or a director living in the past.

Those lesser failings aside, On Borrowed Time is a timely reminder that Australia often leaves it too late to appreciate our own cinematic history. All that remains now, in what would be the most fitting celebration of Paul Cox’s life, is for the man himself to get back behind the camera.

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