Why do we fund Australian films but not the cinemas to screen them in? Guardian Au

Guardian Australia, March 2016

In the world of contemporary art, policymakers use our taxes to fund galleries and museums. In the world of theatre, we build new spaces and new stages. In the world of music, we fund broadcasters (imagine the Australian music scene without Triple J, or the network of small community stations whose mandate is to play local and emerging artists).

So why in the film world do we predominantly fund films but not the spaces to screen them in? Why isn’t Australia’s film policy angled more towards distribution, access and experience?

Independent, single-screen and arthouse cinemas have been closing shop for years, after all. Figures from Screen Australia in 2015 show the number of independent theatres tapered off from 350 to 304 over the preceding decade. And these figures come after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) described the cinema distribution market all the way back in 1998 as an “oligopoly”, with pre-existing arrangements that privilege Hollywood films and make it harder than ever for local titlesto secure screening opportunities. Outside of a small number of film festivals which receive partial public funding, it’s not a battle Australia’s film industry seems willing to fight.

Globally, it’s a different story: there are many state funding agencies which have distribution, access and exhibition structures as a central part of their cultural policy. The United Kingdom funds equipment, film hiring fees and publicity for regional film clubs. Canada has its own free video-on-demand platform that automatically includes all government-funded films. Norway has a century-long history of publicly funded municipal cinemas. France collects roughly $1 per ticket for reallocation to the local film industry, funds that don’t just go towards producing new films, but also to smaller arthouse exhibitors showing a recommended list of domestic films of cultural importance – be they classic, historical or experimental art films – that would otherwise struggle to find a space to screen.

All these approaches have institutionalised local film cultures that are alternative to Hollywood. They’ve ensured that local films have a place to find an audience. And they make Australia’s approach of primarily funding film production look way out of step.

Imagine the kind of film culture that could flourish with an ongoing, decentralised network of film experiences: publicly supported weekly film nights in existing theatres, regional film clubs, backyard cinemas, pop-ups in unusual spaces, and temporary events in empty theatres such as Harbour City Cinema in Sydney’s Chinatown. Some Australian film-makers have even built their own pop-up cinemas to screen their films and proved the hunger is there.

With more government support, national networking and a mandate to reserve some minimum screen time for Australian titles, these spaces could program small, smart, sexy, important, classic and retrospective films that don’t get a look-in at either multiplexes or arthouse theatres. Different kinds of films would reach different kinds of audiences, many of which are currently underserved and local films would have spaces to screen in beyond the film festival circuit.

The concept of publicly funded – or at least supported – cinemas isn’t as out-there as it may seem. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Acmi) is a state-sponsored space that has served alternative film cultures in Melbourne for decades, presenting talks and workshops alongside their film and exhibition program, which includes new local titles from emerging talent like Platon Theodoris’s Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites. Debates have been swirling for years about the need for a similar cinematheque in Sydney. The city would benefit from one, as would other state and territory capitals, but there’s even more potential, beyond big Acmi-style institutions, to create independent screening spaces that continue the work and feel of film festivals year-round.

Australia is sprinkled with small commercial cinemas that offer a sense of the richer local film culture that a cinema- and distribution-centred film policy could foster. We’ve all got our favourites. When I lived in Katoomba, in regional NSW, there was only one option for seeing interesting films that didn’t involve travelling two hours to Sydney. Mount Vic Flicks is a tiny cinema deep in the Blue Mountains. You buy a ticket from the elderly couple who have run it since forever, cross the timber floorboards and take a seat in the old converted hall. The candy bar is not your usual fluoro minimart, but a little hole in the wall with plates of homemade slices and biscuits. On a Saturday I would sometimes make a day of it, watching whichever two consecutive movies were playing for $18 (cup of tea included).

Mount Vic Flicks is sweet; the kind of place you’re likely to strike up a conversation with whoever’s sitting next to you. The cinema is run as a business, but it has a community feel far removed from the monolithic city multiplexes, with their Big Mac stench seeping through the shopping mall walls. This month they showed Australian director Sue Brooks’s Looking For Grace weeks after it had stopped screening in Sydney. Having spaces to screen independent films has been identified by industry analysts as especially important for local independent films to reach audiences and recoup production costs. And I saw all kinds of stuff at Mount Vic Flicks. Their films ran the gamut from brilliant to ordinary, but I was always glad that someone cared enough to make an inviting space to show them.

This alternative vision of film culture and policy in Australia is all the more important given both state and federal efforts to reshape the Australian film industry as a Hollywood backlot. The question is, is that the kind of film world we really want in Australia? The alternative is so much more vibrant and so much more in tune with the democratic aims of cultural policy. What’s more, it is actually possible.

There are all kinds of ways to support local films and ways to structure film industries. So why stop at funding films?


Sydney Film Festival 2015 reviews, Junkee.com

Junkee.com, June 2015

Haemoo, dir. Sung Bo Shim

Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Park Yoochun

This was the criminally overlooked film of the festival. Co-written and produced by Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-Ho, Haemoo (translated as “sea fog”) is one of those perfect films of its thriller genre, in the same way that Ex Machina was a perfect sci-fi. It’s based on a true story — a fisherman has had a poor haul, is left in financially dire straits, and, like many Coen Brothers anti-hero everymen, makes one really bad decision to get involved in crime: to illegally transport a boat-load of Korean-Chinese asylum seekers. A hectic storm descends, and everything gets insane.

Low in budget and high in concept, Haemoo has all the perfect ingredients for an action film: a contained space (a rickety boat) and a contained time period. As a cinematic experience, the whole thing is so tense and so stressful, but miraculously, the film didn’t numb me like a lot of independent films do. Every frame is like a painting, and beneath the taut action surface there’s a whole lot going on, in terms of the big political ideas of today and the more existential questions of what people will do when pushed to their brink.

A film this good should really have been in the official competition; it’s snub is a testament to festivals’ often arthouse snobbery. Haemoo demonstrates the amazing creative and intellectual possibilities of the action genre, and at a time when the Hollywood majors have essentially stopped making action films with actual humans in them in place of superhero/comic-book madness, that’s really something.

For fans of: Snowpiercer, hecticness, 1990s low-CGI action films, adrenaline, four flat whites in the morning.

Gayby Baby, dir. Maya Newell

With her largely crowd-funded debut film, Sydney’s Maya Newell has shown how intrinsically political documentaries can go beyond the polemical and straight to the heart. Where so many docos feel televisual rather than cinematic — like video versions of something you’d read in the weekend paper — Gayby Baby uses an observational style to go into the minds of four kids whose parents are gay. Opponents of marriage equality often use children to rationalise their prejudiced arguments against social change; Gayby Baby lets the children of queer parents speak for themselves, a storytelling technique that effectively short-circuits the hypocrisy of ‘pro-family values’ right-wingers.

Gayby Baby’s massive achievement is that it cuts through rhetoric by personalising the otherwise distantly political. Twelve-year-old Ebony’s confession says it all: “It’s not normal. You’re not normal. They’re the kinds of things that go through my head.” The film reveals marriage equality not as an issue for gay people, but an issue for everyone, and its denial an affront not just to queers but to anyone who loathes bigotry. Denying their parents the right to marry makes “gayby babies” feel smaller — it delegitimises their families, and their very existence. But beyond the marriage issue, there’s something more universal going on here that we can probably all relate to: a child’s terror at seeing their parents in pain for the first time.

Similar to last year’s Rich Hill, an American doco that dignified the lives of three poor children struggling to get by in the world’s wealthiest country, Gayby Baby is an uncommonly aesthetically lovely documentary, as well as being funny and sweet. Like the lives of its child protagonists, the film is bright and alive with a saturated colour palette, and close-shot to offer a sense of real familial intimacy. Because of this careful attention to cinematic beauty, Gayby is destined to succeed as a social conscience film of this very moment in political time, and as a strong contemporary piece of documentary filmmaking in and of itself.

For fans of: Social justice, artful docos, conversations with children who have massive emotional intelligence quotients.

Slow West, dir. John McClean

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit McPhee, Caren Pistorious, Ben Mendelsohn

The Western genre has undergone another revolution, and a killer one at that. Where the genre was once about conquest and civilisation, Slow West is a picture of loneliness and futility: it hijacks the Western genre to destroy its myths. It’s also a love story that’s as marred as those old Western fantasies: an innocent teen (Kodi Smit McPhee) is chaperoned by a shifty outlaw (Michael Fassbender) as he seeks his lost love (Caren Pistorious) in a vicious new continent.

Cinema has too often depicted a rather shrunken view of history that begins with colonialism, but writer-director John McClean shows that the Western can be an ideal genre in which to understand the eviction of North America’s Aboriginal peoples. The New World was not so new, and a cast of secondary characters give fascinating glimpses of a nation-in-making: a European anthropologist lamenting Indigenous extermination; a pastor who’s not beyond a bit of bounty-hunting; and naturally Ben Mendelsohn shows up as an endearingly menacing sociopath. But this is not a white man’s film. There are some fierce Indigenous and female characters who are neither inherently tragic or awaiting rescue; rather, they’re instrumental in the narrative development and resolution.

Slow West continues the Western’s visual convention of wide cinematography — it’s a landscape film — and extends it with chopped extreme close-ups during the shoot-em-up action scenes. It’s amazing how suspense can be sustained with slow editing and a bare, orchestral score by Australia’s Jed Kurzel, and how funny a serious film can be.

It’s slow to start and not as stunning as other neo-Westerns, like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (by Chopper director Andrew Dominik), the proto-feminist Meek’s Cutoff (by Kelly Reichardt), or Terrence Malick’s devastating take on North American invasion, The New World, from the real Pocahontas’ viewpoint. But Slow West utilises a massive arsenal of cinematic techniques shunned by most commercial filmmakers, and shows that an arthouse film can hold both tension and big ideas at once.

For fans of: Unusual action films, extreme Michael Fassbender sexiness, the untamed wild, the destruction of the American dream, general myth-busting.

The Look of Silence, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

American director Joshua Oppenheimer’s last film, The Act of Killing, brought documentary filmmaking back to its core question: beyond mere education, can documentaries change the world? His innovation was two-fold: in theme, he brought a new subject to light (what impact did the 1965 Indonesian genocide have on the psyches’ of its perpetrators, and why weren’t they brought to justice?); and in genre-bending, he melded documentary with unreal fictional sequences that gave form to the war criminal’s twisted dreams. The Act of Killing was a disturbing, emotive, and impactful hybrid documentary — about as much as you could achieve in the genre.

So the stakes for Oppenheimer’s follow-up were pretty high. The Look of Silence focuses on the victims of the mass murders, allowing them to confront the perpetrators — a more conventional doco-style than giving the mike to the butchers, but a powerful one. An optometrist, Adi, interviews his brother’s killers as he assesses their eyesight — hence the title’s mixed metaphor, which refers to the blinding propaganda that has both allowed the murderers to get away with the unthinkable, and distorted Indonesian history. While the butchers are totally blinkered and self-justifying, the film’s mandate is to reveal historical truth, and ask these men, “How do you see the events of 1965?” That the film is also completely devoid of music, except for Adi’s father’s singing, completes the logic of the title: the insect-y, ambient sound mix is deathly quiet and confronting. Adi’s interviews are also sliced with footage of the slaughterers gleefully reenacting his brother’s death — and we watch him watching it in his bare-bones lounge-room. It’s properly awful.

This film is not as creatively innovative as its predecessor, but it unravels some major revelations that get to the heart of the psychic effects of political upheaval, the reality of institutionalised sadism, the difference between revenge and justice, and whether docos can have real-world effects. This is not an easy watch — for a political film, it’s deeply emotional and morally fraught. But Oppenheimer is doing important work: he is teaching us all to see again.

For fans of: Earth-shattering docos, morally complex villains, politics junkies, hard-earned post-film whisky

Strangerland, dir. Kim Farrant

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Meyne Wyatt, Lisa Flanagan

I went into Strangerland expecting an art-house domestic drama in remote Australia. I was so wrong. It’s more like Picnic at Hanging Rock meets Mystery Road, 2013’s neo-Western-ish crime film by Ivan Sen.

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes’ children go wandering and are swallowed whole by the beautiful, malicious desert, as a devilish red dust storm descends. In his efforts to track the kids, Hugo Weaving’s detective seems powerless against the outback’s black-hole pull. The film functions as a super-tense missing-girl thriller in its own right, but it also functions on this whole other plane of existence as a nuanced political statement about what the hell we are doing on the stolen land of Australia. This whole country is a crime scene — kids missing, families self-destructing, land gone wrong, Aboriginal ancestors adrift, convict ancestors forgotten. And like Mad Max: Fury Road, here the desert is a badland hostile to those who stray into it, shown this time using creepy helicopter and drone photography. Slowly but surely the film unfurls its way towards an unpredictable and quietly hopeful ending.

Mega kudos to Kim Farrant and co-writers Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons. When you support women to tell stories on screen, a whole set of rarely-aired voices, perspectives and characters come to the fore. So much discussion about women in cinema has centred on the concept of ‘strong female characters’. Talk is now turning to women behind the scenes, and Strangerland shows just how essential strong female directors and screenwriters are to the industry. The women in Strangerland aren’t stereotypically badass or fierce-looking. They’re very regular women struggling with things we all struggle with; they’re defined in and of themselves, rather than purely against their male counterparts; and they’re essential in driving the narrative and realising the film’s themes — all of which express so much more than the idea of a ‘compelling female lead’, or even the Bechdel test.

Police procedural, sex, gender, the spectre of Aboriginal dispossession, slow-unravelling psychodrama — there’s so much going on in this film, which is brought together with sophistication and subtlety. Strangerland unassumingly goes way beyond your usual art-house fare to the heart of a scared and scary colonised country.

For fans of: Slow-burn psychological crime mysteries, losing your mind in the outback, drinking XXXX in shitty Australian pubs, landscape films


Eyes Open Dreaming: Spear and the potential for an Australian art cinema. Killings online

Killings blog, February 2016

Djali, the teen protagonist of the new Australian film Spear, has lived a life of assent. Now cusping adulthood, he is waking up and coming to terms with what it means to be an Indigenous man – to tread in the space between a white urbanised society and that of his ancestors, whose spirits follow him throughout the film and might eventually save him. Spear, however, is not your usual coming-of-age drama. Rather than finding an anchor in dialogue, Spear is a piece of art cinema with a heavy focus on pure audio-visual communication. Not only is director Stephen Page the artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre; in an age of cinematic adaptations from books, comics and theatre, Spearlived first as a dance performance by Bangarra, in 2000.

Commercial success has long been prized as Australian cinema’s salve, and the values of that commerce-based vision of success have deeply permeated the national conversation. Spear sets this conversation aside entirely, raising in its stead the ‘the possibility of an art cinema in Australia’ (to quote Rebecca Harkins-Cross in her discussion of the films of Paul Cox in The Lifted Brow #28).Spear returns us to the question of how to bring small, unusual, human-sized films to audiences more regularly smothered with big, brash, mega-marketed superhero movies.

Last year saw the big local box-office boom that much of the industry has long craved, but there are other aesthetic questions at play. Spear is part of an alternative approach to storytelling in local film, supported by executive producers Robert Connolly and Liz Kearney, Screen Australia’s Indigenous department and Adelaide Film Festival’s HIVE Initiative, which supports artists to make films. For the past few years, Connolly has been nurturing non-filmmakers toward their directorial debuts to see what creative people from other disciplines might bring to the big screen. Stephen Page first experimented with cinema in Connolly’s The Turning, an episodic film that harnessed the directorial talents of actors (Mia Wasikowska and David Wenham), artists (Shaun Gladwell) and theatremakers (Yaron Lifschitz). The aim of this approach is to transfuse a raft of ideas and inspirations from outside the film industry and, mentored and guided by established filmmakers, bend them towards cinema’s unique conventions. In making Spear, Page hasn’t just planted four cameras on a stage and filmed the original Bangarra show.

Much of Spear depends on its lead actor, Hunter Page-Lochard, an intuitive performer with a real gift for stillness. The sparse words we do hear are mostly sung in an unsubtitled Aboriginal language. Spear makes movement and sound paramount to communicate mood, relying on an episodic structure of loosely connected scenes. Freed from the strictures of conventional plotting, the film unfolds as a dreamlike stream of encounters: Djali realises an ancestral spirit is accompanying him through the city, takes the place of a bat-like spirit in a cave, is in a car accident, and forms a connection with a beggar (Suicide Man, a difficult role played with great sensitivity by Aaron Pedersen).

Film is an audio-visual medium, and while many writer-directors seem to conceive of a film’s script as necessarily dialogue-driven (I’m thinking of films like Sue Brooks’ drama Looking For Grace, currently in cinemas), Spear has been collaboratively conceived as something that can push more possibilities of cinematic communication. A scene set in a jail is signalled by the clanking sound of chains and bouncy acoustics, rather than by visual markers. David Page’s soundtrack combines spacious synths with staccato Indigenous percussion. And Simon Njoo’s graceful editing creates a cinematic rhythm and pace that rhymes fully with the choreography.

This narrative abstraction is furthered by the choice of smoke-filled, horizonless interior locations. Page has avoided the horizontally-cleaved orange deserts and blue skies familiar to us from such classic films as Wake in Fright and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This is not the tourist-postcard vision of Australia we’re used to being sold. Though the beginning features streetscapes and train stations, these real-world spaces are gradually replaced by empty, industrial spaces shot on Cockatoo Island and at Sydney’s Carriageworks warehouse art precinct.

Page and his team have created a wide passage around the film for us as viewers to feel our way through. I found two viewing modes I could adopt for this type of cinematic experience: I could switch on my analytical toolkit and try to decipher the connections between the scenes and the narrative arc of the characters, or I could let go entirely. I found it liberating to be rid of plot analysis: to relax into the emotional arc of the story and swim through it. Engaging with any art requires a level of surrender from an audience member: you have to be willing to get onto the right wavelength. Unsurprisingly, some film critics are already unable to ‘get’ Spear. Many white audiences and cynical seen-it-all critics are poorly equipped to interpret the film’s Indigenous knowledge and information.

Many Indigenous filmmakers lately have created feel-good films pitched toward a mainstream audience: The Sapphires and Bran Nue Day, which Page provided choreography for, fall into this category. Spear occupies a field closer to Warwick Thornton’s art-house drama Samson & Delilah, but creates an entirely different experience based on a divergent cinematic language, calling into question the very role of narrative in feature filmmaking. There’s another parallel between Spearand Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in that they both engage a collaborative production approach and a quiet, expressive style of visual communication and performance.

Other cinematic precedents include Wim Wenders’ 3D dance documentary Pina, which includes lengthy non-verbal sequences translating dance into cinema, and of course, musicals as a genre have always stage dance sequences as an essential part of expression and character development. But Spear clearly diverges from the Australian film canon, as a piece of art cinema based almost purely on audio-visual communication.

I suspect the potential for a thriving culture of local art cinema in Australia atrophied when the early success of experimental directors like George Miller, Gillian Armstrong and Peter Weir saw them absorbed into the Hollywood vortex. A whole generation of storytellers disappeared from the national scene. David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) is the latest, and it remains to be seen whether the same holds true of Jennifer Kent, whose extraordinary film The Babadook shifted the horror genre towards new emotional themes and earned her a spot directing the forthcoming US drama Alice + Freda Forever. At present, there are few Australian directors whose works are hotly anticipated on the international film festival stage to the same extent as, say, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo or American independent Kelly Reichardt.

Art-house director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road also explored Spear’s ‘living between two worlds’ theme. Sen has turned increasingly toward conventional narrative and commercial acceptance, which makes me curious about his next crime drama, Goldstone, and his long-planned futuristic sci-fi project. Artist Tracey Moffat has never followed up on her 1993 feature film, beDevil, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Other directors like Jane Campion have migrated to television, where longer running times and assured distribution to large viewerships satiate the creative needs of both storytellers and audiences.

Cinema can be and do many things. Spear reminded me that film is not just a set of genres and conventions to be learned, but a whole range of ways of representing and communicating to be broken and redefined. In recent years, the hybridisation of documentary and fiction forms has been furthered by films such as Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Now Page has hybridised dance and cinema, in a way that parallels the art world’s current meeting of dance and conceptual art, as in Xavier Le Roy’s recent work Temporary Title for Kaldor Public Projects.

Spear is a fascinating cinematic experiment, one that feels like the beginning of something. Australian history and film history is full of silences. Spear fills some of these silent spaces by exploring how an Indigenous cinematic language based on movement and sound might be realised.

What Spear signifies for art cinema is, as producer John Harvey said at a Sydney screening at the Opera House in January 23, an ‘Indigenous spirit and philosophy of being and of telling stories. And I think to have a place that thinks outside the Western paradigm of telling stories onscreen is a great thing for all of us.’

Are Australian Universities Creating Good Artists? Overland journal

In the area where I was born and raised, there is one remaining independent art school. This is because of the restructuring of Australian art schools that happened almost thirty years ago, a process that saw most independent institutions affiliate themselves with the major universities. The mergers, part of a reform policy by federal education minister John Dawkins, aimed to heighten the ‘international competitiveness’ and ‘national economic development’ of the tertiary education sector, and came just after free education was abolished in 1989…

Available in Overland, #221 Summer 2016.

Kangaroo and the Lie of Australian Classlessness. Kill Your Darlings

Sometimes I wonder what’s keeping me in Australia, and then I see something like Kangaroo (1987) and I remember. A buried tale of politics and ‘red-hot treason’ by director Tim Burstall it is not a great film, but it made me wonder about the place of class in Australian cinema and in Australia itself. This is because the film plays with one of the most seductive of fictional premises: alternate history, this time, one in which an Australian fascist uprising fails in the wake of a world war…

Available in Kill Your Darlings, #24, January 2016.

Suffragette review, Big Issue

Issue #500, December 2015, The Big Issue

The true(ish) tale of how women won the vote in England turns out to be more artistically and politically daring than expected. Though Suffragette looks like yet another heart-wearming British prestige film along the lines of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, it tells a rather radical account of civil disobedience and property violence – tactics necessary to overturn unjust laws – and the stories of the heroic women who lost their families and lives in the process.

The restricted sepia tones and surprisingly intimate Steadycam photography summon the era’s despair, with a subtle score by Alexandre Desplat. The script by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) teases out some of the interesting class differences between the proletarian and bourgeois suffragettes. The film’s inexcusable downfall, however, is its whitewashing: there is not a brown face to be seen. But beyond this and its theme of the personal costs of political struggle, Suffragette inadvertently might force us to question the lightning issues of our time for which change only appears impossible.


The Crow’s Egg review, Big Issue

The Big Issue #499, November 2015

The Crow’s Egg is for those who wished for more Indian crossover cinema on the world stage following the mega success of Danny Boyle’s Slumbdog Millionaire (2008). The Crow’s Egg is a smaller, quieter film. It’s more in tune with Iranian or Saudi Arabian films like 2012’s Wadjda (the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and by a woman) with child protagonists whose simple dreams bring them up against all the injustices of their society. In this film, two “slum kid” brothers yearn for pizza at a newly opened fast-food outlet, where one pizza equates to their entire month’s earnings picking fallen coal from freight trains. In feel-good art-house tradition – and presumably made for a Western audience – the dramatic stakes are pitched low and the narrative turns telegraphed far in advance with obvious photographic and musical signals. The joys of The Crow’s Egg are instead about just watching the faces of these beautiful, proud, strong boys and appreciating the honesty of their performances.