First Aussie film festival plays to packed audiences

(Canscene) — Hosting as we do a growing number of annual film festivals in Canada — by my count, 65 — it’s not surprising that Australia would finally join our ranks. The first Australian Film Festival ran from the 10th to the 12th of February in Toronto.

Judging from the enthusiasm of packed audiences at the 500- seat Isabel Bader Theatre, it will be the first of many visits from Down Under.

Among the 24 Canadian premieres and 6 North American premieres, the film weekend included a sneak preview of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition starring Guy Pearce (Memento, The Count of Monte Christo) and an opening reception with the stars of Oyster Farmer Diana Glenn (Neighbours) and Alex O’Lachlan (Mary Bryant).

Long domination by Hollywood

Australia, like Canada had for years seen its native film industry dominated by the Hollywood product, but struggling valiantly. A breakthrough in prestige came in the 70s with productions such as Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Directors like Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Paul Cox, Fred Schepisi, Phil Noyce and Gillian Armstrong became international icons of cinema as did actors like Mel Gibson, Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

Subsequently, actors such as Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts became very much “in demand” by U.S. directors.

Australia produced nearly 400 films between 1970 and 1985 – more than had been made in entire history of the Australian film industry. In summation, although the influence of the U. S. industry is still strong, box office receipts for Australian films climbed to 8 per cent in 2001 from 4 per cent in 1998.

Here are some of the films I saw, and recommend:

The Proposition
This highly touted production came to the festival via Sundance, 2006 and it does not disappoint. On the contrary, The Proposition lands a direct hit to the viewer’s solar plexus and is studded with fine performances from the likes of Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, Ray Winstone and John Hurt.

Captain Stanley (Winstone)a tough English police officer, makes a proposition to captured outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce): bring in brother Arthur and I won’t hang your 14-year-old sibling, Mike. Riding through the bleak outback landscape outlaw Charlie goes in search of his psychotic brother.

Pearce

While the film has all the elements of the traditional “Western” it should in no way be viewed as such. Crime, punishment, brotherly love, sadistic treatment of prisoners, hostile aboriginals — they’re all present, but the combination produces a sense of history that informs as well as entertains.

Stanley’s police force is made up of cutthroats as murderous as the Burns gang and, in a subtly shaded performance Ray Winstone allows us — in his tenderness toward his wife (Emily Watson) and his revulsion at the behaviour of his police force and the outlaws– to see the man behind the martinet.

The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat, is scheduled for Canadian release this month. It offers a slice of Australian history that reminds us of the methods by which Britain and other European powers exerted their authority over their colonies. It’s not a pretty picture.

Oyster Farmer
One of the refreshing features of the Australian film Renaissance in the 70s was their down-to-earth honesty and the way the camera brought landscape into the picture. Oyster Farmer demonstrates the Aussies are still at it.

This romantic comedy, directed by Anna Reeves is set along the spectacular Hawkesbury River among the colony of oyster farmers who supply the Sydney Fish Market.

Jack Flange (Alex O’ Lachlan) runs to the oyster farm after robbing the fish market to help support his ailing sister. He’s mailed the cash to himself, so he takes a job in a locality abounding with amusing, gritty characters, among whom is the sexy Pearl.

Oyster

Jack and Pearl: a lively duo

He loses track of the cash and begins to suspect Pearl played to earthy perfection by Donna Glenn with whom he begins a romance that turns into something more serious. There’s a sex scene that for sheer audacity outdoes the efforts of other contemporary films but wisely, doesn’t indulge in endless replays. The refreshing nature of this scene is in sharp contrast to the recent Canadian production Lie With Me and its tedious litany of groping and grappling

Oyster Farmer is good fun, and like a breath of fresh air a welcome relief from the ersatz comedies now rolling off the Hollywood production lines.

Look Both Ways
Winner of the Discovery Award at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and voted Australia’s best film of 2005, Look Both Ways strikes at the heart of an all-too-common neurosis of the times.

Few people seem aware of the dangers of the self-fulfilled prophecy yet all the signs are there from the behaviour of Christian fundamentalists who long for Armageddon and the Last Trump to militant Islamists and Jews all of whom have decided that their destiny is the destruction of their fellow humans.

The action takes place at a time when Australians are in a state of shock over a tunnel collapse that has entombed scores of train passengers

Commercial artist Meryl , played by Justine Clarke, whose psyche is clouded by images of disaster meets press photographer Nick (William McInnes) who has just learned he has cancer. Thrown together by another railroad tragedy which Nick is sent to cover, the two walk a tortuous path toward what we hope will be understanding and a more hopeful future.

As each image of disaster invades Meryl’s imagination it is depicted by an animated sequence of one of her works of art and it is this combination which conveys the sense of her being part of a self-fulfilled prophecy.

Meryl

Near disaster proves Meryl’s epiphany

With forthright direction by Sarah Watt and rapid but intelligent editing Look Both Ways offers originality. While in no way resembling Memento, the film has a similar impact due to its innovative technique.

Aboriginal Shorts
The programming of several short films by Aboriginal Australians was a distinctive feature of the festival.

The subject of Warwick Thornton’s Rosalie’s Journey tells of her days at boarding school when, as a teenager she suddenly found herself the favourite for the lead in a 1956 movie, Jedda. While the Australian film industry remained in the dumps for years after Jedda, the film itself was a ground breaker dealing as it did with interracial sexual relationships.

Uncomfortable with her role Rosalie chose to return to her people and is seen today as contented with her decision.

In Yellow Fella we move forward 20 years to the career of half black, half-white actor – artist Tom Lewis. He is discovered by director Fred Schepisi, about to make one of the seminal productions in the Australian film industry’s Renaissance. He gets the title role in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

Yellow Fella shows Lewis in the two communities he still straddles and offers insights into his close relationships with both his white father whom his mother refused to marry and his aboriginal stepfather. A thoughtful, moving film, directed by Ivan Sen.

Yellow

Lewis seen with his mother.

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