Two years in a row, an Australian won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, in 2009 and 2010. Warwick Thornton gave the world his Samson and Delilah in 2009 and has made only a very small movie since. That was The Darkside released to very scant attention late in 2013. Michael Rowe, seemingly from out of nowhere won the Camera d'Or in 2010 for Ano Bisiesto (Leap Year) a film made on a low budget in Mexico. Rowe has also made one very low budget feature since, Manto Acuifero (The Well) in Mexico. This film premiered at the Rome Film Festival in 2013, the Sargasso Sea of international events, directed that year by the remarkable Marco Muller. It got a little bit of attention most notably a moderately favourable review by Jay Weissberg in Variety
Over the course of 2014 none of the local festivals either wanted to or were able to show The Well (we never know why films don't arrive at these events) so the film finally got here for its Australian premiere at the just concluded Spanish Film Festival. So there it was listed on the very last page of the little booklet produced for the SpFF, modest information as usual suggesting a masterpiece, with as we shall reveal one huge information black hole. An “Australian Premiere”.
I have to confess that I normally dont take much notice of anything with Gary Maddox's by-line attached to it in the SMH but somehow or other there was a tiny mention of the film by Maddox in last Friday's entertainment guide which reminded me that Michael Rowe was a name to conjure with. It was screening at the same time as North Melbourne was playing Richmond in an AFL match in Hobart, a good reason to find a movie to attend. About twenty punters were in attendance by the time it all got started.
Rowe has a classicist's approach to filming. One sequence, one shot, the camera motionless, the shot often lasting for quite some time as a long conversation takes place frequently off screen. Everything is designed to show events from the central child’s point of view. It’s a film which whispers its message but does so quite brilliantly. The film is about Caro, small and uncommunicative, and her adjustment to life with step-father. The large house she enters contains no magical mystery secret garden, just a riot of colour, movement, overgrown greenery, hidden places with much animal behaviour to be observed. Most notably, over the course of the movie, a hen starts laying eggs and eventually a crop of chickens are produced. Needless to say its Caro's observation of the new parental tensions, conversations, and sex, overheard, memories flooding back via a book of family photos which eventually build up to, well, a just slightly violent conclusion. It’s all over in 78 minutes.
Goodness knows how many people saw it during the time that the SpFF rolled around. It certainly did not get any pride of place screenings. And the cheapest admission price was an off-putting $15. What the little program booklet didn't tell, nor did Gary Maddox, was a factor that might have got a lot more bums on seats. Only during the end credits does the information come up that the film is adapted from a short story titled "Secrets" by Tim Winton. I can tell you that for the mostly aging punters left in the theatre when that info come up there was an audible all round gasp "What! Tim Winton". There you are. People in the suburbs will be dining out on that info.