The Sydney Film Festival is not the bees knees where it comes to new Australian features. Other events now reserve new movies by investing in production a trick that Sydney has eschewed. The cost is mostly in the event's prestige. Not that there’s nothing on show. When you toss in shorts and docos the Australian selection is still the biggest of any country. But, but…I guess the festival might say who’s asking for more anyway.
Over the first five days you could see four new features, three dramas and the Opening Night feature length documentary by Warwick Thornton. Thornton’s film is however much more than a doco. Over the last decade, or maybe a bit longer, there has developed a whole new way of film-makers investigating their subject. It can be a way for the film-maker to say “look at me”. The films of Michael Moore, too often brazen pieces of self-promotion, are what I mean. Anonymity and modesty have gone out the door. However, the most intense and influential of the new fashion, possibly best exemplified by the films of the Brit Adam Curtis, make powerful statements exactly because of that intensity and personal involvement. They may be opinionated but…
Thornton has absorbed the best examples. As an onscreen presence he is self-effacing and eternally curious. He remains generous. His movie starts with the Southern Cross as both a part of the whitefella flag and the spiritual world which influences the blackfella and forms part of his relationship with the Earth and the sky. Filmed in a half a dozen locations and with direct contributions from some remarkable but basically unknown Aboriginal elders, the film heats up as it heads into an examination of the meaning of the Cronulla riots. The film-maker finds the fault lines with a relaxed grace. He talks to a most acute rock singer and, especially, to a rock promoter whose event was hijacked by juvenile flag wavers. He diverges into the meaning of the fashion for tatts of the Southern Cross and follows up with a further talk with a tatt removalist.
This is splendid film-making and you have to say that, after long years of struggle, NITV which commissioned the film and several others as part of the 50 year anniversary of the 1967 referendum, has done something quite magnificent in allowing Thornton to be himself and assemble such a film. It ought to be seen by many, many more than the already sympathetic demographic that the SFF audience represents.
There are only whitefellas in Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher’s totally charming ultra-low budget That’s Not Me, set amongst late 20s working dumb jobs while dreaming of other lives. Polly is an identical twin who turns down an acting job on a soap when she’s required to be an albino. Her sister grabs it and is catapulted to fame. She’s snapped up to play opposite Jared Leto in a movie titled “The Bell Jar”. That’s funny! Not that the production’s impecuniousness shows up on screen. Somewhat to my surprise, considering we are talking about weighty film festival matters, this is very sophisticated, popular stuff made by people whose film school may well have been Melbourne’s Astor Cinema and/or much of whatever screens on television, such are the array of references mostly to movies made by the likes of David Lynch. (There’s a little joke about Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as well.) The bigger jokes involve a TV soap and a casting session where interest drops to zero when the panel realise they’ve got the wrong twin even though the one on hand is rather better at the trade. I had a feeling that this was going to be something a bit contrived and heavily scripted. But it’s nothing of the kind. Alice Foulcher may well be the comic talent of her age. She writes, she acts, she produces and she’s clearly whip smart at all three. Not a dollar of government money went into the production of this film, just enthusiasm from a group that wanted to get it done. I’m deeply impressed that it was so smart and finally not frightened to be a little sentimental as well.
At the new SFF venue the Randwick Ritz, the SFF went all out for impact. On the ‘opening’ night the mayor of Randwick got up and read a speech from a big black folder, told us of his pleasure at the turn of events, announced his difficulty in pronouncing the word ‘cinematographer’ and repeatedly told us the importance of ‘fillums’. I hadn’t heard that pronunciation for some time.
The first offering which brought out a very sizeable crowd in the large Cinema 1, was Ali’s Wedding, populist entertainment with a message - Muslims are nice people with senses of humour. It’s taken a decade for the film to get made, cobbled out of the life story of star and co-writer Osamah Sami. At some point someone had the brilliant idea, no doubt when surveying the tyros all making their feature film debut (director Jeffrey Walker, one of the two producers Sheila Jayadev, many of the actors including all the lead female parts) to load the film up with some heavy hitter experience. On board came DOP Don McAlpine, actor Don Hany doing an accent that sounds something like Conrad Veidt, composer Nigel Westlake conducting for the first time ever for a film score the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and, probably most crucially, writer Andrew Knight. The latter has spent a lifetime writing and/or polishing everything from Fast Forward all the way through to an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. In recent times it’s also been Rake, The Kettering Incident and the Jack Irish telemovies. His violon d’Ingres however seems to be turning ‘true stories’ into movies that effortlessly run through a biography. At the Randwick Ritz screening the audience was screaming in delight with a tear or three thrown in. The enthusiasm was monumental and the Q&A ran on interminably as the young man from the SFF allowed any number of members of the audience to pop up and just say how much they had enjoyed the movie. Osamah Sami lead actor and subject basked in it all.
Fair enough too. Its virtues are a fine sense of comic timing, genuine surprise in the plotting, a quite affecting look at the lives of Muslims who wash up in Brunswick and try to adapt to an alien way of life. Needless to say Muslim puritanism is the plot driver though the cleric/father who writes musicals about Saddam Hussein broadens out the focus. The film stays within the cocoon of the close-knit Muslim community and avoids broadening things out to incorporate Australian prejudice. There’s enough prejudice on show already. “Only in America can we be like Aussies” is an exasperated and very funny plea from one of the lovebirds who otherwise sit around holding little fingers. It was calculated fun with an edge. Not the sharpest edge but enough for an audience to get onside and feel like something is at stake. The crowd on hand collectively willed it to worldwide success.
Finally, can one say anything very kind about David Wenham’s first feature Ellipsis, a low budget comedy drama about two strangers who meet by chance and spend a day and a night together? Much is made of a rose-coloured view of Sydney, which runs all the way through, including a shot of a train heading towards the eastern suburbs while the soundtrack says next stop Town Hall.
The two leads, Emily Barclay and Benedict Samuel, are credited as part of the scriptwriting team and the film was developed via a series of improvisations supervised by Wenham. He provided some detail of how all this happened in a lengthy intro that started with an acknowledgement to the traditional owners, ran through thanks to all the staff before explaining how the film got made. His problem is that what everyone among the makers apparently found funny or romantic or tender just doesn’t make it onto the screen. Most notably the two leads are way lacking in any convincing improvisational skills, almost to the point of embarrassment, and it’s only the occasional moment, most notably the visit to the sex shop in King’s Cross, where something a bit more lively occurs. But…but…Why a bloke would take a girl he’s just met into a sex shop, and have various toys and aids demonstrated, in the first place, seems to me a moment rather lacking in authenticity. But maybe these days I just don’t get out enough to know what modest young strangers do an hour or two after they have met and as they gravitated to the fleshpots of King’s Cross.