Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Vale Pierre Rissient - Producer David Roe remembers the great man's role in the early promotion of Australian cinema

Even today the line ‘what films can you tell me about that I have not already seen?’ sounds more like a challenge than the genuine enquiry that was intended.  But those were Pierre Rissient’s first words when he introduced himself to me at Cannes in 1973. His second sentence – also a question – was more perplexing: ‘what do you think of the films of Clarence Badger?’ Inclined to think I was at least reasonably cinematically literate, I was embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Clarence Badger, an American director who had emigrated to Australia in the 1930s and made a couple of films here before retiring. 

By the time Pierre had stopped peppering me with questions about Rangle River (Clarence Badger, 1936), the beginnings of friendship had formed and continued for 45 years. We recognised in each other a love of cinema although, as Scott Murray has observed, for Pierre it was not enough that one might love a great film, it had to be loved for the right reasons. 

And so it is very sad to contemplate that this indefatigable, passionate cinephile with boundless intellectual curiosity, an international cultural figure, champion of talent and immensely loyal man has gone to the great private screening room in the sky (close to the front so he can put his feet up).

I’ve read through the other pieces posted on this website, left by other longstanding friends of Pierre, and note some gaps that should be filled. The reason for this is that Pierre’s championship of the new Australian cinema, by which I mean post-1972 when public funding began to flow, commenced much earlier and was more critical than he has been given credit for. As early as 1975, Gil Brealey and Jill Robb at the South Australian Film Corporation, on my urging, approached Pierre with a view to submitting Sunday Too Far Away (1975) to Cannes. 

At the time Pierre was in Hong Kong working with King Hu on restoring the full cut of A Touch of Zen (1971) and the SAFC quietly flew him to Sydney for a few days to view their film, which was also the SAFC’s first production. Pierre immediately recognised the avoidance of sentimentality in Sunday Too Far Away had a Hawksian quality and he successfully shepherded it into the 1975 Directors’ Fortnight selection at Cannes. The film’s critical success at Cannes helped catapult Jack Thompson’s career internationally and was a great launch for the SAFC at home. 

This same strategy of having a very modestly budgeted film internationally celebrated ahead of any Australian release became something of a marketing template and was emulated by Fred Schepisi with The Devil’s Playground (1976), also embraced by the Director’s Fortnight with Pierre’s involvement and support. 

In the late 1970s, while I was at the New South Wales Film Corporation, we flew Pierre in to view Gillian Armstrong’s promising first feature, My Brilliant Career (1979). This time Pierre shepherded the film into the official competition at Cannes and the careers of Judy Davis, Sam Neill and director Armstrong never looked back. And on a personal note, Pierre was critical not just to the selection of my own production The Coca Cola Kid (Dušan Makavejev, 1985) into competition at Cannes but also its subsequent foreign launch.

Pierre Rissient was most definitely one out of the box and will be very sorely missed. It can be said most emphatically that his presence made a difference to cinema, to art, to his friends and to the world.

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