The future of Australian movies

Australian film, where to from here? Too much to lose if Australia’s film and television industries are allowed to slip into decline … again

In this year of coronavirus, the Australian film and television industries are not in a good way.

Exactly a century ago, despite a great start with the world’s first feature, local film production had begun to disappear. For the next half century, Australia would become a great place to make the occasional film, an occasional exotic backdrop for the international production.

Funny that. It could so easily happen all over again, without government support. Australia now has world class creatives to offer, and tax rebates for foreign filmmakers who shoot here, but the government is not looking after the key creatives who tell Australian stories.

It’s really too bad. ‘Lights! Camera! Jobs!’ will hone the skill sets of workers in these creative industries and keep them employed, but the stories they will help bring to the screen are going to belong elsewhere.

A glance at the fantastic films made in Australia since  2000 is a reminder of how much there is to lose.

The piece published below first appeared in the Canberra Times on 4 July 2020

By © Jane Freebury

It’s been a treat catching Gillian Armstrong on ABC TV’s Home Delivery this week. Her reminiscences of her student days in the early 1970s are a reminder that there once was a time when ‘there was,’ the celebrated film director pauses for emphasis, ‘… no Australian film’.

Could this conceivably occur again? There hasn’t been much this year.

When and on what platform will we get to view Babyteeth, The Dry, and the others pending? Screen Producers Australia say there are 120 projects impacted during the current health emergency.

Without ongoing government support for the exceptional creative talent that we have in the Australian screen industry, we will all be very much the poorer.

While Armstrong was at the Australian Film and Television School (now AFTRS), one among the first intake, an Aussie accent on screen was disconcerting, it was so rare, and local news was delivered in accents the BBC would have approved of.

Armstrong’s resolve to pursue a career in an industry that had not yet been established, is really admirable.

There were a few local films around, relating the sexual exploits of characters like Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple, but two seriously powerful Australian stories by overseas directors appeared on screen in 1971. Walkabout and Wake in Fright still resonate today.

By the end of the decade, there were so many Australian films of fantastic quality, including Armstrong’s exquisite My Brilliant Career – that screened at the Cannes and New York festivals – that  the surge downunder was hailed as a new wave.

The first Mad Max, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Newsfront, Storm Boy, The Devil’s Playground, Long Weekend, Caddie, Don’s Party, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith all appeared in the 1970s. Along with plenty of others well worth a mention.

The bilateral government support for a film industry that began in the late 1960s was realised by Australia’s screen industries, and they have continued going strong.

A stocktake of more recent films is very surprising and rewarding, a reminder of how richly we benefit from the film and television made in this country.

The 2000s kicked off with Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, based on a real-life criminal still serving time for murder. It certainly had impact, but I preferred the mockumentary indie about an underworld hitman that arrived a few years later from Scott Ryan, The Magician. It was cheeky, smart and less visceral.

Serenades, a dead-pan comedy from Shirley Barrett appeared the same year, with the tagline  ‘Two sisters will do anything to hook the right man’. It won a Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first feature.

Can it really be nearly 20 years since Lantana showed how subtle and compelling a local adult drama could be?  There was an abundance of talent involved on the project and it won many awards here and overseas, including a best screenwriter gong for Andrew Bovell. Director Ray Lawrence’s next film Jindabyne traced contentious territory but was also excellent.

Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American in 2002 was given unaccountably short shrift by critics and audiences here, although it was a fine drama that captured the spirit of Graham Greene’s novel. I was glad to see it win prestigious awards in the UK and US.

The 2000s were an immensely productive time for writer-director Rolf de Heer, whose The Tracker with actor David Gulpilil in the lead appeared in 2002. It was quickly followed by Alexandra’s Project, a masterwork in the suburban thriller genre. His unique collaboration with the Yolngu people, Ten Canoes, audacious and whimsical by turns, was released in 2007.

Gulpilil’s performance was outstanding in The Tracker. He also had a small role in The Proposition, the brilliant outback western directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave that was released to general acclaim, though some took exception to the violence.

Did others take exception to the sex in Jane Campion’s psychological thriller, In the Cut? It certainly divided critics and audiences but this intense, sensual, psychological thriller deserved much more recognition than it received.

Rachel Perkins’ One Night the Moon appeared, as she was consolidating her career in Australian film and television. A collaboration with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, it had a running time of under one hour but it was certainly compelling. In recent times, Perkins has directed the first season of Mystery Road and miniseries Total Control. Both exemplary TV drama.

Another Indigenous writer-director, Ivan Sen, arrived. His very impressive work includes the features Toomelah, Goldstone, and Mystery Road the film that inspired the popular television series of the same name. Sen made his fiction feature debut in 2003 with Beneath Clouds.

Australian comedy had an uneven run during the noughties but it doesn’t mean there wasn’t some first class work. Getting’ Square from Jonathan Teplitsky and Kenny by Shane Jacobson were equally hilarious.

The hard-to-pigeonhole asylum seeker drama, Lucky Miles, directed by Michael James Rowland, was a hoot. I also really enjoyed Ali’s Wedding, directed by Jeffrey Walker and written by Osamah Sami, very definitely a comedy, that was released in 2017. Sami has called it the first Muslim rom-com.

Teplitsky also had an international hit in The Railway Man, that elicited sensitive, intimate performances from major stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

Writer-director Sarah Watt Look Both Ways, also about a couple dealing with trauma, was a miniature in comparison, and beautifully rendered at that.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star appeared in 2009 to a lukewarm reception. I thought it terrific though I’d admit to being a bit of a die-hard when it comes to this filmmaker.

I was also hugely impressed that same year by Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate, an intense, disturbing family drama in the gothic style.

And in 2014, The Babadook announced a bold new talent in director Jennifer Kent. It’s held in very high esteem by cinema horror cognoscenti. I just thought it was one of the most effective scare fests I’d ever watched.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse returned in 2015 with The Dressmaker, an outback western in which a stranger arrives in town with a sewing machine on her hip. It’s a flamboyant revenge comedy drama that, for all its colliding elements, works brilliantly.

That same year, George Miller took us on another exhilarating journey into the post-apocalyptic desert in Mad Max: Fury Road. It won wild praise from many critics and now holds the record for achievement by an Australian film at the Oscars, bypassing the previous record held by Campion’s The Piano.

Lion, directed by Garth Davis and based on a screenplay by Luke Davies and with a wonderful performance by Dev Patel, was another huge success here and overseas. Who didn’t love this film?

Another home grown favourite of the 2010s was The Sapphires. Impossible not to respond to its bouncing with irrepressible joy.

The 2010s have also seen the emergence of David Michod as a major creative talent. His pitch-black crime-family drama, Animal Kingdom, shook us up and launched the international careers of Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver. Michod’s The King last year was equally impressive.

Although there are so many contenders, my pick for the most outstanding Australian film of the last two decades has to be Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah. When I reviewed the film in 2009 I wrote that it announced a major new talent and could be come a modern classic. I think, as it turns out, that was the right call.

Warwick Thornton’s visually arresting and contemplative miniseries The Beach is currently screening on SBS OnDemand.

A selection of some of the best of Australian cinema is available now on ABC iView

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Ben Mendelsohn, larrikin no more

By © Jane Freebury

New work by actor Ben Mendelsohn can be easy to miss. Not often the lead, he can pop up in unexpected places, like Buckingham Palace where he was an elegant and diffident George VI opposite Gary Oldman’s Churchill in the Darkest Hour.

In this role, as with most, he appears to be completely comfortable in his character’s skin. It also has to be said that the effect on Mendelsohn of groomed hair and a well-tailored suit can be transformative. His flair for accents, probably from having lived in both the US and Britain during his childhood, counts for something too.

Since 2017 when he played the British monarch, Mendelsohn has shown up in surprising places. In a Steven Spielberg science fiction (Ready Player One), as the sheriff in the latest Robin Hood, as a pustulent King Henry IV (The King), in a relationship drama directed by his former wife (Untogether), and as the villain Talos in two Marvel superhero blockbusters.

In The Land of Steady Habits, by Nicole Holofcener, a creator of subtle relationship dramas, his performance as a feckless father and husband is a very rewarding, if discomforting experience. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

A memorable performance by Ben Mendelsohn as ‘Pope’ Cody in Animal Kingdom

Ever since 2010, when David Michod’s very impressive crime drama Animal Kingdom (streaming on Stan) catapulted Mendelsohn – and his compatriot the redoubtable Jacki Weaver – into the international film industry, he has been in high demand.

Only three years after its release, the Washington Post was declaring that ‘Ben Mendelsohn was everywhere. Finally’. People in the US had begun to take notice.

They certainly took notice when he appeared in Season 1 of the television series Bloodline, in which he played the wayward elder son of the wealthy Florida establishment. His performance that garnered a Golden Globe nomination and won an Emmy was mesmerising.

Since the chilling menace for his character in Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has slipped into roles that have offered him an opportunity to do more of same. He has done so with relish, including his portrayal of a hopeless, sleazy heroin addict in Killing Them Softly.

Since he joined the A-list stars on screen, actors like Ryan Gosling (in The Place Beyond the Pines) and Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in (The Dark Knight Rises), Mendelsohn has moved on from the local industry where he began as a teenager.

However, his first Australian film in nearly a decade, Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy, is due for release this year.

It is generally agreed that the beloved Australian classic of 1987, The Year My Voice Broke, by writer-director John Duigan, was Mendelsohn’s breakout role in the Australian film industry. Though he wasn’t the main character, he was memorable as Trevor, the roguish risk taker fatally drawn to danger.

Noah Taylor was the lead as Danny, as socially awkward as Trevor was confident, and representing the sensible devoted alternative for love interest Freya (Loene Carmen).

Back then, fans tended to confuse Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn, who are the same age and somewhat similar physically, despite their different roles. It’s amusing to hear that today Mendelsohn is still being mistaken for Taylor. Fans have been asking him for his signature because they think it was him playing Locke in the television series Game of Thrones. It was, of course, Taylor.

That Mendelsohn can inhabit a small or support role, and still leave filmgoers with the overwhelming impression of his presence has become something of a pattern during his career. He has managed to make a little go a long way.

He is best known internationally for his villainous characters, but he wasn’t always the bad boy. There is a sweet side  too. In The Big Steal of 1990 directed by Nadia Tass he shows considerable natural charm as the lead character opposite Claudia Karvan. They were both teenagers at the time.

With Claudia Karvan in The Big Steal

Just after this film, Mendelsohn had a role in the film Spotswood (aka The Efficiency Expert) directed by Mark Joffe. It starred an as yet little known, mild mannered Welsh actor who would traumatise the filmgoing world with one of the screen’s most enduring and grotesque villains, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, opposite Jodie Foster.

In a recent interview posted online, Mendelsohn cites Anthony Hopkins as one of his most important mentors. It is an intriguing comment. Did the idea of becoming a supervillain take shape after that encounter?

Both GQ and Slate magazine have nominated Mendelsohn as the new, favourite bad guy, while the Financial Times wrote last year that he had become the king of villains.

What does it take to be really good at villainy? Gravitas, he says.

Perhaps he was on his way to something different before he moved to the US. In Beautiful Kate, the fine dark family drama by Rachel Ward, that was released in 2009, he was a complex and ambiguously drawn character. Of course, we will never know because in 2010 Mendelsohn’s world changed in a very big way with Animal Kingdom.

The trajectory his screen persona has taken, especially overseas, is a big step away from the type of knockabout, roguish Aussie bloke, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Away from the larrikin roles of his early career during the 1990s-2000s, in films like Idiot Box, Return Home, and Mullet. It is a big step but it isn’t entirely inconsistent.

He’s moved on. Larrikin no more.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

*Featured image: Anders (Ben Mendelsohn), a troubled man, in The Land of Steady Habits

 

Without going ‘the full Mendo’, here are some of Ben’s best

Compiling recommended viewing is tricky because, Mendelsohn may be the best thing in a small role but the film hasn’t a lot to recommend it. Ridley Scott’s disappointing Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Mendelsohn plays an Egyptian viceroy, is a case in point.

He is, however, a fine villain in Spielberg’s typically polished space adventure, Ready Player One, and in Orson Krennic’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which he shows great sartorial panache.

A look backwards at The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990) makes for a charming introduction to the sunny side of the Mendelsohn screen persona. It is also a very good film, with a sweetness not often found in Australian film these days.

Return Home (Ray Argall, 1990) is also well worth a look, a fine contemplative study of suburban life.

See The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan, 1987) if you haven’t yet. A landmark film of the early industry revival with Mendelsohn and Noah Taylor when they were just starting out long, light years from their international careers.

Hunt Angels (Alec Morgan, 2006), a docu-drama about an intriguing, entrepreneurial local filmmaker, is a small favourite Mendelsohn film of mine.

Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) is an exquisite dark family drama with excellent performances from everyone, including Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn apparently shocked himself by his own performance in Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2010), that superb noir about a Melbourne crime family.

Mendelsohn makes a strong impression in the early scenes of The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013). Not an easy thing to do when playing opposite Ryan Gosling.

In Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017), he appears as the King of England during World War II. He fully matches the very good performance from Gary Oldman as Churchill.

Mendelsohn is in very good form in the finely tuned drama, The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018), as a wealthy Connecticut businessman who lets his family down.

Mendelsohn, almost a bit too convincing as an ailing monarch in David Michod’s latest, The King (2019), is a scene stealer till his death bed.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2020

Revisit Catch-22 in 2020

By © Jane Freebury

Odds are that someone somewhere has already come up with a phrase to nail the international health emergency that we are living through right now.

A pernicious little virus has caught us in a trap with a catch-22 all its own. The film Catch-22, 50 years old this year, resonates with a time when contradictory choices seem necessary.

‘A catch-22 situation’ derives, of course, from the impossibly circular and wonderfully entertaining Joseph Heller novel of 1961, on which the film is based. It is a great read from beginning to end, even though the story starts in the middle.

It charts the dilemma of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) who has been posted to a Mediterranean island during the last months of World War II. He is desperate to get out of the bombing missions he is being sent on into France and Italy.

Alongside him, new recruits, younger than ever, are getting killed on pointless missions. Sometimes they are killed before they even begin their tour of duty. What is the sense in that? It’s a fair question.

Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins)

The film’s key scene where Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford), explains to the squadron captain that claiming he is crazy to be released from duty would cut no ice, is as fresh as ever. Because of bureaucratic regulations, there is no way for Yossarian out of the conundrum he finds himself in.

Director Mike Nichols had a dream cast besides Arkin to work with. Orson Welles was on board in a small role as a pompous general. Jon Voight is unforgettable as motormouth Milo Minderbinder, the profiteering mess officer, and Anthony Perkins, the creepy Norman Bates from Psycho cast against type, is the chaplain.

Art Garfunkel appears in his first film role as Nately, a good natured 19-year-old. A conversation on nationalism that he has with an old man feels like it could have been written today as the film gives full measure to the book’s prophetic words. They hang in the air, full with irony. The film’s screenplay was written by Buck Henry (The Graduate).

For its time, Catch-22 was very expensive to make but the studio had so much faith in its director, Nichols, who had just had huge success with The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Cinematography by David Watkins and editing by Sam O’Steen are top class, but Catch-22 flouts a convention or two. It is like a series of disconnected, absurd incidents, strung together. The scenes are gems in themselves that accrete over time so that this dark, anti-war satire eventually makes sense.

From the moment Catch-22 begins the experience borders on the surreal. Dawn approaches with scattered bird song, and then the spell ends violently as a squad of B-25 bombers roar across the frame. The bombers were the very thing according to the production history.

Unfortunately for Mike Nichols he was beaten to the post. Robert Altman’s uproarious, frenetic anti-war satire M.A.S.H. came out in January 1970 and enjoyed huge success at the box office just months before Catch-22 opened the same year.

What a coincidence. You might think that both rode high on the anti-war sentiment of the times as the Vietnam War trundled on, but no, Catch-22 tanked at the box office.

Despite the no-expense-spared budget, audiences in 1970 may have got bored with the elliptical story-telling in Catch-22. Or by the time they’d seen  M.A.S.H. they may have felt that, as far as anti-war movies went, they’d seen it all. Yet both films are so very different.

It could be that for many people today the films Catch-22  and M.A.S.H. have merged into one long, indistinguishable anti-war epic.

When the book Catch 22 was published in 1961 it captured the futility and absurdity of war. Which war was that, exactly?

Joseph Heller had begun writing his landmark novel sometime in 1953 when the Korean War was settled, but he had actually set his story in the last months of World War II. When the film of the book appeared in 1970, it was taken up by the Vietnam War generation.

Slowly, over time however, Catch-22 has managed to catch up with M.A.S.H. in the critical stakes. A television series co-produced by George Clooney came out last year, but Mike Nichols’ film is better than it, and a cut above M.A.S.H.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 April 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image:  Alan Arkin and Art Garfunkel in Catch-22 (1970) Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Six Degrees of Separation, revisited

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Six Degrees of Separation, a film from 1993, had a catchy idea and title to match that has had the distinction of becoming part of our lexicon. Other movies come to mind, like Groundhog Day and Bucket List, but there aren’t that many.

A name for a list of must-see travel destinations before you kick the bucket has caught on, as has the idea of being caught in a time loop of repetitive routine.  And there’s another one that’s trending, from the title of George Cukor’s 1944 thriller, ‘gaslight’ has become a shorthand for an insidious type of psychological abuse.

Six Degrees of Separation, currently streaming on Stan, proposed the idea that people are only six connections away from each other. In the age of a corona virus pandemic, the idea that we are interconnected to a degree we had never realised doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

It wasn’t a new idea when screenwriter John Guare put it forward in his play of the same name, on which this film is based. There have been media reports since that the thesis is verifiable and correct, and that we are connected, by 5 to 7 informal acquaintances, to every other person in the world.

a satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart

Six Degrees of Separation, directed by expat Australian director Fred Schepisi, is sharp, funny, and acutely observed comedy of manners. Its theatrical roots are very apparent, but it is well worth revisiting not just because of the intriguing take up of its title, but for its satiric take on the notion that people who live in the same country can still be worlds apart.

Upper East Siders, Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) Kittredge are an affluent couple who have reached the pinnacle of success. With their adult children away at college, their life is a constant round of art deals and dinner parties.

They live on Fifth, of course, in a high-rise apartment crowded with artworks that reflect their taste and their cultural capital, but they are liberal, decent folk, wanting to do the right thing.

Geoffrey (Ian McKellen) and Ouisa (Stockard Channing)

So, they are seriously challenged when an attractive young stranger with a knife wound to the stomach arrives at their front door, requesting refuge. He was mugged, he says, then saw the name Kittredge downstairs and realised they were parents of friends of his at college.

His name is Paul, he says, and he is the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Flan and Ouisa and their guest, Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), are sceptical but intrigued by their uninvited guest, who is so confident, articulate and, well, charismatic. When he steps up to prepare their dinner, he shows he’s no slouch in the culinary and sommelier arts either.

The role of Paul, a wily and plausible imposter, is a gift for any young actor. It was the first major film role for Will Smith, and some would say that despite the star he has become in years since, this early role is still his best.

After Paul brings a hustler back to the apartment, Flan and Ouisa chuck him out, then regale their friends with anecdotes about him at their dinner parties. The film is structured around flashback as friends and acquaintances respond with similar stories about how Paul infiltrated their lives too, took up offers of free bed and board, and stole opportunistically.

Paul has been working his way through the Upper East Side. The Kittredges can count themselves lucky that he left the Cezanne and the Kandinsky behind.

Curiously, there is a running joke about an upcoming movie version of Cats. If only they knew in 1993 how funny that turned out to be in 2019.

Ultimately, the idea of six degrees of separation is more device than underlying theme. It’s an idea that Ouisa muses about, fascinated to think that ‘a US president could be connected with a gondolier in Venice’. Our take-up of the expression seems to indicate that we like the idea too.

not in the cast, but Kevin Bacon is also connected

After Six Degrees of Separation came out in the 1990s, some Pennsylvania students invented a parlour game they called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Bacon didn’t mind. He ran with it, founding a charitable trust based on the notion that what you do in an apartment in Manhattan will inevitably affect people in Bangladesh, because we are all connected.

Are we ever.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 April 2020, and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 

*Featured image: Who am I? Will Smith as Paul

Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970)

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Every now and then, our most popular folk hero is taken out of storage, dusted down and given new clothes. This year saw the release of Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and it marks the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly with rock legend Mick Jagger in the lead.

Intriguing. While his story in other media has been well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled

Both of these titles are currently streaming on STAN, and are very different takes on a young bushranger of Irish stock who was either a class warrior and proto-republican, or a lowly horse thief. You can take your pick.

Many interpretations have tended to have a bet both ways. Hardly a homage, Peter Carey’s wonderful, prize-winning book that Kurzel’s film is inspired by was wildly successful, and artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series from the 1940s have become canonical works.

It is intriguing that, while stories of Ned in other media have been very well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled. Since Jagger did his turn in 1970, the part of Kelly has been played by two fine actors. In 2003, Heath Ledger had the main role in Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan. George MacKay has played him in Kurzel’s recent film.

The film medium is, unfortunately, demanding and exacting in its particular way, and from the first moments in the Tony Richardson film, there is obviously something missing. It opens on Kelly in prison, on his way to the gallows where he utters his famous parting words, ‘Such is life’.

It isn’t just the moustache that’s missing, it’s physical presence. In his chinstrap beard, Jagger looks more like a member of the Amish than the swashbuckling outlaw whose manly image in full beard we are accustomed to.

Is this the Rolling Stones frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either

More than this, it’s his flat, uncertain voice trying to project and the wavering accent. He tries whatever he can manage – Cockney, Australian, Irish – and the pub singalong featuring The Wild Colonial Boy is only faintly rousing. Is this the charismatic outlaw, a man of the people, who we are invited to celebrate?

Is this the Rolling Stones’ frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either.

Any Ned Kelly films needs a robust central performance. The lack of a compelling central presence in Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is a weakness there to, and significantly subverted by having the male actors so frequently crossdress.

Serious shortcomings aside, the script, which was the work of director Richardson and local Kelly expert, the late Ian Jones, is packed with characters among the downtrodden Irish, and with incident. The sense of community is strong, especially compared with the bleak Kurzel version of a family isolated and vulnerable.

When there are more characters in the frame, and attention is not directed solely at Mick Jagger’s Ned, the film comes alive with the jauntiness that Richardson could do so well. The rollicking tone that dominated one of his most famous films, Tom Jones, is in the ascendant. If I turn a blind eye to the lead actor, this is what the film does best.

The ravishing location shots by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, are another plus. They capture the individual character of the Australian bush and rural landscapes in their many moods. As many Canberrans know, Ned Kelly of 1970 was made in and around Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands.

Just a hint of homoerotica is implied when Kelly accepts a drink from Constable Fitzpatrick (the late Martyn Sanderson) at the pub. I also recall a brief scene of a man in a dress riding a horse, but nothing like the liberties taken in Kurzel’s film.

Mick Jagger has flirted with many things, including an acting career. He beat Ian McKellen for the part of Kelly but this performance probably buried any further ambition to act in feature films.

In 1970 the Australian film industry was on the cusp of a revival that would see classics later in the decade like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Bilateral government support for subsidising a local industry was nearly, but not quite, there.

Richardson’s Ned Kelly was a big budget international coproduction that swept into town and made off with generous Federal Government funding. For this and other reasons, it was not received well. On the up side, it did at least convince Australian filmmaker Michael Thornhill and his contemporaries that they could do a lot better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 April 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Ned Kelly, 1946, from Ned Kelly Series by Sidney Nolan, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Sampling movies on SBS OnDemand

By © Jane Freebury

There is a trove of quality films to watch free-to-air on SBS OnDemand, 650 titles to revisit or catch up with.

An astounding range of quality films that SBS has curated in a variety of ways for niche appeal. Feature docos, movies about feisty females, movies for gay audiences, cinema classics, animation, and as yet little known ‘hidden gems’.

With so much bewildering choice, here are 15 titles I can recommend.

The category ‘the Oscar goes to’ guarantees a film that’s good on one level at least, having achieved an Oscar nomination, not necessarily for best film.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010), an Oscar foreign language film nominee, is a powerful, atmospheric drama about Canadian siblings who travel to the Middle East to solve a family mystery. Villeneuve has since directed outstanding films like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, and his take on Dune is due to release this year.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) takes you along on a meandering road trip through South America with a young Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) as the Marxist revolutionary. It won an Oscar for its music, and could easily have won for cinematography.

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) is an account of the final days of Adolph Hitler and inner circle in his underground bunker. A provocative, thoughtful perspective on an arch-criminal guilty of heinous crime.

Talk to Her (2002), from the wonderful Spanish writer-director, Pedro Almodovar, whose unique vision creates a sensual, extravagant world of its own.

From the young Roman Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), stars Mia Farrow as a pregnant wife fearful that a coven of witches plans to steal her child. Its menacing atmosphere and disturbing psychology are unforgettable.

Alain Becourt with Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle (1958), a classic of French cinema created by Jacques Tati that won the best foreign language Oscar. It’s a witty, gentle send-up of bourgeois pretention that is a classic of comedy in any language.

In the ‘World Movies’ section there’s Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011) with Rhys Ifans demonstrating surprising depth. This is a clever concoction for those who enjoy an enduring mystery. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course, he did but it’s still good fun exploring who else might have done it.

Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen in A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012). This story about a young queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) who falls for the court physician (Mads Mikkelsen), is a thoughtful, delicate romance that deserved more recognition on its release.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983), is a strange, striking film that features a mercurial performance from David Bowie as a British major in a Japanese prison of war camp in World War II.

A Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2019) offers a light, whimsical touch on weighty subjects as a woman archer steps up to take on corporate vandals destroying the Icelandic environment.

Ali’s Wedding (Jeffrey Walker, 2017) is a terrific Australian comedy, a tricky genre to get right these days. At its heart is a smart, funny performances from co-writer and lead actor Osamah Sami as the dutiful young Muslim struggling with life choices.

Capharnaum/aka Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, 2018) is the powerful, haunting story of a 12 year old living in a Beirut slum who sues his parents for neglect. It’s said to have become the highest grossing Arabic films ever.

Filmed in the palace of Versailles itself, Farewell My Queen (Benoit Jacquot, 2013) it is told from the perspective of a court reader (Lea Seydoux). A sumptuous period drama on the last hours of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

The niche category ‘Essential 70s’, revisits the decade when some of cinema’s top directors did their outstanding early work. The seventies are not well represented by the films in this SBS category, but it does offer two of the best.

The Conversation (1974) a highly esteemed thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It lost the best film Oscar to The Godfather Part II, that Coppola also directed.

Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973) is based on the true story of a New York cop who exposed corruption among the force. Al Pacino is ferocious and righteous in the lead role, in what is still one of his best performances.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 March 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2020

By © Jane Freebury

During the Academy Awards this year, when a foreign language film from South Korea carried off the top awards, it seemed a watershed moment for Hollywood.  The time to invite the rest of the world to the red carpet had at last arrived.

Let’s also remember that in 2011 Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist won a best film Oscar, the first French feature to do so. A black-and-white silent film, it broke with tradition too, but it was also a love letter to Hollywood. That same year, Michael Scorsese returned the favour with Hugo about the French pioneering filmmakers, the Melies brothers.

France is, of course, the country where cinema began and though it has a studio system as well, it has a particular focus on making films for artistic and cultural reasons, not only commercial entertainment.

The Swallows of Kabul

Back in France, it’s a two-way street. The national cinematheque in Paris runs a full daily program of movie classics, featuring classic films from around the world, including Hollywood, that are shown in original language.

As everyone knows, the French are mad for movies, but then so are we. Cinema attendance in Australia and in France is among the highest in the world and filmgoers in both our countries are spoilt for choice with an abundance of movie screens per head of population.

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is the biggest foreign film festival in Australia. Every year we make space in our calendars during March-April for movies from France. The festival is bringing 48 films to audiences this year, selected from the 200 or so films that French industry makes annually. Our challenge is navigating our way through the vast program.

Recent figures from the industry’s promotional arm, UniFrance, show that the French film festival circuit does well in lots of countries. It’s not just a Canberra thing, and it’s popular across Australia­­­­­­­­­­­­­, screened in eight cities and four satellite locations. Audiences at the French film festivals in Mexico, by the way, have surged recently too, as in Australia.

What are filmgoers looking for? Now there’s a question.

Gemma King, a senior lecturer in French at the ANU, sees a mutual fascination between Australia and France, with cultures ‘different enough to seem exotic, but similar enough that we see ourselves in one another’.

Each year France produces its staple of romantic dramas and family comedies and romantic comedies and family dramas. That always draws the crowds at festivals, but there is something else.

School Life

There is a willingness on the part of the French filmmaker to go there, to explore challenging, tough subjects that are easier to elide or to shy away from altogether. Dr King mentions the themes of multiculturalism, migration, language in French society, with recommendations for Les Miserables and School Life (La Vie Scolaire).

The great Catherine Deneuve makes more than a few appearances this year. Actors Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Omar Sy, and Jean Dujardin can also be found on the cast lists, as we might expect. But I am also interested in hearing how the festival caters for youth, especially the 16-24 year old demographic that is so successfully targeted by Hollywood.

French cinema has resonated with young audiences for decades, ever since the New Wave/Nouvelle Vague (the original!) films in the 1960s, with a group of young directors, who were published film critics and enthusiasts for the best work of the Hollywood directors. Pioneer auteur, still working today, Jean-Luc Godard among them. They reacted against the stuffy, traditional French studio system. A spirit of rebellion, experimentation and resistance continues in French cinema today.

This year’s patron, young Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (who made impressive films Snowtown, Macbeth), credits the French cinema with having had a massive influence on his practice. What he has admired most is its pride in its history and cultural traditions, while at the same time forward leaning with risk and inventiveness.

How would Patrice Gilles, director of the AF in Canberra and national coordinator of the network, characterise the program for 2020? What, in his opinion, are some of the representative patterns and themes that have emerged among the films curated?

Spread Your Wings

‘There is quite a lot going on in terms of social movements or reflections upon how society should be organized at large.’ Climate change, the economic system, the education system, and also, for instance, the issues identified in France by the ‘gilet jaunes’. The ‘yellow jackets/vests’ are a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in 2018, whose members wear the hi-vis yellow vest that is mandatory for drivers to have in their boot in case of an emergency.

The Invisibles (Les Invisibles), set in an illegal women’s shelter, is a good example. Women living on the streets were cast with professional actors, and it is no surprise to hear that this drama achieves a striking authenticity, but a pleasant surprise to hear about its light touch. This genial social comedy has done well outside France too.

In the Name of the Land (Au Nom de la Terre), another framed in social relevance, is an intimate drama about a rural family that deals with issues of inheritance and succession. It was also popular at the French box office last year.

Les Miserables is another one that takes a stance on the social and political. Borrowing the title of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, it is a hard-hitting drama set in similar Parisian locations.

While social relevance is evident in this year’s line-up―the movements, issues, and reflections on what is happening in French society―it would not be a French festival without a strong focus on personal relationships and intimacy. Love at Second Sight (Mon Inconnue) is based on the intriguing scenario of a man who wakes in a parallel universe where his beloved wife does not recognise him and his professional achievements have vanished.

There are many other romance titles to track down, with an online tool useful for searching categories.

In 2011, The Intouchables was a huge hit about a quadriplegic and his carer directed by filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Their latest film, The Extraordinary (Hors Normes), stars Vincent Cassel as a man who runs an informal shelter for autistic youth. The Extraordinary was the closing night film at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Only the Animals

A quite different experience, a tightly woven noir thriller with an intriguing premise, Only the Animals (Seules les Betes), looks promising. It is a favourite of Patrice Gilles.

For my part, an animated drama called The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul) is intriguing, and Spread Your Wings (Donne-Moi Ton Ailes), is a captivating adventure of a 14-year-old boy, an ultra-light and a gaggle of geese. How to Become an Astronaut (Thomas Pesquet, L’Etoffe d’un Hero, is a diverting documentary about a Frenchman training to walk in space and The Mystery of Henry Pick (Le Mystere Henri Pick) stars Fabrice Luchini as a jaded critic with a nose for a literary fraud.

Amusez vous! Bonne chance with your choices.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, between 12 March and 8 April

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020 

*Featured image: Josephine Japy and Francois Civil in Love at Second Sight. Courtesy Eric Bouvet @ericbouvet

At home with The Truth: interview with director Hirokazu Kore-ada

By © Jane Freebury

After winning the top prize at Cannes festival last year for his film, Shoplifters, the director Hirokazu Kore-ada went to work on a new project in France.

He had something quite different up his sleeve. It was to be set in a grand old Parisian home with a leafy garden, the domicile of someone rich and famous, and a world away from his impoverished band of thieves who live together as family on the fringes of society in Tokyo.

Actually, The Truth had been in development for some time with Juliette Binoche, the French star of renown. And Kore-ada had a screenplay to polish up and already one or two other actors in mind. American actor Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise trilogy), who is an ease in French language cinema, for starters.

Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) with daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier)

Kore-ada’s other idea was getting Catherine Deneuve on board. An icon of French cinema since the 1960s, Deneuve is an imposing 76 years old, with a leonine head of hair and a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ expression on her classic features.

He wanted her for the character Fabienne, an ageing film star still performing who is estranged from her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), who lives in New York. Things come to a head when Lumir returns to France to celebrate the publication of her mother’s memoir.

A French person would never think of that. That’s wild

How did Kore-ada get the two of them, Binoche and Deneuve, in their first ever collaboration on screen?

‘I was developing this with Juliette Binoche for years. When I suggested that we ask Catherine Deneuve to play the mother, Juliette said it would be a big challenge for her, as well as a great honour.

‘When I told the French staff it was the direction I wanted to go in, they came back and said, you know, a French person would never think of that. That’s wild.’

Wild, indeed. Yet there is ample space for both onscreen in this subtle, layered family drama. The Truth is an intriguing double act with two iconic French actors, a generation apart, who share the screen. Ethan Hawke is there too, as Hank, Lumir’s husband, a TV actor as often at rehab as he is in work.

What was it like working with Deneuve? ‘She will always be able to give you the take you want,’ says Kore-ada. ‘The really interesting thing is that she knows when she has given it to you. She’ll have a moment of inspiration, then, bang, it will come out, and she’ll tell you “oh, that was the one”’.

I have read elsewhere that she tends not to arrive on set until noon and prefers to work in Paris, though Kore-ada does not mention this.

Bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent

In The Truth, Binoche and Deneuve each play both a mother and a daughter at different points. Lumir has arrived with her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) and Fabienne’s current role is as a daughter in a time-travelling story, ‘Memories of My Mother’, a tale with a far-fetched plot that pokes a bit of fun at the high seriousness of science fiction.

The beauty of Kore-ada’s films is their exploration of family, family in its many manifestations, family with blood ties and ‘families’ without. He has observed that one of his major realisations in life is that bringing a child into the world is not enough to make you a parent, and that the concept of family needs constant reaffirmation. Will he continue exploring this fundamental human relationship?

‘It’s one of those subjects that you never arrive at a final definitive answer.’ But we shall see.

Kore-ada, incidentally, speaks neither English nor French. This interview a couple of weeks ago was conducted through an interpreter.

How is it possible to make a film in France when you don’t speak French, or English? Kore-ada works closely with his Japanese-French speaking translator, Lea Le Dimna, who he met at the Marrakech film festival. ‘In the past five years since I met her, I’ve consistently hired her services.’ Her familiarity with how Kore-ada communicates his working methods has made her indispensable.

How did he find it working with a French cast and crew? ‘One of the key differences working with French people is that they pretty much say what they think and tell you face to face, whereas if you are Japanese you might hold back, and stay silent about those things.

‘I was sort of aware of that difference and wanted to incorporate it, that they would say what they think, and that much is a very integral part of this film.’

It’s such an interesting observation that seems to fit with the observation that Shoplifters offers another perspective on the official narrative about well-being in Japanese family and society.

I suggest that The Truth plays with the naked truth, the embellished truth and the unspoken truth, while it develops a recognition of the position that each character is coming from.

‘You’re absolutely right,’ he says, to general laughter. It’s more important than agreeing on the truth.

‘The story as I approached it was that there was this daughter who was to confront her mother with the truth. Whatever it was. Yet when she recounts her own history, she realises there are other truths or things that have been glossed over.

‘So, that’s the account I really wanted to cover. That she does have these moments where the trick is that the truth is actually less important than finding out where she stood in relation to her mother.’

‘In the story, it is the performance that actually helps heal those gaps.’

The Truth was selected to open the Venice International Film Festival in August this year. It opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

First published in the Canberra Times on 7 December 2019

Marty Scorsese among the Superheroes

The director’s director up against the comic book heroes

By © Jane Freebury

Every city has to have one. A film festival.

Just about every region on earth hosts a film festival, including Oceania where there’s one for very short films in Vanuatu, and one for documentaries in French Polynesia. Antarctica has claimed one too, for filmmakers ‘left out in the cold’.

The festival and the space it makes is great for film creatives to open, and say what they think.

Film festivals happening everywhere yet superheroes dominate box office

Fall in the north marks the start of the season of international film festivals. Venice, Montreal and Toronto have been and gone, and New York and London have recently wrapped. It’s different Down Under, of course, where the superhero movies are out in force at the same time as the venerable big two, Melbourne and Sydney.

In 2019 movie studios outdid themselves, again, as Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, became the highest grossing film of all time

The names of marquee events roll off the tongue. It’s no surprise that the United States has the most, Seattle, Sundance, Telluride, Tribeca, SXSW and all the rest. Making movies on an industrial scale began in New York, before the entrepreneurs decamped to the West Coast for the sunshine and freedom from interference, from where today they still dominate the international box office.

Despite it all, the festivals known as the big three – Berlin, Venice and Cannes – take place over on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe, filmmakers have more scope to make movies the way they want to, putting a stretch of ocean between themselves and the home of blockbusters.

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all time, beating Avatar and Titanic. Its sister film, released last year, Avengers: Infinity War is the fifth highest earner ever, and one of a handful that have grossed in excess of two billion in cinemas worldwide.

After endgame and apocalypse, where to from here?

This year the movie studios outdid themselves, again. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame, from Marvel Cinematic Universe, broke box office records to become the highest grossing film of all timesuperhero apocalypse of endgames and wars into the ever after has won, hands down, but, honestly, where to from here?

Before this century when they began to appear in earnest, the movie superhero made an occasional appearance. Their goofy, impossible heroes could be treated with indulgence, but the explosion in pseudo-serious superhero in the 21st century is something entirely new, where plot and character driven by technology rather than story-tellers interested in human drama.

Why so? It’s a question for the sociologists, but interesting that they first appeared early in the early years of the Second World War when superheroes like Superman, a Batman, and Captain Marvel joined the war effort, one way or other.

As another summer of blockbusters draws to a close, the guardians of film culture have the opportunity to nurse serious cinema back to health. With injections of new work by the ingenue directors, with a selection of classics digitally restored, and with the latest work from the established auteurs.

Martin Scorsese in The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon (2014)

The red carpet rolls for films in competition, fans throng to see the talent in the flesh, and cineastes hang out to hear what the filmmakers have to say for themselves. This year we have heard from Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman opened the festival in New York (that I was able to attend in 2019), and closed the festival in London.

It is a rare treat to hear from filmmakers directly. Too often, new work is introduced to us by the marketers, by the jargon of the business, or by fragmented reviews that try to tell a complimentary story. When filmmakers with serious intent articulate what they were doing in their own words it is an altogether different matter.

A new outing from Martin Scorsese, generally considered one of the world’s greatest living directors, is a big event in any filmgoer’s calendar.

His Irishman takes place in New York, of course. The city that has been the set for more film and television than any other in the world, where, on any given day, New Yorkers can feel that they are on a film set. They can play it up and revel in the theatre of life in one of the world’s great megapolises, or play it down.

In an interview with Empire magazine at the time, Scorsese was drawn on the subject of superhero movies. The living godfather of modern cinema said what he thought, and then doubled down on it in London.

He had tried to watch them, really he had, but found he couldn’t. They were theme park experiences, they were not cinema, didn’t tell stories, and didn’t communicate emotional and psychological experience. With that, Scorsese drew a line in the sand.

The superhero movie industry may not much like what he said. Some like New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, who had the helm for Thor: Ragnarok and will direct Thor: Love and Thunder), have spoken up. Of course it’s cinema, you see it at the theatre, don’t you?

Fans of superheroes won’t be bothered, though they did Scorsese in media studies

Fans of the genre may not be much bothered by Scorsese’s views, even though his classics such as Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and The Departed will have been on their media studies curriculum.

Waititi is of course also the creator of the terrific indie hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It has been an interesting crossover. Why did the moguls ask him to direct? What were they looking for?

Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014)      Image courtesy Marvel Studios

He is not the only one, either. Talented indie writer-director originally from Canberra, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), has also been scooped up by the superhero industry. She is directing MCU’s Black Widow with Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz, due out next year.

In interview, Scorsese is a beguiling, mild-mannered man. Mild mannered for a man whose powerful, disturbing and beautifully made films about brooding, conflicted men have shaken us up, and he has stuck his neck out here.

The Irishman, a three hour thirty minute epic delving into the familiar subjects of organised crime, family and corruption, and is distributed by Netflix, the movie juggernaut for the small screen. The director’s latest film has benefited somewhat from this behemoth and other developments, like ‘de-aging’ visual effects, but no one could counter that his films skate the surface.

Reporting what Scorsese thinks about the competition at the box office for the movie dollar is a bit of a beat-up, but sincerity is a powerful tool these days. After all, there is only that much that you can say about movie superheroes, hey.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 November 2019. Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle

* Featured image: Chris Hemsworth in Thor (2011)

Oyster premieres twice in one day

A version of this feature article was also published in print and online (6-7 October 2017) in The Canberra Times 

By  © Jane Freebury

The new Australian documentary Oyster has premiered twice this month, on different continents. It’s not so much a doubling-up as a happy coincidence, and a coup for the filmmakers.

The first event, a world premiere, took place on 28 October at the Canberra International Film Festival. The second, that same day, was on east coast USA. In Chesapeake, a region famous for its seafood, especially its clams, crabs and oysters.

When I spoke to Oyster director/cinematographer and co-producer Kim Beamish over the phone recently, he had just heard the news, but it wasn’t going to change his plans for the day. ‘It’s unfortunate that we can’t be there, but we’ve got to be here’. He will be in Canberra that day, and will be present with his producer Pat Fiske for the Q&A.

Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US, has seen the decline of the native oyster population through overharvesting, disease and habitat loss, though there is some recovery in recent times. Oyster farmers the world over from North America, to Europe, to the far South Coast of NSW where Oyster was filmed, are alert to the challenges they face from climate change.

To make Oyster, Beamish has returned to his roots, at least to the place where his family holidayed when he was young, far South Coast NSW. During those years, Beamish got to know Merimbula Lake, where Oyster is filmed, and the family oyster business now run by his old childhood friend, Dom Boyton, a second-generation oyster farmer, and his wife Pip, with assistance from their two young sons.

‘It’s actually a story that began in Canberra, way back when.’ Before marriage and children, Kim’s mother and Dom’s mother had been close friends while they both worked at the National Library. When the Boytons moved to the coast, the families would get together during school holidays and the boys became childhood friends.

‘When I came up with the idea for the film, Dom was my instant go-to. I hadn’t seen him for about 10 years, but during that time I’d been hearing about his trials and tribulations.’

The Sydney Rock Oyster that Dom Boyton farms on his oyster lease at Merimbula Lake—there are millions of them—is vulnerable to pollution, to salinity and to changes in water temperature. It takes three years to mature for sale, twice as long as the competition, the non-native Pacific Oyster. How to then deal with global warming too?

News of the trials and tribulations would still reach him while he was overseas. In 2011, Beamish was living in Egypt where his wife was posted for three years. It saw them and their children living in Cairo during the early rumblings of the Arab Spring. The doco he was making about a small group of textile artisans, known as tentmakers, was starting to take shape as a record of the impact of seismic political change.

It was a gift. With the film that resulted, The Tentmakers of Cairo, Beamish achieved an international profile when he won awards such as the Margaret Mead filmmaker and Prix Buyens-Chagoll – Visions du Réel, in 2015.

Rather like Oyster’s focus on one family, The Tentmakers in Cairo also observes a small community, a microcosm that’s affected by massive changes over which it had no control.

What does Beamish think attracts him to observing the impact of major change on the individuals who have to live it?

‘Every day Dom and Pip wake up and have to work with what the weather and the environment brings. And so, they’re the people who are at the coalface here,’ he explains. ‘While it’s the scientists, politicians, activists, and environmentalists who are in the fray, the reality is that most of us just have to get on and work, to survive. That is, I suppose, the through-line between the two films.’

It’s no surprise to hear that the type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. That said, in the film about a women’s AFL team that he is working on now, he will mix styles up more.

In The Tentmakers of Cairo there is no voice-of-god commentary and no music to manipulate viewer responses, only the immersive ambient sound that is heard in the markets.

The observational style of filmmaking is not always well appreciated or understood, and yet it has worked very well for him. Some audiences may want the guidance of voiceover, more edits, a defined perspective and answers to questions raised, but observational filmmaking allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input, either on set or in post-production.

‘Observational documentary brings you closer to the characters, and makes it easier to identify with them. I think that observational style is closer to the truth than other styles of documentary.’

Does he think it’s similar to what the sociologists and anthropologists do? ‘I think the ethnographic film has the camera on the outside looking in. I like to think that I’m involved in the situation and not just sitting on the outside looking it. I don’t know if that works, but it’s kind of how I feel.’

Like having a seat at the table? ‘Yes.’

So, what would he say to the people who can get a bit impatient with verité?

‘I think it’s for people to make up their own minds. What I hope I’m offering is information for people to come to their own conclusions.’

 

 

Kim Beamish, filmmaker

Kim Beamish on the other side of the camera Photo: Melissa Adams Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Jane Freebury

The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.

His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.

Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.

He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.

In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.

At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.

Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.

For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.

Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.

Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.

We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.

Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.

Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.

Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.

One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.

Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.

He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.

It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.

Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

Bushranger Movies: past and present

Published in print and online in the Canberra Times, 2 & 3 December:

The Legend of Ben Hall: new film about outlaw Ben Hall shows Australia’s taste for bushranger films has never diminished

ben-hall-3

Feature © Jane Freebury

Such is life, or is it? Bushranger films, one of the most popular films ever made in Australia, were banned in three states by the police in 1912, for fear of their impact on law and order. And yet the figure of the strapping, bearded outlaw who emerged from the bush and melted back into it just as quickly, may have been erased from the cinema screen but he was never killed off.

The bushranger never quite vanished from local popular culture. His (and on occasion, her) exploits outside the law continued to be celebrated in ballads and in theatre and on occasion there were relatively bland bushranger roles in films about squatter’s daughters or robberies under arms during the decades before the ban was lifted in the early 1940s.

Things were however never quite the same as they were at the start. Neither for bushrangers, nor for the local film industry. It is a widely-accepted fact that Australia’s first narrative feature, The Story of the Kelly Gang of 1906, wasn’t an isolated event. Australia was making a lot of feature-length films at that time, and in 1911 it made more than any other country in the world. Fifty-two movies were released, many of them bushranger stories, made before Hollywood began exporting its westerns in deadly earnest, and these bushranger films were a direct response to audience demand. An output of 50-plus films was not attained again until the 1970s when local film production began to re-emerge from decades of inactivity.

It was during that decade that bushrangers began to re-emerge in title roles. Ned Kelly made a bizarre re-appearance on the screen, in the form of a slight and effete rock star in 1970. It did not go down well. The swaggering Mick Jagger just didn’t cut it as the iconic outlaw, his attempt at an Irish accent didn’t work, and the production was beset with problems from the start.

Much better received were the series on the bushranger Ben Hall that appeared on Australian television a few years later, and the movie about bushranger Dan Morgan in 1976.  Philippe Mora, the director of Mad Dog Morgan director, apparently thought that his lead actor, Hollywood wild man Dennis Hopper, identified with the role. High on drugs and booze, Hopper threw himself into the part, and took his method acting to an extreme. He didn’t wash, and got so drunk after the shoot that he was arrested with a blood alcohol reading that belonged to the clinically dead.

There was a further hiatus in bushranger movies until the better behaved and milder-mannered Heath Ledger donned the metal mask in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly in 2003. Still today, the bushranger show just keeps rolling on, attracting new generations of filmmakers. A new independent Australian film, The Legend of Ben Hall, directed by Matthew Holmes, has opened with screenings across the bushranger’s patch in country NSW, and beyond.

ben-hall-4 TLOBH is the result of tremendous commitment by its dedicated team of young filmmakers. I interviewed key cast and crew as they made their way across Ben Hall country to open their film in cinemas from Griffith to Tamworth and Wollongong, and from Melbourne to Adelaide during November. The was financed with crowdfunding through Kickstarter. ‘It would not have been possible to make it without social media’, says Holmes.

A new take on Ned Kelly is also likely to make a reappearance at some point soon. There are reports that Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders; Macbeth) is working on an adaptation of the book by expatriate Australian novelist Peter Carey, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Booker Prize in 2001.

When audiences clamoured for more anti-authoritarian bushranger fun early last century, they got their wish, but within two years, bushranger film production was suppressed. The ban of 1912 effectively removed bushranger folklore from popular cultural expression. The police considered they made a mockery of the law and glorified the highwaymen to audiences largely composed of young adults and children.  The genre became a victim of its own popularity. Impossible to imagine the impact of such a draconian move. Was the mood early in federation really so febrile?

Besides being skilled horsemen, Australian bushrangers had little in common with the characters who took part in the American western. It wasn’t the frontier that they sought to extend or tame. Their patch was the bushland peripheral to settlement that gave them cover, beyond the arm of the law.

Ned Kelly, whose iconic status was certainly contributed to by the famous series of Kelly paintings by artist Sidney Nolan, has become a national icon, but there were other popular bushrangers besides him. Ben Hall for example. Alongside films about Kelly, Frank Gardiner, Captains Thunderbolt and Midnight, Hall was popularized in films as early as 1911, like Ben Hall and his Gang, and A Tale of the Australian Bush: Ben Hall the Notorious Bushranger. TLOBH director Holmes discovered during his research that none of the early films about Hall have survived.

Hall was born on the Liverpool Plains, NSW, in 1865, the son of transported convicts. He apparently took to bushranging when life turned sour for him but was a somewhat reluctant outlaw who is said to have taken up armed robbery after wrongful arrests, and his wife left him taking their child with her. During the three years that he was on the road he never took a life despite more than 600 crimes to his name and that of his gang. ‘He was definitely a criminal and his criminal career definitely exceeds Kelly’s by more than a country mile. He was definitely doing wrong, but there was also a decent man under it,’ says Holmes. It was the contradiction and the conflict that attracted him to the character.

Was there anything that Holmes and his team decided they would avoid, having seen what the other bushranger films did in the past? Without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Yeah, the Irish accent.’  As lead actor Jack Martin observes, ‘We talked about it ad nauseum and we are in total “agree-ance”.’

Early in the life of the colonies, it was convicts who escaped into the bush and became bushrangers. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the Australian-born who were holding up the coaches of Cobb & Co.

‘One of the things I have never liked about bushranger films—even The Proposition, which I love, was guilty of it—was that everyone’s talking like they were from Belfast. It grates because we have very strong evidence that the Australian accent was forming quite rapidly by the 1860s […] So what we decided with this film is that we were going to talk “Australian”.

‘It’s probably the biggest point of difference’, but then this latest version of the Ben Hall story may well be one of the first to pay much attention to the facts, as far as they can be known, anyway.

The Legend of Ben Hall premiered in Forbes on 12 November.

 

 

 

ROMAN: 10 x Polanski

Published in print and online in the Canberra Times

on 19 November 2016

 

knife-in-water-2   Preview © Jane Freebury

knife-in-water-3

 

What are we to make of Roman Polanski? The gifted auteur behind some of the great films of modern times like Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. A man who has known tragedy intimately and as a result has needed all the fantasy he could muster, he says, ‘simply to survive’. Yet he is also someone who exploited a minor. If it’s not okay to use the artist’s life to interpret their work but the converse is okay, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the events of Polanski’s life while looking at his artistic achievements.

An opportunity to take another look at this perplexing filmmaker is on its way. During the last week in November, Palace Electric Cinema will be showcasing a retrospective selection of Polanski’s work curated by film scholar and former critic for the Age newspaper, Adrian Martin, and his co-collaborator Cristina Alvarez Lopez.

rosemarys-babyThe ten Polanski films due to screen are drawn from five decades, though the majority come from the 1960s-1970s, when his work was at its best. Also attached to the program is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008), one of two documentaries made by Marina Zenovich on the statutory rape case that ultimately led to Polanski’s flight from the US to Europe in 1978.

Polanski has not returned since, not even to collect the best director Oscar for the holocaust drama The Pianist in 2003, an adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same name by a Polish Jewish musician and composer. It is well known that for this feature, Polanski drew on his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, as a Jewish youth on the run from the authorities, and witness to Nazi atrocities.

The retrospective opens with Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, a great choice. His feature film debut from 1962, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. A tautly drawn suspense thriller, it involves three people caught in a web of deception and betrayal. Masterfully directed in handsome black and white, it is one of the best first films ever. Four years later, Polanski won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival with Cul-de-Sac, an original absurdist dark comedy with Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve) about gangsters on the run, also screening.

The director had a penchant for appearing in his own films, chinatown-posteroften, but not always in minor roles for which he sometimes became notorious, like the thug who slits Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (also screening). He appears as the main character in The Tenant, in which he plays an alienated clerk who struggles to hold himself together after he moves into an apartment in which the previous tenant tried to commit suicide.

Polanski shares the lead in his genre spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), as assistant to a bumbling vampire expert. A damsel in distress that they set off to rescue is played by Sharon Tate, Polanski’s soon-to-be-wife. This penchant has resulted in a long list of acting credits, nearly as many as the films he has directed.

It was intriguing to see in Polanski’s most recent piece on sexual power games and role reversals, Venus in Fur (2013), his wife of nearly 30 years, Emmanuelle Seigneur. She plays opposite Mathieu Amalric, the slight, elfin-faced French actor who looks so much like Polanski when he was young. It has not been included in the retrospective.

Chinatown will need scant introduction, but it’s a rare opportunity to see it again on the big screen. This classic of 1970s new American cinema pushed the envelope in its day, from the chiaroscuro of its film noir origins and into the bright light of day. The youthful Faye Dunaway may have never been better and who can forget J. J. Gittes’ (Nicholson) response when asked if his slit nose hurt?  ‘Only when I breathe’.

Catherine Deneuve made an unforgettable appearance early in her career in Polanski’s Repulsion, as a timid, unstable young woman in extremis when left alone in a London flat for a few days. It is a masterpiece of psycho-sexual horror. No less disturbing is the nightmare of demonic possession, Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow appears as a young woman carrying her first child. Just who is the father? Both films helped to consolidate Polanski’s reputation for stylistic assurance and mastery of atmosphere. An aspect of the Polanski vision that Martin describes as ‘a world of sensation in which we can no longer clearly distinguish external stimuli from internal imagination’. And, as he also observes, few filmmakers ‘cherish the grotesque’ quite like Polanski, with films that ‘court fantastic extremes of sexuality and violence, sometimes celebrating such giddy excess, at other times standing back as a social moralist and judging it.’ Here is a filmmaker with something to say. And he says it so well.

The season concludes with The Ghost Writer from 2010, a political thriller in Hitchcockian vein about a wordsmith (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to ghost the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). He learns, at his isolated seaside writer’s retreat, that the previous incumbent drowned in mysterious circumstances.

The chill of fear is never far away, and again and again, Polanski’s films convincingly assert that there is no safe refuge from the demons of our unconscious. Few filmmakers have routinely incorporated, so intensely and credibly, the nightmare world of dreams into the everyday. A very challenging filmmaker, indeed.

 

ROMAN: 10 x Polanski screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, Canberra between 24 and 30 November.

 

 

 

 

Canberra International Film Festival 2016

Canberra International Film Festival 2016, bound to be different

© Jane Freebury

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Movie goers who hanker for films difficult to find anywhere else and for experiences they would not otherwise have, can look forward to Canberra’s flagship film festival’s 11-day program beginning at the end of October.

From its current home at the National Film and Sound Archive, the Canberra International Film Festival will continue the tradition that has brought loyal patrons back to it year after year since 1996. Curated with the Canberra filmgoer in mind, the program will cover new ground and introduce new voices and will complement the panel discussions, workshops and special events set to take place.

From 27 October until 11 November, filmgoers can choose from a program curated just for them. No travelling fest package here. Festival director Alice Taylor emphasizes the festival’s connection with Canberra and its commitment to diversity, with films not necessarily mainstream nor commercial, nor from Europe or the United States: ‘Some of our key programming strands are films made by women, Indigenous Australians, films from the Asia Pacific, archival content and stories from Canberra.’

The NFSA is a natural home for any film festival. What’s more, it offers the ambient charm of art-deco heritage features, state-of-the art amenity and spaces that lend themselves to cinemaphile discussions within its inviting garden courtyard.

kills-on-wheels-posterIt could be just the space to spill into after experiencing the Hungarian black comedy Kills on Wheels, about a pair of young men from a Budapest rehab center who join forces with a wheelchair-bound hitman. It has been said that, despite its hard-hitting title, it is actually coming-of-age with nuance.

Also among the 29 films curated from 15 countries, is Zoology, a drama in the magic-realist style about a young woman working in zoo administration who grows a tail. It turns her life around. Written and director by young filmmaker Ivan Tverdovskiy, it has been described by Sight and Sound magazine as a ‘startling parable about the perils of being different in contemporary Russia’. The screening will be an Australian premiere.

Established and aspiring movie buffs who see The Frankenstein Complex, can expect an absorbing study of the development of this movie monster niche. Ma’Rosa from the Philippines is another highlight. It won Jaclyn Jose best actress at Cannes this year. Bad Girl, a new film screening with Simon’s daughter, Samara, sharing the lead, will create buzz, as will new local production, Blue World Order.

The distinguished Australian cinematographer Geoff Burton, whose list of credits in Australian TV and film, includes The Sum of Us, The Year My Voice Broke, and Bedevil, will be a guest of the festival. He will do a Q&A after the screening of Storm Boy, discussing his role behind the camera in that Australian classic from 1978, recently digitally restored.

Burton will also lead a discussion on the techniques involved in shooting analog film. For this he will be joined by cinematographer Robb Shaw-Velzen, who specializes in digital filmmaking. Shaw-Velzen worked on the post-apocalyptic feature Blue World Order that makes good use of Canberra locations including Black Mountain tower and Lake George, and incorporates certain local personalities, like Chief Minister Andrew Barr who appears as an extra with eyes aglow and brain in thrall to others. After the exclusive preview screening of Blue World Order there will be a Q&A with director Che Baker and cast and crew.

children_of_the_revolution_1996_film

Another highlight will be the screening of Children of the Revolution, a twentieth birthday gala screening. Those who have seen the film be aware that the late Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, spent his last night in the arms of a committed young communist (Judy David).  The result was their love child (Richard Roxburgh). A Q&A will follow with director Peter Duncan and actor Richard Roxburgh, both now work together on the TV series Rake. Children of the Revolution won the CIFF audience award at the inaugural festival in 1996.

Festival director Taylor points to a focus on women, in front of and behind the camera, at this year’s CIFF. Eight of the feature films are directed by women, including doco about Ngunnawal elder, Aunty Agnes Shea, Pat Fiske’s Footprints on Our Land. Heart of a Dog comes from New York avant-garde artist and composer/musician Laurie Anderson. Elisa Paloschi’s documentary, Driving with Selvi, is about a child bride who escapes her marriage to become a taxi driver. Play Your Gender, from Stephanie Clattenburg, explores why a meagre five percent of music producers are female while so many of the most bankable pop stars are female. It asks what it takes for a woman to make it in music.

The closing night film is Cinema Travellers, filmed over five years in India, about the showmen riding cinema lorries who take the wonder of cinema to far-flung villages around the subcontinent. It premiered in the official selection this year at Cannes.

As a national capital Canberra is home to audiences who are ‘uniquely worldly’, observes fest director Taylor, who ‘like to be challenged and engage with topical ideas’. Moreover, the city large expat community expect windows on the world at its doorstep, and the city now has a burgeoning profile as a screen production hub. CIFF is bound to be different.

Published in the Canberra Times online (in print 22 October)

Canberra International Film Festival

Joe Cinque’s Consolation, film director interview

Published in the Canberra Times on 23 September 2016

Joe Cinque’s Consolation highlights ambiguities

 

joe-poster

© Jane Freebury

It is now nearly two decades since a young civil engineer died in a flat in Canberra’s inner north after his live-in girlfriend injected him with heroin. The case has been dealt with in the courts but for the young man’s family and others, including award-winning Canberra filmmaker Sotiris Dounoukos, it still seems that the death of 26-year-old Joe Cinque has yet to be put to rest.

Joe Cinque was injected with heroin while already heavily sedated with rohypnol. He lay helpless and unconscious for many hours, vomiting blood, but  no call was made for an ambulance until it was too late to save him. His girlfriend’s inaction was compounded by others who could have also prevented the death. The court proceedings seemed to deal inadequately with the case. Unanswered questions abound.

It was a singularly shocking event for this relatively quiet town. The photo that circulated in the media at the time showed an attractive young couple, professional and university educated, their arms around each other, mocking the claims that emerged about mutual suicide pacts and bizarre ‘send off’ dinners. And as reports of witness inaction emerged, they were hard to square with our sense of duty of care towards others.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. In late September, I spoke to Dounoukos by skype while he transitted in Los Angeles on his way back from the Montreal International Film Festival where Joe Cinque’s Consolation, his first feature, had also screened. In 2014, he won the inaugural best international short film award there for his Un Seul Corps.

The Joe Cinque case brought highly regarded author Helen Garner to Canberra to observe the court proceedings. It resulted in her ‘true crime’ novel Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law , which, like her writing in The First Stone and This House of Grief, pitches its writer and reader together head first into morally complex terrain.

No sooner had Dounoukos finished reading Helen Garner’s book than he felt the need to return to the beginning, to answer his unanswered questions. ‘The anger, melancholy and sadness that you are left with makes you return to the book and go over it again, and over the details again in the hope that you don’t miss something…’ (a second time).

The facts are stark and the interpretations contentious, and there is conflict between how the lay person looks at the facts, and how the court interprets them.. ‘This gentle and committed young man was executed by his girlfriend,’ he recalls. ‘No matter how you cut it, you want people not to escape that fact.’

Dounoukos was given the rights to Garner’s book, the first and only film to have acquired them. How did  the writer- director and co-writer Matt Rubenstein begin work on their adaptation? Well, they knew they didn’t want a courtroom drama with a central journalist figure. They wanted something more immediate, something that allowed the audience to stand in for Garner, as the investigative presence she is in her book.

‘We wanted something that allowed the audience to take her place, almost as if they were sitting in that courtroom, or sitting at that dinner table.’ At the same time, ‘the profound questions that she raises would be our ultimate goal’.

The film concentrates on the period leading up to Cinque’s death, while Garner’s book concentrates on the aftermath and the court trials. Still, ‘It was absolutely an adaptation. The world of the book, the tone of the book, except we tried to make Helen’s journey, our journey.’

I say that I’ve always been impressed by the way Garner inserts herself into her writing and makes no bones about her views, a brave thing to do. For Dounoukos, her transparency is liberating.

Could we anticipate that Dounoukos had also inserted himself within the text of his film? ‘Yeah, look it’s inescapable.’

‘Yes, I definitely embrace that, as a fact of storytelling, an inescapable element of the construction of any narrative. Matt Rubenstein and I saw this as particularly relevant to this set of facts. You’ve got this storytelling happening between the characters, and one of the reasons Joe died is because people were trying to figure out what was for real, what was true, and what wasn’t.’

‘One of the things we see in the film is the passage between stories we want to believe because they’re compelling and stories we want to believe because they’re convenient.’

And the interpretations in law and psychiatry? ‘It’s interesting. […] most people’s instincts are that there was a great injustice. It’s almost like people want to know what was wrong with her (Singh) while at the same time they look at the facts and say, no matter what it was, it was an organised execution, and the sentence wasn’t enough.’ Singh was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. She was released from prison after four years, and has recently completed a PhD.

Since Garner’s exceptional book, other attempts have been made to tell the story of Joe Cinque. Dounoukos is highly critical. ‘You know, the fact is that some people were turned on by the audacity and success of her plan.’

‘Like everyone when I read the book, I was left with a lot of questions about how the judgement came down. As much as Justice Crispin is a good judge and a fine jurist, I went straight back to page one and re-read that book for more insights. And it’s precisely that that motivated the making of the film.’

‘I wanted to articulate the question through the medium that I’m involved in and maybe to be part of a public discourse, or to provoke a public discourse, in the way that cinema can, and literature can’t,’ he added.

Something stirs in my cinema memory. The 1988 film by Errol Morris, one of the best docos ever, about a young man wrongfully imprisoned in Texas for the death of a policeman. ‘ You must be familiar with The Thin Blue Line?’ I ask.

‘Absolutely,’ Dounoukos replies.

Dounoukos is a graduate in law from the Australian National University, and was studying at the same time as Singh. She was a friend of friends. He went on to study film at the VCA, and has made award-winning short films.

So is it now correct to call him a former lawyer? ‘I’m a former lawyer. Matt is back at the law.[…] He’s raising a family… in Sydney.’

Dounoukos got to know the Cinque family well as he developed his project. In preparing them for the film that was to come into being, he explained to them that his actors would ‘justify and fight’ for their characters.

And now?  ‘They’ve seen the film and, as difficult as it was, appreciated that I’ve made the film I set out to make which includes being very clear about what I think. What’s right and wrong, despite the ambiguity and shades of grey we all have to contend with. But they’re very smart people, very fair and the true victims of crime in this narrative.’

Malcolm – ‘harmless, innocent, shy, gentle, a genius…and wanted’

 

This articles was published in the Canberra Times on 16 September 2016.

Remembering hit Aussie film Malcolm

 

  © Jane Freebury

malcolm-poster

A film about a shy, retiring type whose love of all things mechanical inadvertently draws him into holding up banks was one of the surprise hits of the 1980s.  Yes, Malcolm, who is played with impish intelligence by Colin Friels, is happier in his own world of gadgetry than he is in company.

The Australian film industry experienced some surprises in 1986, and Malcolm with Colin Friels was one of them. That same year there was also this other yarn about a brash, self-assured crocodile hunter, Crocodile Dundee, and it has broken all sorts of box office records, then and since, but  audiences here and overseas found a space for Malcolm. Another kind of folk hero, one that robs banks.

Malcolm is remembered with great affection by many, including director Nadia Tass and cinematographer and screenwriter David Parker, who were also producers. It was a surprise hit. It was said at the time that it came out of nowhere and was one of the best surprises of the year. During September, this heist caper and buoyant offbeat comedy screened at the National Film and Sound Archive, a celebration of its 30 years in release.

In late August, I interviewed the filmmakers, husband and wife Tass and Parker, from their base in Melbourne. How was it for you that year, entering your first feature film into the market when Crocodile Dundee was wolfing up the box office?

Yes, there were moments when they felt like it was a question of David to Goliath, but they point to the 21 international awards Malcolm won. It collected many, including the Australian Film Institute award for best film. The AFI best film award in 1986 was in fact one of a total of 8 AFI awards, including an award each for director Tass and screenwriter Parker.

It was also an official entrant in the London Film Festival, where it won the Golden Sprocket, before it was released here, and was an official entrant at the film festivals in Venice, Houston, Toronto, Moscow and Pia, in Japan. ‘We had our world premiere in New York, even before Australia had taken any notice of us,’ recalls Parker.

Where did the ideas come from? From ‘David’s warped mind’, Tass suggests playfully. Parker was responsible for the ingenious gadgets that Malcolm built to improve his quality of life: the letterbox that clatters on a miniature train tracks to deliver at the front window, the birdcage that flies its occupant to replenish its supply of seed, and the miniature milk truck that delivers bottles, saving Malcolm the chore of visiting his local shop a few doors away. Malcolm’s inner city home is his playground, inside and out, and one of the joys of the film is its celebration of invention.

Tass and Parker appear to have come at the project from different directions. It is in all likelihood one of the key contributing factors to the film’s texture, and its critical and commercial success.

The observant viewer will notice among the final credits a dedication to John Tassopoulos, who died three years before the film’s release. The character of Malcolm, socially awkward and introverted, but a mechanical genius, was loosely based on Tass’s brother who had Asperger’s syndrome and died in his 20s from an epileptic seizure after being hit by a car.

Was her brother also fixated on trams, like Malcolm? ‘Yes, very much. Trains, trams, vehicles and all things moving,’ recalls Tass, who can’t be alone in her own affection for Melbourne trams, ‘especially green and yellow ones’. ‘He was a combination of vulnerability and incredible innocence with a fierce intellect behind it all.’

Since Malcolm, we’ve seen other local films about characters on the autism spectrum, like The Black Balloon, Bad Boy Bubby and Mary and Max, and I suggest to Tass and Parker that they were in a way ahead of their time.

‘We didn’t go into this wanting emotion from the audience. We saw it as a piece of entertainment. Up to the time when Malcolm came out, Asperger’s syndrome or autism was presented from a very sentimentalised perspective. … We didn’t do that, so we broke that mould.’ Where someone can have special needs but at the same time very positive attributes. The filmmakers focussed on what Malcolm could do rather than on what he could not.

With skin in the game over three decades, Tass and Parker, are an indefatigable duo of passionate filmmakers—and thoughtful and energetic mentors for aspiring filmmakers. They are great models for production rigour, for example, stressing the importance of ensuring that scripts are mature and ready to shoot, and that production involves consistent rigorous attention to detail.

After Malcolm, Tass and Parker followed up with more attractive, buoyant, and idiosyncratic films like The Big Steal, Amy, Rikky and Pete, and Mr Reliable, that constitute a distinctive body of comedic work. Australian comedy can often seem to be synonymous with a kind of larrikinism and crude humour that can work just fine, but it is not the only way to get a laugh.

‘Quirky’ is a word that comes to mind for their work, and in a very good way. Their work may well have prompted the original association that was made between quirkiness and Australian film, though they can hardly be held responsible for the hackneyed use that resulted. It was freshly minted when Tass and Parker started out.

The film begins at dawn aboard Malcolm’s custom-built one-man tram, a joyride that results in our hero losing his job at Melbourne’s tram maintenance depot. The knock-on effect is that he has to take in a boarder to make ends meet. Enter Frank (marvellous John Hargreaves, who was to die of Aids at 50, sadly), hilarious in skinny jeans and bottom lip ready for rollies. He is fresh out of prison, and back in business.

His live-in girlfriend drops in and stays on, adding a bit of brainpower to Frank’s crooked plan, but it is Malcolm’s contribution that gives it the edge when he joins the team. His contribution, inter alia, is a car that splits in two, confounding the police who give chase with a getaway in two directions that can slip into alleyways too narrow for police vehicles.

The very yellow car is on display now at the NFSA in Canberra.

 

 

 

Landmark Australian film Shine turns Twenty

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

Shine 2

 

© by Jane Freebury

When Geoffrey Rush was up for a best actor award at the Academy Awards in 1997 for his performance as a troubled concert pianist in Shine, the fellow nominees were daunting company, as they usually are.  There was Ralph Fiennes (a cartologist-adventurer in The English Patient), Billy Bob Thornton (a murderer with intellectual disability in Sling Blade), Tom Cruise (a slick sports agent in Jerry Maguire) and Woody Harrelson (pornography publisher in The People vs Larry Flynt). Movie acting establishment, every one of them.

Shine had received seven Oscar nominations in all and though The English Patient won best film that year, it was Shine that people everywhere took to their hearts.  For Rush, the rest is history.

It was a triumph for Australian cinema. A triumph for Rush certainly, and for the rest of the team who had the other Oscar nominations—production, direction, screenplay, editing, support performance, and composition. Nine BAFTA nominations and five Golden Globe nominations also went Shine’s way, and there were many other awards. A tribute to Australia’s filmmaking smarts? Absolutely, and as contemporary drama it showed people what could be made here, besides ocker comedies and colonial dramas. ‘It worked in every market it played in and took around $100 million at the box office worldwide,’ recalls Scott Hicks, the director, in our recent interview. ‘It formed a new beachhead for Australian film in the US…’, taking around $36 million. ‘In Australia it ran for more than a year.’ ‘Unthinkable, unheard of these days’, and to start with ‘it was a film nobody wanted to make’.

It is 20 years since Shine was released, through Ronin Films, Canberra. To mark this anniversary, the filmmakers are gathering for events due to take place at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive. On 13 August, the team from Ronin will discuss the film’s innovative release into the Australian market, and there will be a screening followed by Q&A with Geoffrey Rush, producer Jane Scott, director Scott Hicks, and writer Jan Sardi. On the following day, David Helfgott will give a concert, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3, in an arrangement for two pianos with UK pianist Rhodri Clarke. In 2017, Helfgott will be taking ‘Rach 3’ to Vienna, Istanbul and Berlin.

In the early 1990s, Hicks cast Rush for the role of Helfgott based on what he had seen of his work on stage. Rush was an untested screen presence, but a respected theatre actor and had only just been on screen with a couple of very small parts prior. When Rush had asked Hicks to say in just a single word what Shine was about, the director nominated ‘redemption’, and the actor was onboard.

Rush was in his mid-40s when Susan Sarandon handed the golden statuette at the Academies, there was nothing ‘overdue’ about it. Moreover, stage to screen is not a necessarily easy or natural transition. Although he was new to the screen, Rush took almost every award possible that year, including the Boston Society of Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild awards.

Watching Shine again twenty years on is a rare pleasure. As Hicks says, ‘It’s a story about a boy who never grew up. As David would say, “I never grew up, I grew down”’! Rush just leaps off that trampoline and through the screen with his exuberant performance. At the same time compelling in those quiet moments, that you may need to listen closely so you catch the wit and worldplay. ‘Every single word of was based on the way that David spoke,’ recalls Jan Sardi, the screenwriter.

Sardi must have been delighted to hear that his script was a great read, compared to other scripts that Rush received to read, that seemed to him put together like the ingredients for a recipe. Hicks had handed his original script, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, to screenwriter Sardi (who went on to make Mao’s Last Dancer), who spent 5-6 years working it. ‘It was very important to understand David as a young boy and the key relationship was obviously his father and those other expectations that were placed on him, which informed the journey that he took in his life.’

‘It’s all about structure,’ says Sardi. In a way, a film is like a poem, as it is not possible to include everything. ‘It was a case of building the story, giving the audience a sense of the journey they are on, and why they were watching it.’

It is surprising to realise that Geoffrey Rush is actually on screen for around half the running time of the 1.46-minute film, and yet his character is unforgettable. So commanding is his performance as the adult Helfgott, institutionalized for years until the opportunity arose for him to play piano again.

The world would see much more of Rush in the years to come, as the comic actor himself in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, as a reptilian royal fixer Walsingham in Elizabeth, as a jolly royal speech therapist in The King’s Speech and, totally over the top as Captain Hector Barbarossa throughout The Pirates of the Caribbean cycle. Over the years, Rush has never failed to return to the local film industry that nurtured him, or the Australian stage.

Shine 3Yet, Shine was a watershed moment for many involved. It launched the international career of the director Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedars, No Reservations) and actor Noah Taylor, who has carved something of a niche for himself in eccentric characters ever since. The performances by Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz of Helfgott as his much younger selves ought not be forgotten. As the adolescent Helfgott, Taylor provides a remarkable foundation for Rush to work with, although the young actor had no access to Helfgott as he was at that point in his life. Indeed, Taylor carries the character for most of the first half, from the point when he is identified as a musical prodigy at 14 to his breakdown in his 20s while a student at the Royal College of Music in London. In interview, Rush has said that people tell him about scenes they recall in Shine that he himself actually wasn’t in. ‘It was actually the other actor’, ‘a bit of an unsung hero’ in the film.

The actor Armin Mueller-Stahl was also an Oscar nominee in 1997 for his support role as David’s father, Peter. The characterization of Helfgott senior, a Holocaust survivor and from the film’s perspective, an overbearing and destructive presence in his son’s life, prompted refutations by other members of the Helfgott family.

Be that as it may, Shine is the astonishing story of a man brought to his knees by mental breakdown, but subsequently able to find his music again, and joy, expression and fulfilment in his later years, during his marriage to Gillian, an astrologer (played by Lynne Redgrave).

In some way, the struggle within David Helfgott seems to be represented by the contrasting moods and levels of difficulty in Mozart and Rachmaninoff, his music teacher’s choice versus what his father wanted him to play. The light and the dark. Was it difficult, given the sad and difficult places Helfgott travelled through during his life, to make Shine a life-affirming story? ‘In some ways the responsibility of all art is to give hope,’ says Sardi. For Hicks, ‘the whole point of the story was the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the nature of drama really. To feel the power of the highs, you have to experience the lows.’

 

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/national-film-and-sound-archive-celebrates-20-years-since-the-release-of-shine-a-watershed-moment-for-australian-cinema-20160726-gqdzbt.html

Arab Film Festival

Halal Love poster

© by Jane Freebury

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

 

Halal or haram? Legal or illegal? That’s the question at the heart of Halal Love, a revealing comedy that features during the Arab Film Festival, now in its 13th year. Socially relevant and progressive, it looks at the tangled lives of contemporary urban Muslims as they try to navigate love, marriage and desire in contemporary Lebanon. It went to Sundance Film Festival in January with its alternative title, Halal Love (and Sex).

Halal Love was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival late last year, and has been seen widely on the festival circuit, including Sydney, Rotterdam, Locarno, and Edinburgh. Challenging stereotypes, no doubt, that are widely held. Starting off in a classroom during a sex education class, Halal Love is an eye-opener into the battle of the sexes, Muslim-style, as couples try to manage their love lives creatively, without breaking the rules.

halal love 2 poster

There are three intertwined love stories. A mother, too tired for sex with her amorous husband at the end of a long day, who recruits a second wife to help out, and help her with cooking, cleaning and looking after the lively kids. A pathologically jealous young man who keeps divorcing his beautiful new wife every time she looks at another man the wrong way, until he can no longer marry and make up. Not before she marries another man and consummates the union, will he be able to marry her again—a fourth time. Just desserts, anyone? And there’s a young divorcee who can marry her true love, but only on a short-term contract, because he is already married with family.

The writer-director of this bitter-sweet comedy, Assad Fouladkar, is a guest of the Arab Film Festival this year. Over the phone from Sydney he told me how he had sourced his ideas. With input from the women he knew? No, it was not like that. ‘Although Halal Love is mainly stories about women and it’s mostly their point of view, the ideas are from what I remembered hearing in my childhood, from what women talk about in private, in their homes.’

‘I wanted people to get inside my world. […] To get inside my bedroom…!’, he explained, to understand that in the Arab-speaking world, life is the same as it is for everyone everywhere else, a struggle within family and relationships. The pursuit of happiness, inalienable right or not, is what most of us strive for.

Fouladkar is based in Egypt where the majority of Arab-language cinema and television is made, around 75 percent of the output. He has eight seasons of the successful sitcom, A Man and Six Ladies, to his name. So what is the most popular film genre in the Arab-speaking world? ‘Always comedy,’ Fouladkar responded without a second’s hesitation. Everyone needs diversion from the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East.

The Arab Film Festival offers a unique entrée into the lives of people of the Arab world. Three of the films screening in the touring festival, including Halal Love, a coproduction with Germany, hail from Lebanon. Two are from Egypt, two from Iraq, and one each from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar. Home, directed by Shahin Alanezi, is an Australian production. A selection of these films will be screening in Canberra.

This is the first time that a film from Syria appears. Waiting for the Fall explores how the inhabitants of a small town try to maintain normality in war-time, as far as it is possible.  An air strike is expected anytime soon but they are keeping a steady focus on the women’s volleyball final. When a local photographer is taken prisoner by rebels everything can unravel at any moment. Alternating between suspense, slapstick, satire, and poignancy, Waiting for the Fall captures the surreal mix of life in a warzone.  It was awarded the prize for best film in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition at the Cairo International Film Festival.

Roshmia poster A Palestinian documentary is also screening here. Roshmia is a study of an elderly and childless refugee couple who are in a final standoff with local authorities over their home, a shack in the Roshmia valley. It is written and directed by a Syrian filmmaker, Salim Abu Jabal, who is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Roshmia will screen with another doco, Home, a short film made in Australia. It looks at how an Iraqi refugee struggles to accept her son’s embrace of Australian culture over the traditions of his family background. Director Shahin Alanezi arrived here in 2008.

El Clasico posterThe final film in the Canberra season, El Clasico, directed by Halkawt Mustafa, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. Set in another battleground, Iraq, it tells the story of dwarf Kurdish brothers who make a quixotic overland trip to see football’s game of games in Madrid, thereby gaining acceptance and winning hearts and minds. It is played by brothers in real life, and, like all of the films set to screen, affords a glimpse into people and cultures so rarely seen on our screen.

A selection of films from the touring Arab Film Festival  screen at the National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton, ACT, 5-7 August.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/arab-film-festival-at-national-film-and-sound-archive-in-canberra-a-unique-view-into-private-lives-in-the-arab-world-20160725-gqcxce.html

Stronger Than Fiction Documentary Film Festival

First published in the Canberra Times on 23 July 2016

© by Jane Freebury

Two years ago, a bitter-sweet documentary about the backing singers behind stars like Jagger, Sting, Springsteen and Bowie won the Oscar for best documentary. Not only did the Morgan Neville doco, 20 Feet from Stardom, beat The Square, about upheavals in Egypt’s ‘Arab spring’, it also beat The Act of Killing, about the murderous political realities in Indonesia in the 1960s. It was the story of vocalists in the shadow of fame that won the day instead.

Music of Strangers 2  A new doco from Neville, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, will open this year’s Stronger Than Fiction film festival, Canberra’s own and now in its fourth year. On the program are 13 films, all sourced from overseas—and they screen just once.

Simon Weaving, co-director of the festival with Deborah Kingsland, told me how they made it happen.  ‘Deb and I watched a lot of films from Sundance in January onwards. It’s a new batch of films. … We pick between 12 and 15 really smart, cinematic films with great stories that we know will work for Canberra audiences. The other really good thing about the festival is that we get some wonderful Q&As going.’ There are five over the four-day festival.

The Music of Strangers will open the festival on 28 July. It explores the musical collective that celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought together in 2000. The original idea was to incorporate the best musicians in their field from the cultures located along the historical Silk Road, from countries like China, India, Syria, Armenia, Iran and Spain. Now, the ensemble brings musicians, composers and artists together around the world in a quest for a universal language of music.

Is everybody ready for the first documentary feature on Janis Joplin? Janis 1-Sheet final.inddIn Janis: Little Girl Blue, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg brings the Joplin story to the screen, told in the singer’s own words through letters to family and friends. How surprising that it has taken so long for a doco that is just about her, the Texan with the raw and uninhibited style who was one of the top blues singers of the 1960s.

Music has a part to play in some other documentaries screening at Stronger Than Fiction, like The Queen of Silence and the Matthew Passion Stories. And also Sonita, about a feisty 16-year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran whose brother has arranged her marriage. She resists, gaining strength through her music.

A European coproduction, Free to Run explores a rather different source of endorphins, running. The running movement that was once a marginal activity reserved for men has now become, in the words of the festival program, ‘a worldwide passion’. This unusual study suggests there was, however, more to the right to run than we were ever aware of.

A film from New Zealand will demonstrate that endurance can mean different things to different people. Tickled, delivered with that particular Kiwi humour, is a study of the ‘sport’ of ‘competitive endurance tickling’. Funny or sinister? It is a bit hard to say.

Fire at SeaThe film that won the Golden Bear for best film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Fire at Sea, looks at the migrant crisis through their eyes of the people of Lampedusa, the southern-most island of Italy, a little more than 100 kilometres from Tunisia, and the first staging post for migrants entering Europe. ‘This is cinema, the most exquisite piece of cinema,’ says Weaving.

Jim: The James Foley Story bears witness to the life of freelance war photojournalist Foley captured and so publicly executed by ISIS, and considers the state of international conflict reporting in today’s media market. Jim Foley poster 2

‘This is about Jim but it goes beyond, and touches on the meaning of life,’ says Weaving. ‘It’s really powerful.’ No wonder it won the audience award at Sundance this year. At a time when values can be ‘a bit soft, and bendy and anything goes, here was a man who was very clear about what he stood for…it was clear that it gave him such incredible strength and he was able to share that strength (with fellow captives).’

It’s been said at some point by one of the greats of documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris (who made the classic doco The Thin Blue Line released in 1988), that you have to at least try to find the truth, even if you cannot guarantee it. He’s also said that the beauty of documentary filmmaking is that you just don’t know where your story is heading. From the outset, how your voyage is going to end is unknown.

Stronger Than Fiction features one of those classic investigation films that Morris would have had in mind. Zero Days is a search for truth in the clandestine world of cyber warfare by renowned documentarian, Alex Gibney, following the development and spread of a computer virus that closed down industrial control systems across the world in 2012. It will be fast a paced and unsettling experience, we can be sure. Gibney is responsible for some of the best documentaries in recent times, like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and the Oscar winner, Taxi to the Dark Side.

Another of the world’s best and also most prolific, documentarians, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man and many more) features at Stronger Than Fiction. He has made a meditation in his inimitable style on the internet, projecting the impact of the digital environment on our lives into the future in Lo and Behold. Reveries of the Connected World. A kind of companion piece to Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that projected into our pre-historic past?

Besides all this, Stronger Than Fiction offers a bit of live theatre too. Aspiring filmmakers with an idea for a new doco can pitch it to an industry panel at the Doco Pitch Slam, and get instant feedback. The slam, standing-room only, features at the festival every year.

 

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/superior-batch-of-films-for-canberra-audiences-in-this-years-stronger-than-fiction-documentary-film-festival-20160719-gq944v.html

 

The Wolf in Australian Art

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2016

Wolf in Australian Art

© by Jane Freebury

In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, young Danila Vassilieff, a trained engineer and former White Army soldier, left his homeland behind. After extensive travels in Asia, he made his way to Australia with his wife, also a Russian refugee. He became an Australian citizen, and began to paint but the wanderlust returned and he set off around the world. When he eventually returned, he became a key figure in the development of figurative expressionism in Australia. Prominent painters influenced by him during the 1940s include Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman.

For all this, the legacy of painter and sculptor Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff has been overlooked, says Richard Moore whose new documentary film explores his legacy. Moore, a former head of the Melbourne International Film Festival, has extensive experience as a director and producer in film and television.

The Wolf in Australian Art is based on research by Moore’s mother, Felicity St John Moore, with contributions from his brother and his sister. Felicity features as the gallery guide through the Vassilieff collection at the National Gallery of Australia, that holds the biggest collection of his work in the country. Around 300 works are shown in the film.

It was the sculptures by Vassilieff, wrought in marble found in Lilydale that was the artist’s eventual home, that first caught Felicity’s eye.

‘The film is based on Felicity’s book, Vassilieff and His Arts. I directed and produced the film, my brother Tim (Moore), who is head of exhibition design at National Portrait Gallery. He designed the major exhibition of Vassilieff’s work where sections of the film are shot, and my sister Lisa (Moore) plays the majority of the music.’ Lisa, a professional pianist, lives in the US.

‘A bit of a family affair’, Moore says, who I interviewed from Melbourne this week. ‘And we’re still talking!’

Art historian, author and curator, Felicity St John Moore, was formerly head of Education at the NGA, training guides and giving public lectures. Her book on Vassilieff, first published in 1982, is in its second edition.

While in London in the 1930s, Vassilieff encountered the Ballets Russes and the Russian moderns, and from this point his work was underpinned by the traditions of the figurative tradition from Russian folk art and the modernist avant-garde, as he sought to paint life as it is lived. When back in Australia, he established his reputation through a confident confrontation with fine art, insisting that it was the visceral response and the message in art that mattered, rather than the aesthetics.

‘Vassilieff was a colourful, eccentric, unusual character,’ says Moore. An outsider who didn’t really fit in? A restless intelligence? Yes, and yes. ‘He changed styles constantly. He was a shape shifter.’ He had a liberating effect on young Australian artists who felt emboldened to trust their own vision. However, unfortunately, he only sold five of his own paintings during his lifetime.

The ‘Wolf’, where does that come from? It’s a playful label, says Moore, derived in part from Vassilieff’s Peter and the Wolf watercolours, held in the NGA. ‘And he was also a voracious lover’, who had many affairs.

The Wolf in Australian Art is an opportunity to re-evaluate the contribution of Vassilieff, considered a father figure to the generation of Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker known as the Angry Penguins, helping them to find their voice.

http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/canberra-life/the-wolf-in-australian-art-at-the-national-gallery–danila-vassilieff-20160717-gq7uft.html

 

The Wolf in Australian Art screened at the National Gallery of Australia in July, introduced by director, Richard Moore, and followed by a Q&A.