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

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

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

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


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.




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.


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.–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.


Scandinavian Film Festival 2016

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 July 2016



© by Jane Freebury  land of mine poster

Arriving with the mid-winter chill, the Scandinavian Film Festival is back on cue this July. By turns bold and beautiful, Scandinavian cinema can be outrageous, funny and frank, and can deliver a jolt, like a shot of vodka, straight to the solar plexus.

As a catch-all for countries of the Nordic tradition, the festival captures the latest cinema from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as Finland and Iceland. It is now in its third year.

In recent times, Scandinavian film has been acquiring a bit of a name for itself. As It Is in Heaven was a uniquely stirring, endorphin releasing film from the region that was a soaring hit here in Australia around 12 years ago. With Michael Nyqvist as an ailing conductor who rediscovers joy with a choir in his remote hometown, this film ran continuously at the Hayden Orpheum cinema in Cremorne, Sydney, for more than two years.

A special event at the Scandinavian festival this year will be its sequel. As It Is in Heaven 2: Heaven on Earth, made by the same director, Kay Pollak, picks up where the original left off, after Nyqvist’s character passes away. The young Norwegian actor, Jakob Oftebro, who appears in it, is this year’s festival guest.

Oftebro was recently recognized as one of the top ten best young European actors in 2014. He also appears in the lead in the historical drama, Gold Coast, as a rebellious, anti-colonialist idealist who is sent to a Danish colony in Africa in the 19th century. The film was a recent nominee for the top film prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Idealism is also explored in another Danish film due to screen. It concerns the actions of a journalist who exposes an international cover-up following a nuclear accident in Greenland in 1968. The Idealist has won several awards, and indeed, nearly all of the films screening at the festival have been either film festival nominees or awards winners.

Land of Mine, the winner of the best film award this year at Gothenburg, the Nordic film awards, is also screening at Scandi.  For the Gothenburg jury it is ‘a film which shows the tragic cycles of war, when the winners adopt the brutal techniques of the losers’. It was in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival.

the fencer poster Another intimate human drama in the aftermath of WWII is The Fencer, Finland’s official Oscar contender. Based on real events, it is about a fencing master and former reluctant recruit to the German armed forces, who settles in a remote village in Estonia in an attempt to leave his past behind.

Welcome to Norway!, selected for opening night of the festival, promises to throw political correctness to the winds with comedy about a struggling entrepreneur who turns his rundown hotel into a state-funded refugee asylum to stay financially afloat. Welcome to Norway! won the audience award earlier this year at the Nordic awards at Gothenburg.

welcome to norway posterWhen one of the big news stories emanating from Europe now is immigration, the Swedish documentary, Nice People, seems particularly topical. It reveals how rural Swedes and Somali refugees find common language as they form a team to play ‘bandy’, a cross between ice hockey and soccer, apparently. Clearly a crowd pleaser, it won the audience award at the 2015 Hamburg Film Festival.

nice people poster  Around a quarter of the films screening at the Scandi festival are billed as comedies, or variants of. Some memorable comedies have emerged from Scandinavia in recent years. The Swedish absurdist comedy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, featured at the inaugural Scandinavian festival in 2014. Robert Gustafsson played the part of the centenarian whose life odyssey was revealed in the vein of Forrest Gump. The actor, a king of comedy in Sweden, turned out to be a sprightly 50-year-old. If you caught Headhunters from Norway, another Scandinavian festival film that went into release here in 2014, it was also a riot of hilarity, though of a more grisly and twisted kind.

Last year, Rams from Iceland appeared on the festival program. I suppose you might call it comedy, in spite of itself, but it is more memorable for the extraordinary landscapes and the dogged and perverse resilience of the Icelanders that it introduced us to.

Many of us have become addicts of the morally complex crime fiction that’s become known as ‘Nordic noir’, in TV series like The Bridge and Borgen. This is distinct from the ‘Nordic gloom’ that Scandinavian cinema has been known for, fairly or unfairly. That grand old man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman, long gone now, who left us with unforgettable movie experiences like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, can’t be held entirely responsible for this reputation.

Not when there are striking dark journeys into the soul in the terrific films of the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier like Open Hearts and Brothers.  The new enfant terrible of Danish cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn has brushed aside his aging predecessor, Lars Von Trier, for the time being at least with work that is visually arresting, propulsive and harrowing like Drive and Only God Forgives.

A sidebar of the festival is Winding Refn’s Pusher gangland trilogy. Don’t be fooled by this director’s bland image of the corporate clone. His work typically has style to burn but is not for the faint-hearted. The trilogy features early performances by the remarkable Mads Mikkelsen, who has shown his sensitive side to international audiences since in dramas like The Hunt and After the Wedding.

The Scandi cinema has built quite a profile in recent years, and its actors, like ours, are flying high. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Sweden was huge, so huge that it had to be remade it in English with Daniel Craig. The Millennium series’ original star, Noomi Rapace, has joined the international film industry, as has Mads Mikkelsen, playing opposite James Bond in Casino Royale, and Alicia Vikander, in Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl.

It’s quite a record for a group of countries spread across vast arctic spaces with a combined population that adds up to just 26 million people.

The Scandinavian Film Festival screens between 12 – 27 July at the Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, ACT.


Scorsese by Stratton

   raging bull

© Jane Freebury

When he notched up 18 years as director of the Sydney Film Festival, David Stratton became a founding father of movie culture in this country. He needs no introduction. While he was a TV film critic opposite Margaret Pomeranz for the next three decades, their opinions mattered to people across the generations and it is likely they are still missed.

Over the years, Stratton would have seen countless filmmakers, actors and movie trends come and go, and re-invent themselves. So a season of the work of Martin Scorsese, one of the best filmmakers of the last 50 or so years, curated by Stratton, is an especially happy coincidence of film buff critic and film buff director. It would be great to see them go head to head, but we have instead, during July, a season of 17 films from the oeuvre of Scorsese. ‘Scorsese by Stratton’ is on at Arc cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive during July.

Stratton’s views and opinions are probably better known in this country than the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese. It is something of a paradox.

The name Scorsese stands as a shorthand for the violent, masculine drama that lets rip in Casino and Goodfellas, yet the diminutive and softly spoken Italian-American is a far more versatile filmmaker than he is generally thought to be. We may think we are pretty familiar with movies. Who hasn’t heard of his infamous protagonists, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street? We certainly know the Scorsese name and that his films are about what it means to be a man in the modern world, but when it comes down to it, how well do we know his body of work?

It’s not so much that his films have pulled in massive crowds, either. It’s that he happens to make the landmark movie, a sort of summary statement, or first telling observation or last word. And everyone recognizes the quality of his work, the thought that has gone behind it, the knowledge of cinema that supports it, and the skill and sensitivity that has gone into his images, choice of music and use of sound, or silence, as in Raging Bull. Scorsese is the filmmakers’ filmmaker. He has received the most Academy Award nominations for best director of anyone else alive, and has won once, for The Departed in 2007.

Two films by Scorsese, Kundun a drama about the Dalai Lama and The Last Temptation of Christ, deal directly with religion. Not exclusively, as religion comes up in his films again and again. The former altar boy and trainee priest still seems to be working things through. You can’t miss the crucifixes and other religious iconography in films from Raging Bull (one of his best ever), to Cape Fear (not included in the program), but you can expect to find recurring allusions to religion scattered everywhere throughout in his work. And Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, due for release this year, concerns Jesuits in Japan.

Since being engrossed in the theatricality of church ritual, Scorsese seems to have been ruminating on the difference between good and evil for his entire career. ‘Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane,’ writes Stratton in his accompanying film notes.King of Comedy 1

A less familiar Scorsese character will be Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in King of Comedy, another film that belies Scorsese’s reputation for gangsters. In this film from 1983, Pupkin (not Pumpkin!), a mama’s boy who re-enacts interviews in his basement with life-size cut-outs, tries to kidnap his idol, a celebrity talk-show host played by Jerry Lewis. Billed as a comedy that is ‘no laughing matter’, this off-kilter caper is a weird and singular experience.

Scorsese is also held in high regard for his treatment of music, as audio to his vision or the subject of his work. A significant number of his films are about music makers. He is responsible for one of the best-ever rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, a doco on the last concert given by The Band, along with some of their famous friends. Other terrific muso documentaries include the more recent Shine A Light, a Rolling Stones concert plus interviews, George Harrison: Material World, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.

Cate Blanchett is said to have asked Scorsese when he was going to make another film with a woman in the centre. Undoubtedly others have asked the same question.

Liza Minelli made music with Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s New York New York and Ellen Burstyn invited Scorsese to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but the lavish and subtle Scorsese film about a 19th century socialite, played by Michelle Pfeiffer opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, was a revelation that we haven’t yet seen repeated.

The Age of Innocence of 1993 turns on obsessive, repressed desire.  It explores the dilemma of a lawyer, destined for a socially approved match, who becomes infatuated with another woman. Their affair shakes New York society to its foundations. It is great to see this film has a spot in Stratton’s ‘top ten’ personal Scorsese favourites.Age of Innocence

Scorsese shot to prominence in 1974 with Mean Streets. He had made it for $550,000, premiered it at Cannes, then showed it at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney. ‘The rest,’ notes Stratton, ‘is history.’

The NFSA, in association with the Sydney Film Festival and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is screening this season of Martin Scorsese films (including ten of David Stratton’s favourites) at Arc Cinema during July.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times:


HotDocs in Oz in 2016

A version of this article was published in the Canberra Times on 10 June 2016

© Jane Freebury

Ingrid bergman in her own words

Ask anyone, who you don’t expect will know the answer, for the name of the highest earning documentary of all time. There’s a good chance they’d nominate Fahrenheit 9/11. And they’d be right.

Michael Moore’s controversial, polemical doco of 2004 screened in more than 40 countries, even in parts of the Middle East. Although ineligible for the Oscars it was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Palme d’Or, the first documentary to win the coveted award in over 50 years. Maybe it changed the world, like the leap in public awareness of global warming after the release of An Inconvenient Truth just two years later. It certainly showed documentary filmmakers everywhere what was possible.

In general, docos don’t usually do quite so well, though there have been some recent superb breakthroughs into general theatrical exhibition like Man on Wire, Inside Job, Grizzly Man, The Gleaners and I, Touching the Void, and Waltz With Bashir.

You can count the number of Australian docos that passed the $1 million threshold at the local box office on one hand, but they include two released over the last 16 months. Sherpa and That Sugar Film.

There’s plenty more where these films come from, here and around the world. With the demise of grand narratives, the rise of citizen activism and the proliferation of affordable high-definition technology it is possible to shoot a film that can look great in cinemas, let alone streamed to TV or tablet. Could it be that the more incredible the comic book superhero exploits become and despite more accomplished and astonishing CGI, the more we yearn for the touchstone of reality of real people and situations?

In its first year here, HotDocs takes place at Palace Cinemas this month in three cities only, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.The 24 films selected for the program are recent releases and sourced from 15 countries. They are drawn from the program of the annual Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, the largest doco fest in North America.

I asked Richard Moore, the artistic director for HotDocs in Australia and a former documentary filmmaker himself (as well as a very experienced festival programmer), what assistance documentaries need to screen in front of audiences in cinemas? ‘Screen space in the right cinema that will support them, that won’t drop them after …’

‘A week!’, I suggest.

‘No, four days! I’ve seen that happen.’

And what did he think the best docos had to offer in this ‘golden age’ where anyone can be a documentary filmmaker? ‘A story about a part of life that you would never in your wildest dreams have access to. That’s what docos do, they take you into another world. Something you would never have dreamt of.’

How do you decide on 24 documentary films from the hundreds of contenders from around the world available on the HotDocs program in Canada? ‘I try to be as diverse as possible… as fresh as possible.’

Diving into the Unknown

HotDocs offers great access into rarely accessed worlds. The program includes I Am the Blues, a musical travelogue through Mississippi, from front porches to church halls, that pays a visit to living legends of the blues. Diving into the Unknown follows an attempt to explore a 5-kilometre long and 130-metre deep cave in Norway, when things go horribly wrong halfway for the five Finnish divers.

152x215xhot16whattomorrowbrings.poster.jpg.pagespeed.ic.YSxjoFvCsb What Tomorrow Brings enters the first girls’ school in a  small Afghan village where fathers have not previously allowed their daughters to be educated, and even now are not sure about it. Raving Iran visits a group of young people active in the illegal underground techno scene.

Intimate journeys include Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words, with material from the Swedish legend’s private screen tests and her own private movies—she carried a camera everywhere, like Mia Wasikowska does. Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth) narrates. There are also docos on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prodigious filmmaker who died at 37 with 42 films to his name, and the fiery surrealist artist, Frida Kahlo. Jim: the James Foley Story has been made by a close childhood friend of the American photojournalist, kidnapped in Syria, whose public execution introduced the world to ISIS.

A timely study of the use of medical marihuana, A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana is receiving its world premiere at the festival with the other Australian doco featured. Motorkite Dreaming, in which young microlight adventurers journey across the continent, led by two Aboriginal guides, provides the ultimate bird’s eye perspective on our island continent. Every doco is, as they say, a passion project.


HotDocs is screening at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from 14 June to 3 July 2016.

The Big Steal – retrospective published in Metro


My detailed study of The Big Steal (1990), an Australian classic from director Nadia Tass and cinematographer, writer and producer David Parker, is published in the latest issue, Issue188, of Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine.;dn=043748660739850;res=IELAPA


inaugural American indie film festival

Also published in the Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald (online) on 11 May 2016


Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now

by © Jane Freebury

            Jane Got A Gun







Natalie Portman in Jane Got A Gun



Who would claim that Hollywood deserves what it earns at the box office? It gets much more than its fair share, has had a hold on popular culture forever, and it speaks to 16-34 year-olds everywhere.

Even in France and China it gets a massive box office despite the language barrier. Last year Furious 7, and the Avengers and Jurassic World sequels were in the top six in both countries. And lo and behold, Stars Wars: the Force Awakens, Minions and Spectre were alongside them the top six  in France and the francophone countries.

So how do you pitch a festival of American independent cinema to the sceptical punter who doesn’t think they need to see more American movies? Or who doesn’t hold Hollywood in high regard?

A mention of relatively recent indie greats like Lost in Translation, Memento, Donnie Darko, or Reservoir Dogs, the film that announced Quentin Tarantino, or Waking Life won’t go astray. The best indies are often as adventurous in form as they are in content.

Established mainstream actors return to the indie sector and sometimes accomplish some of their best work there. Richard Gere, whose career has at times been indifferent, makes an appearance as a homeless man in the film Time Out of Mind. Set in a New York captured naturalistically in deep focus and described by the trade magazine Variety as a ‘haunting piece of urban poetry’, it is due to open a new festival of American independent film at Palace cinema during May.

Time Out of Mind directed by Oren Moverman is the first film off the block at the inaugural festival of American indie cinema, Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now, opening this month.

A couple of indie westerns on the program also disclose a star presence or two. Sam Worthington took time off from Avatar for The Keeping Room and Natalie Portman appears alongside her Star Wars co-star Ewan McGregor in Jane Got a Gun.

Despite these actors opting for a low profile here, the indie is of course not about stars of high concepts or expensive special effects and the commercial bottom line.  It’s about message, sensibility and the adventurousness in form and content that is to be seen in films like The Fits, Machine Gun or Typewriter? and Sixty Six, a labour of love that took 13 years to make.

The FitsArtistic director of the Essential Independents festival, Richard Sowada, has curated a fine combination of American indies both current and classic, fiction feature and documentary, that should go some distance towards establishing a point of difference between Hollywood and the independent tradition. His program also includes documentaries like the last film made by the great American documentarian Albert Maysles and a doco revisiting country music icon Johnny Cash.

So what is distinctive about the American indie film? It is vibrant, urgent and honest, says Sowada, and has a unique level of awareness of the creative tradition in which it is embedded. A respect for films that have gone before, is what he really likes about American independent cinema. ‘It’s what’s so good about films from a strong filmic culture. […] They do look back, and they do take the lessons that the masters and incorporate them into their works.’

Economy is another trait. In terms of running time, American indies are usually ‘brief and to the point’, he observes.  ‘Even the longest in the program is only two hours long. Everything else, even including from the 1970s and the 60s, clocks in at 90 minutes or less. […]And that comes from the commercial tradition… You just hit the audience with everything you’ve got, there’s half a dozen knock-out blows in there… And then you say goodbye.’

Like the short film, the indie can often be the brave and ambitious calling card for the aspiring creative.

It can kick-start acting careers. Since appearing in Donnie Darko in 2001, actor Jake Gyllenhaal can take his pick of roles. It was a film from the indie sector that also launched the careers of Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst. They had both been around a while before they became big names, thanks to the impact of Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, respectively. Both, as it happens, directed by Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides screens in the ‘essential originals’ section of the festival.

Other definitive indies curated represent a defining career moment from some of today’s  top filmmakers. The Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple was their first ever film, a first-time filmmaker statement if ever there was one. Stranger Than Paradise, also released in 1984, that was a huge boost to the reputation of Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog) and vampire horror Near Dark, the first solo feature from Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). Slacker, an early feature from Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater also appears. Linklater brought us the recent coming of age  Boyhood and sublime relationship Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy.

Sowada groups the American indie sector into three strands: films of New York, Austin (Texas) and San Francisco. Films from New York feature on this occasion, under the rubric ‘ Essential New York’. Cruising, a harshly realistic thriller with Al Pacino as an officer of the NYPD on the trail of a serial killer. I recall this William Friedkin piece being confronting in its authenticity. A different kind of grittiness characterises The French Connection with Gene Hackman, also by Friedkin. Its chase sequence remains one of the best of all time.

An indispensable classic of the great American independent tradition, Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger), will also screen. A small-time hustler (Dustin Hoffman) and a male prostitute (Jon Voight) drift together and become friends who look after each other on the mean streets of New York. It is immensely moving, unforgettable really. It won the Oscar for best film in 1969 and, despite this mainstream endorsement, is still one of the most iconic indies ever.

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now screens between 19 May and 1 June at Palace Electric, New Acton, ACT.


Spanish Film Festival 2016

Also published in the Canberra Times on 9 April 2016 at:


embrace of the serpent

© Jane Freebury

It wasn’t that long ago, well maybe it was 20 years, when for  many of us moviegoers the Spanish cinema was synonymous with the work of Pedro Almodovar. And vice versa.

His films were irreverent, often dark, sexy and funny, and he was prolific. There were gender-bending, taboo-breaking melodramas like High Heels and Live Flesh that seemed to lead the way out of the last vestiges of the political repression and social conformity of Spain’s post-fascist era. Audiences loved him for it.

Since then, it has become clear that exuberance and stylistic panache is widespread among Spanish language films in Spain as well as South and Central America. Think Pan’s Labyrinth, Blancanieves, The Orphanage, Open Your Eyes,  Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Wild Tales, a favourite of mine last year.

The Spanish Film Festival this year offers plenty of this distinct film culture, with 41 films (32 features and 9 shorts). They hail from Spain, from Argentina and Chile, and there are a number of coproductions.

There is even a Spanish-Australian coproduction, A Ticket to Your Life, a documentary about recent immigrants here, fleeing the impact of the GFC in their homeland, and some Spanish immigrants who settled here in the 1960s.

Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina teamed up to make Embrace of the Serpent. It was one of five finalists nominated for a foreign language Oscar earlier this year and it won the Art Cinema award at Cannes. Filmed in black-and-white—not as one might expect—and in colour, it promises to be a thoughtful, stunning odyssey through the Amazon. It will be getting a release here, but the SFF represents the only opportunity to see most of the rest of the films, notes Genevieve Kelly, producer of the festival.

Fresh from January’s Sundance festival and the Berlinale comes the drama Much Ado About Nothing. It is based on a true story, a hit-and-run in which an attempt is made to frame one of the occupants of the car involved in the crime. Filmmaker Alejandro Fernandez Almendras has the Chilean upper class in his sights.

thin yellow line 3

The Thin Yellow Line by talented first-time feature director Celso Garcia was voted best Latin American film by the public at last year’s Montreal Film Festival. A comedy-drama, it is set among a group of men whose job it is in these uncertain economic times to paint the yellow stripe down the centre of Mexican state highway. It sounds promising.

This year’s festival guest is Daniel Guzman, director of Nothing in Return. His first feature has won him the best new director award at the Goyas, or Spanish Oscars. As I’ve previewed this one, I can report that Guzman’s coming-of-age drama is definitely worth a look. It is about a disaffected teenager who runs away and builds a surrogate family one summer. For Guzman, a filmmaker with an original eye, the story is close to home, and the tough talking old lady who scavenges discarded furniture and takes him under her wing is actually his grandmother.

Reflecting the diversity of what it means to be Spanish today, a Spanish Affair returns to the SFF this year in its second iteration. Spanish Affair 2 opens the festival with the young man from southern Spain who had won the heart of a Basque girl now out in the cold. To make sense of the first movie, you would need to have an appreciation of the Sevillian stereotype, that is, extrovert, quick-witted and inclined to use hair gel.

This time round all you need to know is that the stereotype of a Catalan hipster is even worse for the girl’s fiercely nationalistic family. Expect lots of hipster jokes. A high energy, oddball rom-com, by the sound of things, in which everyone gets a serve. ‘The jokes are thrown both ways,’ says Kelly.

spanish affair 2

Both Spanish Affair films have been among the biggest Spanish-made box office hits of all time. I have been intrigued to discover that The Impossible, also a Spanish film, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, about a couple and their family on holiday in Thailand when the tsunami hit, is also right up there with them. It was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, who debuted with the mystery-thriller The Orphanage, the film that turned him into a director of repute beyond his native Spain.

Other directors of international repute who have emerged in recent decades from Spanish-speaking South and Central America, are Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Amenabar and Alejandro Inarritu. Indeed Cuaron and Inarritu, both born in Mexico City, won the last three best director Oscars between them.

Since the 1990s, a distinctive group of screen actors has emerged, like Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro. Some have seemed to fit right in to Hollywood, while others haven’t fared quite so well, unaccountably. It has been said that Hollywood simply hasn’t known what to do with Penelope Cruz, how best to use her talents, though the gorgeous star remains a favourite of Almodovar.

For those who follow the Spanish-speaking stars, there will be a world premiere for the uncut version of Ma Ma, with Penelope Cruz.  And fans of Gael Garcia Bernal won’t be surprised to find that he appears in another film with strong political themes. Eva Doesn’t Sleep, an Argentinian film about an embalmed Eva Peron, the other half in the country’s infamous dictatorship.

Maribel Verdu who played a woman of the world opposite Bernal way back when in Y Tu Mama Tambien makes another spirited appearance in No Kids, about a mismatched couple who can’t agree on parenting.

Another festival angle is the ‘Short Film from the Heart’ event. It has been curated thematically around key moments of romance and heartache, rather like the recent compendium films Paris, je t’aime and New York, I love You. It affords an excellent opportunity to spot new talent. Today there is an abundance of chutzpah and energy in Spanish-language cinema, and we still hear occasionally from Almodovar.

This year’s SFF is the 19th mounted. It is curated especially for Australian audiences, and this year will also travel to New Zealand.


The Spanish Film Festival 2016 screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton in Canberra from Tuesday 19 April to Sunday 8 May.

Tentmakers of Cairo

Published in the Canberra Times on 26 March 2016 at:


© Jane Freebury

Something tells me that the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead would have enjoyed hearing that a documentary award in her name had gone to a film about men who sew. Mead became famous in the 1920s-30s for her books based on research in Oceania supporting the view that gender behaviour, including the work that men and women do, is culturally determined.

Needlework is a craft that we might tend to associate with women. However, a group of male artisans in Cairo known as the tentmakers have been stitching fabulously detailed cloth in traditional arabesque and geometrical patterns and lotus and papyrus designs for generations, handing down their skills from father to son. Evidence suggests that these traditional cloths have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times.

Historically, the decorative khayamiya textiles formed part of capacious pavilions or ‘travelling palaces’ seen across the Arab world. Today they are still conspicuous in daily life as celebratory backdrops at events like weddings, graduations, feasts, receptions and funerals.

In 2015, the American Museum of Natural History announced that Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish had won the Margaret Mead Film festival  for The Tentmakers of Cairo. He shared the prize with Iiris Harma, director of Leaving Africa: A story of friendship and empowerment. Last year The Tentmakers also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll prize at Visions du Réel, Switzerland, and the El Ray Award for Excellence in Documentary Narrative Filmmaking at the Barcelona Film Festival. And it screened at the Canberra International Film Festival as well.

Beamish and his young family arrived in Cairo in January 2011 when his wife took up a position there. He was introduced to the tentmakers and found himself so taken with them and their work that he began to film. He soon realised that politics and current affairs was just about all they talked about, with huge demonstrations erupting in Tahrir Square, and continued to film them over the next three years.

The tentmakers ply their craft in a covered market, Chareh El Kiamiah, in the Old Islamic area of the city, a destination that has found its way onto the itinerary of the intrepid international visitor. The men hand-stitch colourful appliqué onto backing cloths at lightning speed, wielding large needles and a hefty pair of tailor’s shears. Thimbles are worn and that’s about it for tools of trade. Sewing machines are only used in order to join large panels together.

TheTentmakersOfCairo poster 2

Beamish had found himself in Egypt at a liminal moment, when events that became known as the ‘Arab spring’ were taking place. The microcosm of Egyptian life that he observed within the covered souk near the old city gate of Bab Zuweila was inevitably swept up in it. ‘What is the world coming to?’ someone asks.

The filmmaker has used an observational or verité style, letting his subjects tell their story in their own words as he maintains a minimal presence. It is beautifully constructed and persuasive viewing even though there is no explanatory voiceover, no music except at the final credits. The images are accompanied by the rich ambient sound recorded on location.

The tentmakers are observed going about their daily routine: the coffee and cigarette breaks, the conversation as they work, most often about what is being reported on television, always on as they work, and the delicate art of making a sale. In no time at all, we develop a sense of the distinct personalities of the five artisans the film follows and how they stand on things.

The film narrative itself begins in 2012, after civil unrest had seen the demise or Hosni Mubarak and when it looks like Mohamed Morsi could be installed as president. It closes with the election of Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in 2014, a point which happened to provide a kind of closure and coincided with the moment that Beamish and his family returned home.

On occasion, we step outside to negotiate our way through the winding alleys. Past the cyclist who works a fresh bread delivery service, loaves balanced on a wide rack on his head, past the men sharing a hookah at the street corner and other intriguing views in the barely contained chaos of an Egyptian street. When things are really hotting up, we spend a stint in Tahrir Square.

At one point, the film follows two of the men on a trip overseas. Hosam and Tarek were invited to demonstrate their skills at an American Quilter’s Society exhibition in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, reflecting the close association that has developed between the tentmakers of Cairo and international quilters societies, and the parallels between both practices. In recent years, there have been visits to Australia as well, Canberra included, as guests of quilters societies here.

The Tentmakers of Cairo is a subtle and thoroughly engaging doco account of the tentmakers from their own point-of-view. Without voiceover and with few intertitles only at top and tail, it allows the men to tell their story virtually unmediated, and it’s fascinating. Director and producer Beamish made his film in collaboration with an entity called Non’D’Script. It’s a light touch that says it all.




Gillian Armstrong and her latest – Women He’s Undressed

© Jane Freebury

The story of Orry-Kelly, a gifted designer who created costumes for the Hollywood stars over three decades, would be tantalising fantasy were it not anchored in fact.

Here’s this young man from Kiama on the south coast of NSW who leaves for America, never to return, or at least only for visits. He makes the long sea and land journey to New York and works on Broadway for a while. Then he moves to Hollywood where he chalks up credits in some 285 movies, along with three Oscars for costume design in Some Like It Hot, Les Girls and An American in Paris. He was the most successful Australian in Academy Award history until costume and production designer, Catherine Martin, won her third and fourth Oscars last year for her work on The Great Gatsby. As thumbnails go, this is hard to beat.

The Orry-Kelly story is incredible, and someone had to tell it. Fortunately, a highly-regarded Australian filmmaker has made it the subject of her lively new documentary, Women He’s Undressed, and is bringing the legend home.

Film director Gillian Armstrong has been in the public eye since she directed emerging actors Judy Davis and Sam Neill in My Brilliant Career in 1979. She was the first women to direct a feature film in Australia in over 40 years. Other fiction features include Oscar and Lucinda, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Little Women, films with some of the finest female actors in the frame. In between, Armstrong has also directed well-received documentaries like the candid series, similar in conception to Michael Apted’s ‘The Up Series’, that has followed the lives of three Adelaide women since they were 14 years old.

Although Armstrong is associated with films that focus on women, an impression has lingered since early work based on books by feminist writers that she does resist. She prefers to characterise her particular interest as the relationships between people. ‘I would always say that I’m really interested in human behaviour,’ she said in a phoner before she was due to visit Canberra for a preview and Q&A.

Orry-Kelly is a fascinating subject for a director who explores relationships. He was famously and outrageously frank, mercurial, funny, uncompromising, held in high professional regard, and on intimate terms with many of the celebrities of yesteryear. Was he a celebrity in his own right in Australia too, in his day? ‘Oh my goodness, he was huge! They interviewed him like they would Hugh Jackman.’

Research for the doco turned up a great deal of fascinating material, including correspondence and a newspaper column he wrote. ‘Also we found other articles, you know, occasionally in the Sydney Morning Herald. We think his mother wrote to the editor letting everyone know what he was currently doing. That’s how we got the idea that his mother was very important in his life, and enjoyed promoting her son.’

Women He’s Undressed includes a dramatisation that threads its way through the rich vein of interviews with scenes between letter-writer Orry-Kelly (Darren Gilshenan) in America and his mum back home in Kiama (Deborah Kennedy). Armstrong collaborated with playwright and ‘co-conspirator’ Katherine Thomson on these cheeky, quirky interludes.

Orry-Kelly, a kid from Kiama, dressed the stars at the height of the studio system in Hollywood 1930s-1950s. Actors like Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley MacLaine, and Angela Lansbury and the young Natalie Wood and Jane Fonda, early in their careers frocked up in his creations. There is some great footage of Fonda and Lansbury here, along with a wealth of interviews with other designers, industry observers and costume design experts like the wonderful Deborah Nadoolman Landis. Interwoven with extracts from the films that feature the costumes, they are a trove of movie history in themselves.

Catherine Martin appears. She has also had an incredible career. Will someone make a doco about her? And other costume designers working in the international film industry appear like Michael Wilkinson, another Australian, whose credits include 300 and American Hustle.

Although he passed away in 1964, Orry-Kelly is still remembered in the US, says Armstrong. ‘In America he’s still very well known’ — still regarded today as one of the top costume designers of all time — ‘but a lot of people don’t realise he’s Australian.’ However, ‘he did have a big mouth.’ Armstrong thinks his sense of humour — Australian humour is not always readily understood overseas, much less in the middle of last century — got him into trouble from time to time, as he was a bit of a loud mouth when he drank.

Why was he hired by Warner Brothers early in the 1930s, the studio with a reputation for making gritty gangster films, and not by MGM with its fondness for lavish production? ‘Well they had a complete change when Jack Warner poached three new leading ladies (one of whom was Barbara Stanwyck). They weren’t just going to be doing gangster stories [and] Jack Warner wanted his new designer to bring class.’

What was the hallmark of an Orry-Kelly gown? ‘The first thing people think of when they think “costume” is frills and fuss, but Orry-Kelly had a really great sense of line and style. His costumes were about telling the story, what would this character really wear? […] Other studios just wanted their leading ladies to walk in (dressed) in the latest fashion.’

‘For other designers who came from fashion it was about the frock, making the frock stand out. Orry had a different way of looking at things.’

Orry-Kelly moved with the times, from his designs for Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street in 1933 to the classic simplicity of the clothes he put on the young Jane Fonda in the 1960s. ‘He also had a great sense of humour and could do completely over the top. He could push design if he needed to and pull it back as well.’

His work is enshrined in so many Hollywood classics, from Jezebel and Dark Victory in black and white to Irma la Douce and Oklahoma in vivid technicolour, but Orry-Kelly can be equally well remembered for one of the greatest of all time. ‘He did beautiful work on Casablanca where Ingrid Bergman’s clothes were so understated but they said so much about her character. That she had such inner strength and integrity’. Clothes reveal character. It was his secret.

Published in the Canberra Times on 6 July 2015

Bushranger Ben Hall to step out of Ned’s shadow

© Jane Freebury

Bushranger movies did a brisk business early last century until the authorities put a stop to them. What influence were they having on an impressionable populace? The burgeoning genre included films about Ben Hall, Dan Morgan, Frank Gardiner, Captain Starlight, John Vane and Ned Kelly, who of course featured in the first film Australia ever made. The effects of these bans in 1911-12 across NSW, Victoria and South Australia lingered for decades.

The idea of men on horseback roaming the wilderness, beyond the law, has had an irresistible attraction for Matthew Holmes, a young filmmaker from Warburton, Victoria. ‘I’ve always thought there was an Australian version of the “wild west”, but it has been untapped,’ he says.

Perhaps he has a point. There has been a smattering of films. However Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly and John Hillcoat’s excellent The Proposition don’t a local western genre make.

Becoming a film director and making a movie about bushranger Ned Kelly went hand-in-hand for Holmes until Heath Ledger’s swaggered onto the screen as the bewhiskered outlaw in 2003. It put paid to his aspirations until he heard there were other bushrangers who could also carry a feature film, and realised he didn’t have to drop the idea at all.

Ben Hall came into focus. In the mid-19th century Hall and his gang conducted robberies under arms from Bathurst to Forbes and from Gundagai to Goulburn until he was shot dead by police in 1865. It was quite a fall from grace for a young man who once had a squatting run and a home with wife and child.

When The Legend of Ben Hall is released later this year or early in 2016, expect a film that steers close to the facts. ‘I wanted to make a movie that presents a real story,’ Holmes says. ‘A lot of films based on history tend to waver or wander away from the facts […] I wanted to do something that stuck as closely to the history as it could.’

He feels that the true story of Ben Hall can’t be bettered. ‘It’s not that difficult. It probably sounds more difficult than it really is.’ Author of books on Ben Hall and descendant of the bushranger’s brother, Peter Bradley, is an historical advisor on the project. He and the director have a shared perspective of the outlaw, that of a decent man ‘striving to be doing good, even though he was doing bad’.

Historical records have provided the best inspiration. Authenticity of detail has been observed, right down to what the gang were wearing when they committed a robbery! Each member of the huge cast represents a real person of the time. The more closely an actor resembled their historical counterpart, the more likely they were to be selected.

So did you try to get into Ben Hall’s mind? ‘Oh, absolutely. We tried to get into his mind in a very big way. It’s very much a character study of him […] and what he was going through and the things that were driving him…’

Although Ned Kelly had a limited education, he could apparently read and write. Hall was, on the other hand, illiterate and there was no one on hand to tell his story his way at the end. No Jerilderie letter like Kelly’s with which to make one’s voice heard, or to justify one’s actions in light of the treatment the authorities meted out to Irish Catholics.

Why does Ned Kelly continue to have such a hold on our collective imagination, but not other bushrangers? ‘I think Kelly has overshadowed Hall because he was political.’

The Legend of Ben Hall will focus on the last nine months of the bushranger’s life, when everything was at its ‘most chaotic, and most conflicted’. Holmes explains: ‘We don’t explore why he became a bushranger, we explore the effects, what happened to him as a consequence of being a bushranger.’

People who knew Hall were apparently surprised when he turned to crime. Something snapped? ‘Yes, he had a breakdown and his life spiralled out of control and it wasn’t long before he was being hunted. I call him a reluctant bushranger.’

When Hall was active, in his mid-twenties, was older than most. ‘Most bushrangers were under 21. […] They weren’t old and bearded, they were wild colonial boys. They were kids. Mischievous teenagers out and about doing what they wanted.’

More than $100,000 was raised for the production of The Legend of Ben Hall through the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. On release it will tour Ben Hall country—Goulburn, Bathurst, Grenfell, Forbes, Young, Parkes and other towns.

Published in the Canberra Times 27 June 2015

The Kid Stakes gets the Jan Preston treatment

© Jane Freebury

Boogie woogie and blues pianist Jan Preston often has a twinkle in her eye. When she accompanies the early Australian silent comedy classic, The Kid Stakes, her music definitely means mischief. She has composed a score for this 1927 black and white film, and taken it on tour to appreciative audiences in Australia and New Zealand.

The Kids Stakes tells the exploits of comic strip characters Fatty Finn, his gang of pint-sized street urchins, and Hector the ‘champeen gote’ that is let loose before he can be entered in the goat derby, and finds his way into a garden of prize plants. All the while, the scruffy, brawling kids act out their own brand of dockland ‘gangster’ culture, in irreverent slapstick style.

This classic Australian silent film was a faithful adaptation of the Fatty Finn comic strip drawn by Syd Nicholls originally published in 1923. Nicholls was a prolific cartoonist and the designer of art titles for many Australian silent films, including The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection. He appears in person in The Kid Stakes’ opening scene, drawing a sketch of Fatty that comes to life line by line, until the boy asks ‘What sort of job do you have for me to do today, Mr Nicholls?’.

Six-year-old Robin (Pop) Ordell, son of writer-director Tal Ordell, has the role of the lead character in this live-action comedy. In the peculiar tradition of Australian nicknaming, Fatty is called Fatty simply ‘because he isn’t’.

The film’s intertitles are also the work of Nicholls. With expressions like ‘right oil’, ‘bonzer’, ‘wireless’ and ‘loop the loop’, they are a record of an Australian vernacular that has almost disappeared, and may need some explaining to the youngest members of the audience.

The Kids Stakes was Ordell senior’s one and only feature, though he was otherwise extensively involved in the entertainment industry, notably as an actor (Ginger Mick, and The Sentimental Bloke). He also plays a small part in his film, as the race commentator in the big finale.

Scenes were mostly shot on location around Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. One location in particular, the McElhone Stairs, features on several occasions. Its hundred or so stone steps once connected the grand mansions of Potts Point to the Woolloomooloo slums, but today the ‘Loo is not what is used to be in the 1920s. On one level, The Kids Stakes is a wonderful document of a Sydney dockland suburb, its people and the way they used to live.

The final goat-cart derby was filmed in Rockhampton, Queensland, as goat racing was (surprisingly) prohibited in NSW at the time. Hector the very plump goat that demonstrated prodigious appetite chomping his way through clothes on the line, posters on the fence, and hundreds of prize orchids and roses, makes a surprising dash for it.

There’s more than a touch of class consciousness in The Kid Stakes. The word ‘comrade’ appears in the intertitles and Hector’s escapade in the fine gardens of Mr Twirt’s Potts Point home extracts a bit of fun at the expense of privilege. It’s not that surprising to read that cartoonist Nicholls was a radical in his day who drew cartoons for the International Socialist, The Australian Worker and The Australian Seamen’s Journal.

Preston feels ‘a great responsibility’ to be true to the spirit of the The Kids Stakes, its setting in suburban Sydney, its characters and its irreverent, breezy comedy. Indeed, she has a portfolio of silent film live music compositions, including Raymond Longford’s On Our Selection, another class comedy of the Australian silent era.

As she plays her piano accompaniment, Preston is joined by percussionist Mike Pullman on a range of traditional instruments, including kazoo, tin drum, snare and plastic bags, as they bring Fatty, his friends and enemies, and the residents of the historic waterfront suburb back to life.

Published in the Canberra Times 13 June 2015

Introductory remarks: on Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker

My introduction to Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker that screened as part of a special program at the National Film and Sound Archive during Reconciliation Week in Canberra, 28 May 2015

It is a very great pleasure to introduce The Tracker during Reconciliation Week 2015. It is powerful and polemical film.

Whether you are watching The Tracker for the first time or have seen it before, I think it will appear as vibrant and urgent as it seemed on release in 2002.

For a start, the visuals are beautiful. The Tracker captures the desert mauves, the purples and ochres and pitiless bright blue sky of our interior landscapes. The ‘look’ of thrusting granite ranges, twisted scrub and majestic white-trunked ghost gums recalls (intentionally, I understand) the watercolours of the Central Australian desert painted by Albert Namatjira in the 1930s.

The ballad soundtrack is haunting. And the presence of David Gulpilil is, as always, immensely compelling.

Let’s not overlook the fact that there are some moments when The Tracker is also funny, in a dark, ascerbic kind of way. Gallows humour seems absolutely apposite.

It came about in response to reading about the violence perpetrated against Indigenous people on Australia’s frontier, the intersection between Aboriginals and white settlers. In the early 1990s it was not widely known. Rolf will fill you in on the details, however his reading on ‘the frontier’, I believe the writing of historian Henry Reynolds, was a revelation that angered him deeply. So much so that it drove him to craft a blistering treatment in less than a day: ‘Twelve pages. Double spaced.’ Though it was subsequently set aside.

Around a decade later the Adelaide Festival of Arts approached him with a request for a socially conscious film preferably with a strong Indigenous theme for its Shedding Light program. The rest is history.

The Tracker portrays events that took place less than a hundred years ago, within the lifetime of some Australians still living. It was the first film to deal directly with massacres of Aboriginal peoples by white settlers in Australia. I see it was in a sense a protest, that an aspect of our history had been hidden, and a conscious bit of activism. And I think the film retains its original campaigning zeal.

In the Australian industry, films that constitute such a strong challenge to mainstream thinking are rare. In my view, Rolf tells powerful stories with unconventional protagonists who interrogate the status quo. Filmgoers are generally not allowed to sit on the fence. In The Tracker, the mainstream is in my view represented by the taciturn, amiable presence of the Veteran (Grant Page). A fence-sitter if ever there was one, despatched nonetheless.

That said, Rolf’s powerful narrative cinema, frequently accompanied by a social critique, simultaneously argues that we recognise the marginalised in our society and offers an inclusive social vision as it does so.

Stepping back to the 1970s for a moment, when the local film industry was revived, there were in amongst everything else going on two defining Indigenous themed films.

Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), the film in which Gulpilil first appeared on screen, and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), in which a young Aboriginal man, no longer able to tolerate the abuse of his white employers and family, snaps violently and turns outlaw. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, though based on the writing of Thomas Keneally and also fact-based, was harshly criticised for its graphic violence at the time.

The Tracker on release did not find favour with everyone. Rolf has run the gauntlet for it, even been spat at, but he was also hugged! Although violence is out of frame, and it is located in time six years prior to the Coniston Massacre, The Tracker still appears as a challenge for us today.

Happily, it was made at a more propitious moment than the earlier films. Public consciousness had somewhat altered from when Rolf wrote his treatment and put it away in a drawer.

By the time the shoot for The Tracker finally began in early 2001, the Australian community had had more exposure to some of the more intractable issues of our colonial history with events such as the Mabo decision (1992), and the Bringing Them Home report (1994).
Also National Sorry Day in 1998, the Sydney Olympics, and the national Walk for Reconciliation in 2000.

A clustering of films about Indigenous-settler relations came out around then too: One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins), Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen), Black and White (Craig Lahiff). Like Phillip Noyce’s $6 million Rabbit-Proof Fence (made with a budget that was three times its size), The Tracker was also a bold and timely recognition of the stolen generations, and of our collective hidden history. Gulpilil was of course in both films, in the role of tracker.

It is astonishing to realise that Aboriginal trackers have had a place in Australian cinema since the beginning. Even more astonishing to realise how it was done. They were often played by white actors in ‘blackface’, and it my understanding that this practice continued to as late as the 1960s (e.g. James Trainor’s Journey Out of Darkness).

A striking and highly successful feature of The Tracker is the integration of still images into the narrative flow. Instead of shrinking from the violence, we stand in silent witness to the horror and reflect on what has passed. These are paintings by artist Peter Coad, 14 in all. They commence, advance and close the narrative with one last slow dissolve.

The artwork Rolf commissioned solved problems, including a resistance to portraying violence on screen. It was also an inventive solution to financial constraint. The paintings have since moved beyond solving practical issues to occupying an integral role in the film’s aesthetic system.

They are a great example of bricolage. Of bricolage that’s not about tinkering or ‘making do’ with what’s at hand, but about refusing to accept limitations and forging a new creative opportunity.

(Like all those originating ideas of Rolf’s – out of date filmstock (Dr Plonk); cheap video (Alexandra’s Project); 31 or so casual cinematographers (Bad Boy Bubby); non-actors (The Quiet Room); moving house (The King is Dead!) – that, while eventually modified, propel his films into existence.)

Over the years, the limitations of budget – and some self-imposed challenges – have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from Rolf’s practice and rejuvenated his authorial signature. It is a distinctive aspect of his work.

We can count on Rolf to deliver a strong narrative with an intriguing central character – think Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, The Quiet Room, Alexandra’s Project, Charlie’s Country. In my view, these narratives frequently overturn the traditional Hollywood narrative that have re-established consensus and order, with a questing outsider whose vision for a different, better kind of world prevails.

Gulpilil’s character is an enigma, an agent provocateur, a clown, a leader in waiting. He becomes a towering figure of authority, as white settler ignorance grows and as their legitimacy diminishes.

By films end, an intense interpersonal struggle is resolved in a reversal of roles in his favour – and justice is delivered.

In its demands for honesty in the historical account of what happened on the frontier, this boldly polemical film was made to persuade Australia to take responsibility for its past. It is dominated by one of the most intriguing and charismatic lead characters in Australian cinema, and played out against the magnificent Australian wilderness. It was a bold beginning to what has become an ‘accidental trilogy’ of great significance. That has evolved out of the personal and professional relationship between David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer.

In time this unique trilogy is likely to be recognised for its cultural significance.

Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Ten Canoes, The Tracker won multiple awards including a clean sweep at the AFI, IF and FCCA awards for best Australian feature film in 2002. It won the SIGNIS award at Venice film festival and was also nominated for the Golden Lion, the Press Award at the Paris film festival (a tie with La Fleuve) and the Special Jury Prize at the Vallodolid International film festival. Critic and academic Adrian Martin, a contributor to the BFI’s prestigious Sight and Sound magazine declared it the best Australian film of the decade 2000-2010.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best films by an unorthodox, bold and unpredictable filmmaker.

German Film Festival 2015

© Jane Freebury

Curators had plenty to choose from when they decided what to showcase at the German Film Festival this year. They always do. Well over 200 films, around 75 percent fiction features, are produced in Germany each year, though few of these land on Australian screens.

Every few years, we expect something wonderful to arrive from veteran filmmakers Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. But what is behind the surges of creativity in breakthrough films like the superb political dramas Downfall and The Lives of Others, the crowd-pleasers Goodbye, Lenin! and Run Lola Run, or recent multicultural features like Head-On and Soul Kitchen?

GFF organisers, including Dr Arpad Solter, Director of Goethe Institute Australia, hope the festival will reflect Germany’s vibrant and culturally diverse ‘multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and creativity’. Anyone who has visited Berlin, Munich or Hamburg of late will know exactly what that means.

A key driver of the new directions in German film in recent years has been from filmmakers of migrant background. ‘Making their way in modern Germany, trying to find a future for themselves […] The guest-worker, the down-trodden if you like, have emerged as people who are really now a part of society with something to say. Now they have developed the confidence to examine the past in interesting ways,’ says Richard Kuipers, a curatorial advisor to the festival for the last decade.

The work of writer-director Fatih Akin is a compelling example of this dynamic trend with his powerful psychodrama Head-On, the fun-loving homage to Hamburg cuisine in Soul Kitchen and nostalgia for homeland in The Edge of Heaven. His latest feature, The Cut, set against the genocide of Armenians in Turkey during World War I, is a slow and considered saga that is a new direction for Akin. It stars Tahar Rahim (The Prophet, Samba) and it is in English.

Fatih Akin himself can be seen in interview in the documentary From Caligari to Hitler. This title will resonate with cineastes who may have encountered the famous book of the same name by writer and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. It promises to be a compelling excursion into the socio-cultural climate in Germany that produced the Weimar Republic of 1918-33.

For my money the prize for best title at the GFF this year goes to Suck Me Shakespeer, written and directed by another filmmaker of Turkish background, Bora Dagtekin. The comedy turns on an ex-con who tries to pass himself off as a teacher in front of an unruly rabble, just so he can get at some buried loot under the school gymnasium. You can forget what they say sometimes about German comedy, suggests Kuipers. ‘This is very funny.’

Checking out the program for the German Film Festival later this month, eagle eyes may notice that a high proportion of films have a single writer-director credit. A special guest of the festival, popular young actor Florian Stetter, who I interviewed over skype from Berlin, considers this a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary German cinema. ‘In Germany, the film industry is not like in England or France. It is based more on directors writing their own scripts, looking for new forms of radical expression, trying to find their own distinctive styles.’

Stetter has leading roles in three of the films due to screen at the festival, Stations of the Cross, Nanga Parbat (2009) and Beloved Sisters, the latter due to open the festival in Sydney and Melbourne. Beloved Sisters, a writer-director piece of course, explores a menage-a-trois in the 18th century involving playwright/philosopher Friedrich Schiller (Stetter) and two beautiful sisters, one his wife. Even though the times were relatively enlightened, the love triangle would have been a major scandal were it public knowledge.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but mention to Stetter that I have noticed it described as an ‘unusually brainy costume drama’ by one of the Variety critics. ‘Well, the love between them was very interesting […] It was not only erotic, it was also intellectual.’ It sounds like Schiller’s reputation is safe.

Opening night film at other festival location — Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Byron Bay and Hobart — will be the cyber thriller Who Am I – No System is Safe, directed by Swiss-born Baran bo Odar. Foregrounding a socially inept young man who enters the politically subversive world of computer hackers, it promises to be slick, fast paced and edgy.

Stations of the Cross, about a young girl in today’s Germany whose only desire is to dedicate her life to religion, will be a significant film of the festival. There are just fourteen shots throughout and the camera moves only three times in this unwavering study of fanatical religious devotion. It won the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlin Film Festival.

Stetter has a critical role as the young priest who calls on the 14-year-old and his other young and impressionable students to become ‘warriors’ for Jesus. While he is charismatic and engaging, he is advocating a pitiless intolerance in life, a paradox that seems to present no barriers to the recruitment of young religious radicals anywhere.

Expect to experience some powerful contrasts in mood at the festival and a feeling for the surging creative energies and contradictions of the present-day.

The 14th Audi German Film Festival screened in cities across Australia during May 2015.

Published in the Canberra Times 16 May 2015