Australia’s premier association of professional film critics, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), has presented a special award to filmmaker Rolf de Heer.

The Acknowledgement Award for Excellence recognises his unique body of work, and exceptional contribution over many years to Australian cinema and culture.

The award was made at the recent FCCA Awards for 2019.

Rolf de Heer – international auteur, Australian provacateur

This piece by Jane Freebury, author of Dancing to his Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, was printed in the commemorative material distributed at the FCCA Awards for 2019:

Rolf de Heer learned his craft when the Australian films that reached the international festival circuit had a reputation for high production values and were often seen as vehicles for endorsing the official view of cultural identity. They were good to look at, but safe and non-confronting. It was a reputation that some local commentators, and the late, formidable Pauline Kael in New York, were impatient with.

Then along came Bad Boy Bubby in 1993, a rude retort to the polite reserve that characterised Australian cultural production. A pitch black comedy that was really out there, it had something to offend just about everyone. Even Rolf took a step back at one point and wondered aloud ‘Where the hell did that come from?”

It refused outright to be culturally enhancing and legitimising. Rolf’s films have never made us look that good.

The rest, of course, is history. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and took out two other prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, won other awards in Seattle and Valenciennes, and was an AACTA nominee for best film.

Notoriety went with the acclaim. Censors in the United Kingdom cut the scene with the cat, leaving other scenes of incest or matricide alone.

So persuasive did Rolf’s films become that we came to find ourselves celebrating more crimes and misdemeanours. The entombment of an errant husband in the family home, the extra-judicial killing of a homicidal, racist coloniser, and so on. A step too far? De Heer made a habit of daring his audiences to take it with him.

In the new millenium, he has become known for his magnificent Indigenous stories in the outback wilderness, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country, that gave rare prominence to Aboriginal protagonists in Australian film.

However, Rolf has ranged freely across genres, from Bubby’s man-child coming-of-age, to silent comedy in B&W, to intense psychodramas set in the domestic space, to science fiction, and more.

It will surprise some that he has also made two international coproductions with romantic protagonists in pursuit of their passion. The outback trapper fond of jazz in Dingo is a perennial favourite, while The Old Man Who Read Love Stories in the Amazonian jungle is less well known.

Ever since that career-defining moment when Rolf first courted creative risk, it has continued to define him. He has been willing to take risks with projects, even extreme risks, and it has seen him develop a profile as a filmmaker who is bold, innovative, unorthodox and unpredictable.

I believe that his bold and spirited approach has given heart to many young emerging filmmakers In Australia. Yes, it can be done.

The result is a body of work over the last three decades that few contemporaries in the Australian film industry can match for range, ambition and audacity.

Over the course of his filmmaking career – in which he has more often than not been writer/direct/ and producer of his work – he has become adept at the art of bricolage, of using the materials at hand and transforming it. It is his form of creative risk.

Some incident energised him, sparked his curiosity and his imagination, or his indignation, and set him on a course of action in support of social justice. The bricolage has determined the character of the film in production and fixed the de Heer brand.

While refusing to accept the apparent limits imposed by a low budget, he has taken a chance on the very element that presented risk for his production­­. The wheelchair-bound lead actor only able to speak with a voice synthesiser (Dance Me To My Song), shy or incapacitated child actors (The Quiet Room), alternatives to prohibitively expensive filmstock (Alexandra’s Project and Dr Plonk), unwillingness to represent live-action violence (The Tracker), or to manage a large crew (the genesis of Bad Boy Bubby), moving house (The King is Dead). Then turned it into an essential building block.

The restriction or obstacle that might hold another director in check seems to supply the essential energy to this filmmaker’s creativity. A negative is transformed into a positive. Something comes from nothing.

While Australia certainly lays claim to Rolf de Heer, his singular cinema maps a country all its own. Like many auteurs he has created a body of work that is its own country, a place and people of the imagination to which each new de Heer film adds a further dimension. Identifiably Australian, yet refusing to endorse any notion of a national identity, the territory he explores lies at the margins of the mainstream. Inhabited by outliers, marginalised protagonists who effectively and comprehensively turn the table on their oppression.

As Rolf has developed a distinctive authorial signature, he has been a pioneer, revealing to our industry what is possible with limited tools. He has become an inspiring role model for emerging filmmakers working within constraints.

The success of his work is best measured by the admiration, respect, provocation and debate that it has generated.  Rolf is an internationally recognised auteur whose invigorating, challenging work has achieved high standing in world cinema.


Drawn from: Freebury, Jane (2015), Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, Currency Press / Currency House, Sydney



*Featured image: Actor Gary Sweet (on left) congratulates Rolf de Heer on his FCCA award