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

Landmark Australian film Shine turns Twenty

Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016

Shine 2


© by Jane Freebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in the Canberra Times 30 July 2016