At the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, I saw a new Australian film called Around the Block. Later I interviewed writer-director Sarah Spillane (one to watch), 20-year-old leading man Hunter Page-Lochard (one to watch) and living legend Jack Thompson (you’ve already seen him, surely), who had a relatively small role — but hey, he’s Jack bloody Thompson!
The movie itself was a crowd-pleaser, a nice take on the old unconventional-schoolteacher-shakes-up-the-system-and-changes-kids’-lives scenario. (This time, an American teacher, played by Christina Ricci, at a Redfern school.) During the Q&A after the Toronto screening, one of the audience members emotionally announced: ‘This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.’ No further questions, Your Honour.
Like any freelance journalist, I’d love to turn my interview into a story (which was the whole idea), but neither the media nor the publicists are interested just yet, because no release date has been announced. (The same trio later attended the film’s screening at the Canberra International Film Festival — in my home city — two months later. Ironically, I was still overseas.) Still, Toronto led to Spillane and Page-Lochard getting US representation — which might mean that they will follow the lead of much Aussie talent, working exclusively for Hollywood. We’re proud of all those Hollywood-based Aussies, of course, but our own film industry misses them.
If you visited Toronto last year, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australian films were doing well. The jungle survival film Canopy and the cop drama Felony (with a dream cast: Joel Edgerton, Jai Courtney, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa George) were also impressive. If you were in Australia, you’ll just have to take my word for it. They haven’t been released here yet, though Canopy gets a Melbourne preview on 23 April.
Screen Australia, the government body, announced last year’s Toronto contingent with excitement, as they always do. This wasn’t just any film festival. This was the world’s largest public film event, a booster for Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. On Felony’s opening night at Toronto’s ritzy Elgin Theatre, the queue formed down the street.
Sadly, it takes more than a festival to make a film, even if it’s the belle of the ball. In 2012, one of Toronto’s big films was another Australian flick, The Sapphires. Big things were expected; at the Cannes Film Festival, it had already received a ten-minute standing ovation, which was ridiculous. Ten minutes?! But it was a feelgood movie, with great songs, and audiences at Cannes like to party.
Toronto filmgoers are more subdued, but The Sapphires still won generous applause when I saw it there. Bear in mind that this was the press-and-industry screening, where people show their appreciation of a film by walking out in mid-screening, switching on their phones to tell a colleague, ‘It’s worth considering.’ At the gala public screening the following night, it became one of a handful of films at that year’s festival, along with Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, to get a standing ovation. Still, despite the excitement of both Cannes and Toronto, The Sapphires somehow sank without trace in America.
When Felony and Around the Block are released, you might not even notice. Apart from The Sapphires, The Great Gatsby and Wolf Creek 2, how many Australian films have you seen at the cinema in the past two years? Be honest. (It’s fine. I can’t actually hear you.) And no, Sydney-filmed, Hollywood fare like The Lego Movie doesn’t count. Perhaps you saw the Anglo-Australian war drama The Railway Man, with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, or Tracks, with Mia Wasikowska. Both were given proper releases, not simply hidden away in the dwindling numbers of arthouse cinemas like other Australian movies. It helps to have Hollywood stars, even if they’re from Australia.
You might have seen Mystery Road or The Rocket, which recently shared the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for best film. If you saw Mystery Road, you probably saw it on television. Only months after it was released at a few independent cinemas, it was on the ABC. The same fate befell The Turning, an ambitious and acclaimed feature, based on a book of short stories by Tim Winton. Make no mistake, this was a major project: 17 directors and an impressive cast (Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, many others). It did reasonable box-office, which was no surprise, but it didn’t stay long in cinemas. Part of it was soon broadcast on the ABC. You could watch the whole thing on ABC iView.
Many Australian films only made it to independent cinemas, before being quickly relegated to DVD stores and video-on-demand. Was Circle of Lies any good? What about Foreshadow? I don’t know; I still haven’t seen them. They’re on my to-do list, but why see them when I could be watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire? (Australian films might or might not be good, but they never have Jennifer Lawrence. They don’t have Hollywood-style promotion, either.)
All this time, cynics might have assumed that our movies were simply depressing and unwatchable. That might occasionally be a problem (not mentioning any names), but not usually. A bigger problem is that our industry, in its insecurity, is underselling itself. Whether it relies too heavily on festivals (which can only do so much), or fast-tracks movies to TV (as if to say ‘Don’t waste your money at the cinema’), the marketing doesn’t seem right.
Forget the ‘Nobody wants to see Australian films’ excuse. When the movies are good (which some of them are), and the marketing is right (which it usually isn’t), local films can do rather well. Even the arty Picnic at Hanging Rock was a local box-office bonanza back in 1975, when the nation was supposedly 80 per cent bogan. Lowbrow or highbrow, Wolf Creek 2 or The Piano, our filmmakers can do rather well.
So I recommend you watch an Australian film. I’d suggest Around the Block, Canopy or Felony — whenever they are properly released. Otherwise, you can still read the reviews from Toronto.
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Mark Juddery is a regular film contributor to The Spectator Australia.
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