This on the back of last month’s Cannes Film Festival win by Samson & Delilah, the low-budget feature debut that took more than $1.7 million at the box office in its first five weeks of release. (Not bad for a tough little drama featuring unknown actors and almost no dialogue.)
“It’s a very strong year,’’ says Screen Australia chief Ruth Harley, who is cautiously optimistic about a change in fortunes for the beleaguered industry.
“If you view it as a one-year cycle, you’re destined to have a boom-and-bust view of the world. But if you see it as a three-year cycle, (then I do believe we’re on) an upcycle.’’
While the latter part of 2009 will see a rollout of the big guns – The Boys Are Back, Bright Star, Bran Nue Dae and Mao’s Last Dancer – films by seasoned directors featuring marquee names (Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish, Geoffrey Rush) and boasting solid mainstream appeal, the next two and a half months represents, with one or two exceptions, a showcase of the up-and-coming new guard.
From a stop-motion animation set in a Sydney apartment block to an outback tale of family dysfunction and a high-octane urban drama about a bunch of Lebanese-Australian youths, the slate is extremely diverse.
But what each of these films has in common is a singular, contemporary vision.
There isn’t a costume drama or knockabout comedy in sight.
While Kriv Stenders’ ironically titled Lucky Country, starring Aden Young, and Van Diemen’s Land, based on the story of Australia’s most notorious convict, are both set in our colonial past, they don’t qualify as period films in the traditional sense.
“It ain’t no ’70s period film with frocks and afternoon tea on the veranda, that’s for sure,’’ says Madman’s James Hewison of Stenders’ latest film.
The independent distributor that made a splash with Kenny has two Australian films being released in the next two months – Van Diemen’s Land and Last Ride, the highly-anticipated feature film debut of Glendyn Ivin (following his 2003 win at the Cannes Film Festival with the short film Cracker Bag) which stars Hugo Weaving and newcomer Tom Russell.
This might well go down as the year Australian cinema grew up.
Like many of their contemporaries, both these films take an unflinching look at what it means to be Australian in the 21st century, albeit from very different perspectives.
Instead of mythologising our past or sending up suburban stereotypes, the new wave of filmmakers is taking a good hard look at the here and now – warts and all.
Starting the ball rolling is actress Rachel Ward, who makes her debut as a feature film director with Beautiful Kate, a family drama set against the spectacular backdrop of the Flinders Ranges.
After premiering in the Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday night, the film opens nationally on August 6.
Ward has cast her husband, Australian icon Bryan Brown, in one of the lead roles.
The character he plays is no loveable larrikin but a cantankerous old coot whose laconic, Aussie bloke ways have had a toxic effect on his family.
The film marks a return to form for Ben Mendelsohn, as Brown’s estranged son, a return home for Rachel Griffiths (it is her first Australian feature since Ned Kelly) and introduces a scene-stealing performance from newcomer Sophie Lowe in the title role.
Disgrace, also in competition at the film festival, opens in Sydney next week.Although set in South Africa, and starring John Malkovich, the critically acclaimed film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel qualifies as a local production because the key creative team is based here.
It is the second film by Sydney-based husband and wife team Steve Jacobs and Anna Maria Monticelli (La Spagnola.)
The cultural mix continues with Cedar Boys, Serhat Caradee’s feature film debut, which takes a look at Sydney’s east-west divide from the point of view of three Lebanese-Australian youths.
Featuring a breakout performance by Les Chantery, the urban drama is released on July 30, hot on the heels of the controversial The Combination, which performed so well in multiplexes that the big distributors sat up and took notice.
The film has a limited release through Hoyts.
Released in the same week as Cedar Boys is the low-budget horror film Lake Mungo, well received at the Dungog Film Festival last month.
While the seasoned filmmaker hardly qualifies as a raw talent, thematically his thriller about a war correspondent (Anthony LaPaglia) who travels to East Timor with a young Jose Ramos Horta to investigate the 1975 murder of five journalists sits neatly within this uncompromising new wave.
After screening at the Sydney Film Festival at the weekend, the “claymation” $9.99, featuring the voices of Rush, LaPaglia, Samuel Johnson and Joel Edgerton, opens in Sydney on August 20.
“These films are uncompromising and that comes from confidence. Not all of them are going to make an absolute smash at the box office. And some will. I think the success of Samson & Delilah is proof of that,” says Hewison.
“They’re ambitious. And by that I don’t mean they cost many millions of dollars to make, but rather that they have ambitions that have escaped the straitjacket of how we perceive ourselves even as recently as a couple of years ago.”
Hewison attributes the change in box-office fortunes at least in part to the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia – financially (in terms of bums on seats) and creatively (Luhrmann’s audacious agenda to redefine the parameters of Australian cinema).
“It’s like a batting average. Irrespective of how patriotic you are, if you go to a couple of Australian films each year and you see one that’s kind of OK and another one that’s kind of lousy, you go: ‘You know what, I’ve kind of done my dash for this year’,” says Hewison.
“Whereas this year the reverse effect has happened.”
And delightfully it’s happened off the shirt tales of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia but segueing into films such as Samson & Delilah, which is, well, a pretty beautiful mathematical proposition.’’
“I don’t think controversy is necessarily a bad thing. You’re doing something right if it really engages with the culture that way.”
“I do see it as a very diverse and mature slate,” says Harley.