High infidelity: Have we cast Australian films into the arms of another?

High infidelity: Have we cast Australian films into the arms of another? By Simon Miraudo.

“What came first, the movies or the misery?”


Forgive my misquoting of the break-up flick High Fidelity, but as a fan of Australian cinema, I feel a bit like a spurned lover. Perhaps it’s our own fault (and yes, I’m dragging everyone who enjoys quality home-grown films into this sordid coupling). We ignored and often dismissed Australian movies, reminding them that we “didn’t really need them”. We treated them like our ‘safety’ date, feigning interest, whilst intending all along to take American cinema to the dance instead. But Aus cinema has gone all Pretty in Pink on us. Suddenly, a whole bunch of new suitors have emerged from around the world, each beguiled by Australian pictures such as Animal Kingdom, The Loved Ones, The Tree and Red Hill. Local films are no longer saving themselves for us; they’re debuting in every country but Australia. And as heartbreaking as it is, we only have ourselves to blame. Not the films. Us.

The Daily Telegraph’s associate editor Sarrah Le Marquand’s published an op-ed piece entitled ‘The ugly truth of Australian film’, in which she laments the lack of Social Network-quality features being produced in Australia. Le Marquand claims “overly cautious critics” use convenient excuses such as “lack of funding, lazy audiences and an unwillingness to engage with our own culture” to explain away the Australian film industry’s failures. Her argument is based upon one giant fallacy: that Australia does not produce Social Network-quality features. The one recent Australian release Le Marquand mentions is Tomorrow When The War Began (err, ok?). Has she partaken of Claire McCarthy’s enchanting The Waiting City, or Julie Bertucelli’s haunting fable The Tree? What about our slick genre pieces The Loved Ones and Daybreakers? Or Joel Anderson’s brilliant, evocative, mind-numbingly underseen Lake Mungo (a horror-drama that deserves to sit amongst the all-time greats)? Talk about “an unwillingness to engage with our own culture”. As Encore Editor Miguel Gonzalez astutely points out in his retort to Le Marquand’s dismissive piece, “the media and the public should be critical, but they can’t expect any positive changes if they rarely pay attention to their industry and, when they do, it’s always from a negative, out-dated point of view”.

What happens when you don’t pay attention in a relationship (except to point out your partner’s faults)? They walk out on you. In the past 12 months alone, Australian audiences have had to sit on the sidelines while local directors shared their films at international festivals, months before bringing them to our shores. Animal Kingdom director David Michôd scored a slot at Sundance in January of 2010, picked up the World Cinema Jury Prize, and is now enjoying some genuine Oscar buzz. This is all wonderful. But it would have been even more wonderful if Australian critics have been the first to discover and share this fine talent with the rest of the world. How did we let him slip through our fingers?

I asked The Loved Ones’ director Sean Byrne why his film – which won the Midnight Madness prize at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009 – took so long to arrive in Australia. Byrne casually said, “Australians traditionally don’t always embrace Australian cinema unless it’s had some endorsement internationally”. Is that really what we’ve come to? Australian directors now expect local audiences – and that includes local media – to ignore their films unless the Yanks and the Brits and the Canucks have given them the stamp of approval?

The neo-western Red Hill similarly made a splash overseas before arriving in Oz; it played at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, and bowed in U.S. cinemas a full three weeks before landing in Australia. Director Patrick Hughes shared his thoughts on this new trend of “international endorsement”. Although he could see the positive side, he expressed exasperation at the apathy of Aus audiences; “I think it’s a wonderful testament that you go ‘Hey, here’s a movie that actually works overseas’. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for Australian viewers. It’s scary, how do you get Australian viewers to go see Australian films?”

How indeed. And more pressingly, why aren’t they going in the first place? Although Animal Kingdom grossed a respectable $5 million, Red Hill and The Loved Ones have both disappointed at the box office despite largely positive reviews. Should we blame “lack of funding, lazy audiences and an unwillingness to engage with our own culture”? And is it so bad if local films make such a big splash internationally before arriving on our shores?

Perhaps not. I’m deeply proud of all the aforementioned films for going out into the world and making a name for themselves, and our country, almost in spite of our treatment of them. And their “international endorsement” is indeed deserved. I guess, like the recently-dumped ex of a newly-engaged fiancé, I feel as if I’ve missed the boat on a beautiful marriage.

As I write this, Mad Bastards-director Brendan Fletcher is likely celebrating his film’s inclusion at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It’s a festival that Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik describes as necessary “for making known … films … made outside of the larger system; … [a] journalist-intensive forum for that discussion and that circulation.” Sure, we have some fine film festivals in Australia – MIFF, SFF, Revelation – but we’d be deluding ourselves if we similarly described them as being a “journalist-intensive forum for that discussion and that circulation”. Wouldn’t it be nice to see these fine local films first, and then collectively champion them to the rest of the world, instead of having to hear everyone else shower them with praise first. We need to expand our media coverage beyond the cursory “Australian cinema is depressing” conversation, and start treating this industry with the respect and attention it deserves. Brilliant films will follow. Hell, the brilliant films have arrived. We wish Mad Bastards the best of luck. It will make its world debut at a Sydney Festival special event in January before moving onto Sundance, and finally arriving in Australian cinemas May 2011. Let’s start the discussion before the Americans this time.

This article has been written in honour of the Oz Film Blogathon; a celebration of, and critical commentary on, Australian cinema. The Oz Film Blogathon is hosted by critic Scott Henderson.

9 Responses to “High infidelity: Have we cast Australian films into the arms of another?”

  1. >Sorry, I don't have any sympathy for Aussie films whatsoever. It seems filmakers are only capable of making two genres…historical (and haven't we had enough films about WWIIor racehorses etc) or realism like aminal kingdom which are so bleak and depressing no wonder Australians don't want to pay good money to watch them.We have the talent and the resources so why haven't we produced a decent sci fi film or fantasy flick? Where are the kids movies? Nope we seem to get our films from Australian books which are in the most part limited to outback autobiographies or refence books about our rather short and dull history.When they start making feel good films again, I'll happily offer my patronage.

  2. >Totally agree with the previous blogger. If Aus film makers made decent movies and actually marketed them appropriately, audiences would flock to see them. Audiences won't spend $18 to see a rubbish, navel-gazing film when it will be on DVD in 3 months anyway. Audiences have much higher expectations these days too and have been spoilt by overseas offerings with stellar casts, production values and the whole shebang. It's the film makers, studios, distributors and marketers who have dug their own grave.

  3. >unoriginal, just about sums up australian film. Even Animal Kingdom which was so well received. If anyone has seen Two Hands , Dirty Deeds, or any of the Underbelly series the stories aren't exactly groundbreaking.I think our lack of oppurtunity and encouragement to developing Australian writers is what is hurting AFI the most.

  4. >The Loved Ones was a solid genre film and was funny rather than bleak.Still, no one saw it. It bombed. Off our screens within 2.5 weeks.Explain that, then?What about Daybreakers? Even then, the filmmakers had to look to the US for enough money to make the film they envisioned.Sci-fi and fantasy COST MONEY. Sure, there are some great sci-fi/fantasy films out there that manage to be good with a small budget, but small budgets to them are still in the tens of millions. Unfortunately for our filmmakers, they are left trying to create a film with as few stunts, locations or SFX as possible. Even then, they struggle to find the money to market the film properly, thus it fails to find an audience.People seem to forget that other countries produce hundreds more films annually, many of which we will never hear or see in this country. Yet in Australia, a good year sees the production of more than 30 features, probably have of which will never receive a release wider than 20 screens. Tomorrow When the War Began had a wonderful marketing campaign and an already established fanbase, yet in my opinion it still underperformed at the box office. There wasn't much more the filmmakers could have done to market the film more widely. Yet the stigma still remained. I agree that the Australian film aesthetic is somewhat bleak and the industry needs to become more creative and diverse with their ideas, but I'm sick of everyone shitting all over the industry despite the effort, heartache and bankruptcy those in the industry endure due to lack of funding. As someone just starting out, I speak from experience. There is no money out there. Sometimes I feel it is questionable to complain about the lack of funding the film and television industries receive when there are much more important things to address (poverty, homelessness, etc.), but if the government is happy to inject money into areas such as sport, why shouldn't the arts receive just as more when it can be an infinitely more profitable endeavor?

  5. >Also, great piece Mr. Miraudo.

  6. >@REID WRIGHTI couldn't agree with you more (esp. the comparison to 'Underbelly', season 1 was FANTASTIC!). People compared 'Animal Kingdom' to 'The Boys' but in my opinion, 'The Boys' had a menace in casting and soundtrack that 'Animal Kingdom' could not even shake a stick at.Like many others, I am bored of the the similiar themes that dominate Oz cinema. The majority of our people reside in coastal cities, where are the gripping dramas and comedies? 'Happy Feet' did very well as an animated film, so, there is potential that with an exceptional script Australia could get funding for a wickid sci-fi. We have so many talented film-makers who are steadily employed Stateside, we are not short of technical and acting talent, just writing talent it seems…P.S. I am also bored of the Anglo-Centric dominance! Jesus, unless it's a crime film seems we are a homogenous nation of people from the British isles…I know my Sydney/Melbourne people what I'm talking about!

  7. >Am in complete agreement with the first two comments. That writer from The Tele is simply telling it as it is. Until some people in the local industry are willing to face up to how and why Aussie films are perceived by their fellow countrymen then the current woes will continue. Sulking isn't helping.

  8. >If you take the Red Hill film (which I haven't seen as yet, but have been following), the Aus marketing for it was fucking terrible. There should've been preview word of mouth screenings held for it in each cap city, but to my knowledge there weren't any in my city.

  9. >If it's a bright, mainstream Australian Comedy Film you are after, i'd keep your lids peeled towards the cinemas next year for this film folks: dealingwithdestinymovie.com

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