Opening night at last year’s Sydney Film Festival drew the usual crowd of special invitees – many of them unlikely to attend another session. The film chosen to launch the festival was Rachel Ward’s Palm Beach, which chronicles the mid-life crises of a group of old friends who have come together to celebrate the lead character’s birthday. An Australian version of The Big Chill, the movie drew thunderous applause from the opening night crowd. It was only later that the feedback turned sour and people began to say what they really thought.
A similar thing happened with David Michod’s second feature, The Rover, in 2018. At its first SFF screening there was massive applause. The second saw walk-outs and luke-warm responses. After his debut, Animal Kingdom (2010), Michod was seen as the great new hope of Australian cinema, but The Rover was a disappointment. One presumes the frst screening was packed with industry insiders, the second by members of the general public who had no stake in the movie’s success.
After reviewing movies every week for almost a decade, I’m left with one burning question: Whatever happened to Australian film?
The industry’s periods of greatest energy have been the 1910s-20s and 1970s-80s, when audiences responded enthusiastically to stories of Australian history and contemporary life. With the exception of a small number of productions, 2010-19 has been a decade to forget. Having built up a range of observations and theories I tested them on people with a better first-hand acquaintance with the local film business. Nobody wants to be identified, but the replies were devastating.
One described “lots of small, grief-stricken moments” with the Australian film industry. “You say, year after year, ‘Oh no, this is not going to get us out of the hole.’”
There is a conspiracy of bullshit when it comes to discussing contemporary Australian cinema. Those employed in the bureaucracy of the industry have a vested interest in making us believe everything is brilliant. There may be as many as 1,000 people employed in the administration of the sector, people with no real creative input who are fundamentally risk averse.
This is reinforced by journalists and reviewers who feel obliged to praise the local product even if it leaves them cold. The rule is to be “supportive” of the industry, with criticism seen as negative and destructive. Needless to say this merely justifies and perpetuates the endless parade of mediocrity.
What Australian films are creaming it internationally? Which ones are winning awards? Where is our next crop of genius directors? It’s worth noting that over the past decade the Australian Film, Television and Radio School has barely turned out a single notable director.
Australia produces roughly 30 features a year, which is no great achievement for a country of 25 million people, even if the home box office is discouraging. South Korea, with a population of 51 million, produced 501 films in 2018! Hollywood, Netflix and the Internet may have played a role in diminishing the audience for Australian films but there are also qualitative factors. The occasional success that bucks the downward trend suggests that local audiences are willing to support Australian films if those films manage to strike the right chords.
The Screen Australia website lists 271 movies released from 2010-2019. I’ve seen approximately a quarter of these, which compares poorly with my more dedicated peers, but there are limits as to how much one can endure in the call of duty. The vast majority had brief seasons at the cinemas and limited releases. The list doesn’t include films that were completed but never picked up by distributors.
When we set this against the Australian box office results from 2010-19 it’s depressing to find that for most years only one or two local films made it into the top 50. The most successful are listed below. The figures in brackets refer to their all-time ranking among Australian top-earners:
Lion (2017): $29,545,626 (5)
The Great Gatsby (2013): $27,383, 762 (7)
Peter Rabbit (2018): $26,750,712 (8)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): $21,687,465 (11)
Red Dog (2011): $21,475,097 (12)
The Dressmaker (2015): $20,284,601 (13)
The Water Diviner (2014): $15,869,286 (17)
The Sapphires (2011): $14,536, 741 (20)
This list is so diverse it would be absurd to attempt generalisations. Everyone will have their favourites and pet hates, but from a critic’s perspective the only items that get the seal of approval are George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, with Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker a possible addition.
The success of Garth Davis’s Lion has always surprised me because it comes across as a well-made tele-movie flavoured with a dollop of sentimentality. The story of an Indian boy adopted by Tasmanian parents who goes looking for his real family, it might indicate the importance of origin stories in today’s multicultural Australia. It’s also significant that the Aussie hero is an Indian, not the standard Anglo-saxon he-man. Sociologically this is all very positive, but it doesn’t make the movie any less ordinary.
With films such as The Great Gatsby, Mad Max: Fury Road and Peter Rabbit – let alone big-budget fantasies such as Acquaman and Gods of Egypt, or Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge – we need to ask: “What makes these films Australian?”
Kids’ film, Peter Rabbit is an USA/Australia co-production, directed and scripted by Americans; The Great Gatsby, Hacksaw Ridge and Acquaman are also USA/Australia co-productions; Gods of Egypt is a co-production between the USA, Australia and China; Mad Mad: Fury Road is credited to the USA, Australia and South Africa.
One may assume the Americans have contributed most of the production budget, and have an interest in making a film that will appeal to a broad, international market. The only one of these films actually set in Australia, is Mad Max, albeit in the desert, in a bleak, apocalyptic future. All of them feature international stars in the lead roles, including a range of high-profile Aussies.
There is a gulf that separates these features from those such as Red Dog, Kriv Stenders’s popular tale of an Aussie canine, which twanged heartstrings at home and, to a limited extent, abroad. The Water Diviner, The Dressmaker (with British actress, Kate Winslett, in the lead role), and The Sapphires were more thoroughly Australian in terms of form and content. The relative popularity of these movies, along with the success of the banal Ride Like a Girl, shows there is an audience for Australian-themed stories.
The Sapphires deserves special mention as a breakthough movie for an indigenous director and a largely indigenous cast. Instead of the usual bleak portrayal of the lives of Aboriginal people it presented a vibrant, up-tempo story in which the social commentary never overwhelmed our feeling for individual characters.
Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is a patriotic homage to the Anzacs that incorporates a little too much Hollywood into the mix. The plot devices are so creaky and overstated that the director’s honorable intentions are buried in a field of corn. The Dressmaker is more successful in its evocation of a narrow-minded Australian country town and the prodigal daughter who returns to infect the citizens with fashion-mania. It’s a disjointed fable that exerts its charm upon the viewer.
For me, the most significant movies of the decade stand out pretty clearly. Along with Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dressmaker and The Sapphires, there’s a lot to admire in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010), Justin Kurzel’s stunning debut, Snowtown (2011); Jennifer Kent’s intelligent horror movie, The Babadook (2014), and her second feature, The Nightingale (2018); Mel Gibson’s devastating war drama, Hacksaw Ridge (2016); and Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black (2018) – one of the most joyous movies ever made in this country. There’s also much to like in Jeremy Sims’s Last Cab to Darwin (2015) a melancholy, character-driven drama, and Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature, Bouyancy (2019).
From 270 films one might hand out lots of honourable mentions to feature-length documentaries such as Red Obsession (2013), Gurrumul (2018), Hotel Coolgardie(2017), and now, Suzi Q (2019). It was also a decade that saw indigenous filmmakers such as Wayne Blair, Ivan Sen and Rachel Perkins make a series of confident, assured films, although I much preferred the gritty realism of Sen’s Toomelah (2011) to his excursion into outback noir in Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). Perkins’s signature piece was Bran Nue Dae (2010), but this ludicrous musical comedy is a hard film to love. Her later movie, Jasper Jones (2017), is a solid but undistinguished effort.
The productivity of figures such as Perkins and producer, David Jowsey, is at least partly due to their concentration on indigenous subjects. While we can applaud the evolution of indigenous cinema, it must also be admitted that some themes are far more attractive than others when it comes to securing official funding.
In the French film industry the producer is a key figure. It is a two-tiered system that includes commercially minded producers who know how to appeal to popular audiences, and those with artistic aspirations who know how to win awards. The two are not universally exclusive but they are nicely complementary. Investment trusts and follows these producers.
In Australia producers are marginalised in their importance. Instead, we have largely anonymous gatekeepers that look at film treatments being considered for funding, and decide who will get the cash. Sometimes a film academic will suggest that a script needs to be altered to make it acceptable, and the filmmaker has very little option but to agree to the changes.
The kind of movies that get funded have led me to imagine the process like this: A film academic is given a treatment to read. He or she doesn’t feel comfortable handing over a large sum of money to someone they don’t actually know, or for a project that has nothing to do with indigenous people, climate change, refugees, or any other major political talking point. Sadly, they decide the only people who can be trusted with funding are their friends or former students, or those directors making the most politically correct product.
This may be why Australian cinema has become so resolutely humourless and grim over the past decade. It’s as if directors have never seen a movie by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino – directors who know the value of a shot of deadpan humour. I’m beginning to suspect there’s a course at film school in how to make a movie without a single sympathetic character.
On the other hand, when a director sets out to make a comedy the results can be even worse, as in Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari (2018), which felt like an exercise in sustained humiliation for the cast. Fortunately for Elliott, the decade was dominated by even more embarrassing blockbuster, in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It made me realise the only thing worse than a travesty is a big-budget travesty that wastes an excellent group of actors.
It’s an irony that Coalition givernments who profess such contempt for all things PC, are cheerfully funding an industry which is steeped in ideological rectitude and contemptuous of commercial potential. The truth is that governments don’t really care about the quality of the films that are made. They want only to see the machine continuing to run smoothly, bouyed up by the occasional award handed out to an Australian actor – usually for a role in a foreign movie.
Bureaucracy is a great leveller and it seems that Australia’s film funding bodies are just as happy to hand over money to first-timers as to experienced directors. Every year a large percentage of films are by first-time directors who rarely seem to make a second film. Of the 30 or so films produced every year, only a handful will have a successful run at the cinema. Some, perhaps a majority, will never get a release beyond the limited exposure of the film festival circuit. It would make a lot more sense to be proactive in assisting filmmakers with a proven track record, whether one is thinking of Jane Campion, Rolf de Heer or even Peter Weir.
Meanwhile we continue to pour money into the creation of tawdry, industrial artefacts that merely keep the machine ticking over, giving the pleasing impression of movement and activity. The level of local support has remained desultory for so long that it has settled into a comfortable rut. No-one has any great expectations of quality, box office revenue or public acceptance. Nothing is ventured, nothing is threatened. So long as we see our first priority has being ‘supportive’ to this state of affairs, Australia will continue to make a tidy, annual set of movies that nobody wants to watch.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 January, 2020