Indies in the Land of Oz: 7th Brisbane Film Fest
by Terry Keefe
Brisbane is the largest city in the Australian state of Queensland,
perhaps the most visually beautiful region of the country, and home to
the Great Barrier Reef. The 7th Brisbane International Film Festival
kicked off on July 30th and wrapped last week on August 9th with
attendance approximated at 30,000, a 50% increase over the previous
year. The BIFF is the smallest and youngest (by about 30 years) of the
three major Australian festivals, after Sydney and Melbourne, but it has
garnered a reputation in recent years as the hippest and most "indie" of
the three, not to mention the most filmmaker-friendly. Said Susan
McKinnon, producer of the hit Opening Night short film "Fetch," "It's a
lovely festival to be a part of because they're so generous. It's
definitely the most welcoming festival in Australia."
A primary reason the BIFF has gained this reputation is that it's
incredibly well-organized under the guidance of Artistic Director Anne
Demy-Geroe, Festival Manager Gary Ellis, and Program Coordinator Rhonda
Clark. Said Demy-Geroe, "One of the things that sets us apart is we
provide lots of attention to each film and filmmaker." And truly it
seemed like there were two Festival Volunteers assigned to every
filmmaker. They were eager to help with everything from answering
screening questions to driving us around on terrific sightseeing trips.
On various days, I was taken by the Festival Staff to the Outback where
I fed kangaroos, held a baby koala at the Koala Sanctuary, and was given
my first vegemite sandwich (a concoction which Men At Work made famous
in their 1983 hit song "Land Down Under").
Each night, all of the festival guests were taken to group dinners at
the finest restaurants in Brisbane. These dinners were one of the most
enjoyable parts of the experience, as the visiting filmmakers were able
to strike up friendships with one another and also meet the various
prominent financiers, journalists, and distributors who were visiting
the Festival. Filmmakers were housed at the four-star Brisbane Hilton,
only a half-block from the Hoyts Cinema where the bulk of the screenings
took place. The Hoyts is a 1920's-style movie palace with excellent
sound and projection.
The Opening Night feature at the Hoyts was the World Premiere of "Dead
Letter Office" by Australian director John Ruane who previously directed
the Australian hit "Death In Brunswick." I knew I had officially arrived
in Oz (the nickname for Australia) when I turned around and saw
Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") sitting behind me. The
Closing Night film was the very well-received Australian Premiere of
"Niagara, Niagara" with director Bob Gosse and star Robin Tunney
appearing in person and at a panel discussion the next day.
Between the Opening and Closing Night festivities, over 80 features and
100 shorts unspooled. The bulk of the features were in the World Cinema
Section: this is where the American indies were screened and a large
number of international films as well. Some of the international films
which screened to great response included Paul and Menno de Noojier's
"Exit" from the Netherlands, Maria Ripoll's "The Man With Rain In His
Shoes" from the United Kingdom, and Olivier Peray's "Love Tangles" from
France, amongst many others. As would be expected, there were also a
large selection of films from the Asia Pacific Region, which is
considered to include both Australia and a number of the East Asian
Two of the biggest Australian hits at the BIFF included Robert Carter's
"The Sugar Factory" and James Bogle's "In the Winter Dark." Carter was
making his homecoming premiere with "The Sugar Factory" after a
successful showcase at this year's Karlovy Vary Film Festival and last
week's Hollywood Film Festival where he won the "Best Feature For Over A
Million Dollars" award. Bogle previously had great success in 1993 with
the ultra-low budget Australian hit "Mad Bomber In Love," which was shot
on video. He's since moved up to a whole new level of production with
"Dark" which stars Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets and Lies"). Australian
Director Rolf de Heer, of "Bad Boy Bubby" and "The Quiet Room" fame,
arrived with his feature "Dance Me To My Song" and received the
festival's honorary Chauvel Award, the previous recipients of which have
included director and BIFF Head Patron Dr. George Miller ("Mad Max") and
Aussie cinematographer John Seale ("The English Patient"). The BIFF is
non-competitive with the exception of an Audience Award which went to
Nadia Tass' Australian feature "Amy" which starred Rachel Griffiths
One of the Festival's mandates from its inception seven years ago was to
bring more Asian features to Australia. Due to both its proximity to
Asia and the large Asian population in Australia, Asian films had
previously had a happy home on Australian screens. However, as in most
of the world, the product from the Hollywood studios and
studio-affiliated independents have taken over the majority of the
country's cinemas and there is little space for foreign language films.
To counter this trend, an expansive and excellent selection of Asian
films were screened at the BIFF, including Masato Harada's festival hit
"Bounce," Lee Chang-Dong's "Green Fish," Takeshi Kitano's "Hana-Bi,"
Wong Kar-wai's "Happy Together," Xie Jin's "The Opium War," and the
controversial film from Japan, Shunya Ito's "Pride," a revisionist look
at the war crimes trial of the Japanese general responsible for the
Pearl Harbor attack.
Another of the BIFF's mandate's is to support low-budget Australian
filmmaking, which in recent years has really begun to take off. The
large majority of the films in Australia are still financed by
government-affiliated entities, the most prominent of which are the
Australian Film Finance Corporation (FFC) and the Australian Film
Commission (AFC). The FFC has either partially financed or totally
financed the worldwide hits "Muriel's Wedding," "Strictly Ballroom," and
"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." While the Australian filmmakers tend
to have great creative control once they're able to access the
government monies, the process by which this money is obtained is a slow
and political one. "Shine," for example, was funded by the FFC but this
took 10 years to happen.
Consequently, many filmmakers are now adopting the "do-it-yourself"
indie philosophy that's become so common in the United States. Just as
many of today's American indie filmmakers were inspired by Robert
Rodriguez' "El Mariachi," the new Aussie indie wave has been partially
spurred on by the tremendous Australian success of films like Emma-Kate
Croughan's low-budget "Love And Other Catastrophes." A full-fledged
independent film community has sprung up, complete with a glossy and
well- written magazine called IF: Independent Filmmakers and a popular
website called Urban Cinefile at <www.urbancinefile.com.au>.
"There's kind of a revolution happening here. Many filmmakers are
bypassing the traditional channels of getting a film financed in
Australia," said Stephen Jenner, the Managing Editor of IF. It's
estimated that this year alone 20-30 independently-financed features
will be made in Australia, which is a large number considering that the
population of the whole country is only 18 million.
As part of its efforts to nurture this emerging indie community, the
BIFF featured two low-budget feature works-in-progress by young
Australian filmmakers - Tony De Pasquale's "Waste" and Michelle Warner
and Priscilla Cameron's "Mr. Pumpkin's Big Night Out." Both of these
films were shown at the Festival on video with temp mixes to sold-out,
Financiers and distributors were invited in the hopes of helping these
filmmakers secure funds to finish their projects. Said Managing Director
Gary Ellis, "More and more, we're focusing on showcasing first and
second-time filmmakers. The low-budget films are where some of the most
interesting work in the Asia Pacific region is coming from."
Another very popular section of the Festival were the two nights of gay
and lesbian short films, entitled collectively "Gay Shorts for Grrrls"
and "Gay Shorts for Boys," which screened at the cabaret-style Tivoli
Cafe. Both nights were sold-out and sponsored in part by Brother Sister,
the largest Australian gay and lesbian newspaper.
Also very popular was Australian filmmaker Melissa Lee's feature
documentary "Mary's Place," screening in the Asia Pacific Section. It
should be pointed out that Queensland is extremely conservative and a
gay lifestyle was illegal there until recently (it still is in
neighboring Tasmania). While the current dominant political party in
Australia, the Labor Party, is considered liberal, a growing political
party called One Nation has gained tremendous support in Oz within the
last year on a wave of vaguely fascist rhetoric. Their numbers are
swelling to the consternation of many. For a government-funded film
festival to include gay and lesbian films in Queensland during this
political climate is brave and commendable.
About half of the American features making their Australian debuts in
the World Cinema Section had already had theatrical releases in the U.S.
- these included films such as Harmony Korine's "Gummo" and Tom
DiCillo's "The Real Blonde." However, there were a number of somewhat
lesser-known American features represented, including Donna Dietch's
"Angel On My Shoulder," Frank Todaro's "Above Freezing," John Greyson's
"Uncut," Nicholas Barker's "Unmade Beds," Iara Lee's "Modulations." Also
showing was David William's docu-style drama "Thirteen." Having already
had a successful festival tour in the rest of the world this past year,
"Thirteen" showed its appeal to the Australian audience as one of the
most popular films at the BIFF.
From a purely business point of view, most of the international sales
and acquisition companies were only sparsely represented here, so a big
worldwide sale for a visiting American indie is still unlikely at BIFF.
Sydney and Melbourne are still higher-profile festivals, but the BIFF is
growing fast. As Lynn-Maree Danzey, director of "Fetch" said prior to
her screening, "I think this is already the best festival in Australia."
Australian distibutors take the festival very seriously, so it's
definitely a good place to go for an Australian-territory sale or
launch. The festival staff set up numerous press opportunities for the
filmmakers with the Australian press and all of the visiting filmmakers
had the opportunity to host "Meet the Filmmaker" panels.
And as mentioned earlier, the hospitality is unparalleled. All in all, a
very fine time in the Land of Oz. Just don't try the vegemite sandwich,
it really is pretty nasty.
[Terry Keefe is an LA-based independent filmmaker, whose film "Slaves of
Hollywood," which he made with Michael Wechsler, screened at the