19 February – 1 March 2009

It is the end of summer and Adelaide is decisively abuzz with the gala ambience that accords South Australia its “Festival State” stature. After six years of studying and working in the city, I finally have a car with an SA numberplate and am looking forward to navigating my way through film screenings and forums. A festival pass earned as a result of being on the preview panel enables easy and near-unlimited access. The official program is an eclectic mix of location-specific world cinema and world-embracing Australian-funded features, documentaries and shorts. I begin to read the blurbs and wonder if this festival will herald a new dawn in the history of Australia’s creative industries by engaging with the “other” rather than relegating it/him/her to the multicultural-minority-marginal ghetto. A friend points out the blonde roller-blade clad stewardess on the cover of the program and monocultural doubts resurface. Does it matter that her two patrons are headless, or rather, have a single giant eye in place of a human face? Perhaps the cinematic experience can render “difference” differently, as if it can be painted with a singular vision and perceived with an open eye.

The first film I see is Kanchivaram by Indian director Priyadarshan whose commercial rural-centric fare is well-known in my country of origin. Reminded of the brightly-hued and intricately-woven silk saris my mother once bought on a trip to Nalli, (1) I step into the cinema hall expecting a visual trip down memory lane. What follows is not merely a visual treat, but a poignantly-told history lesson on the silk weaving industry in south India, and the beginnings of the communist revolution amongst its workers. Although familiar with the conventions of Indian cinema where song and dance are a natural expression of emotion and melodramatic dialogue is a genre expectation, I am slightly disoriented by having to read subtitles for a film whose grammar is like a cinematic mother tongue. Tamil is more unfamiliar to me than French or Spanish, yet the hymn sung at the birth ceremony of the silk weaver’s daughter becomes a powerful motif. I leave with the feeling that the question of accessing a foreign language, whether literary or filmic, is somewhat redundant.

A Good Man

Next in queue is Indian-born, Australian-resident director Safina Uberoi’s documentary A Good Man which has been financed by the Adelaide Film Festival’s Investment Fund. Again, I know the filmmaker from her most acclaimed work, an Australian Film Finance Corporation- and SBS Independent-funded personal memoir titled My Mother India that has been an influence on my own hyphenated creativity. Reading that her latest film is about a farmer in country New South Wales with a quadriplegic wife and an upcoming legal brothel business, I was intrigued that Uberoi had jumped into the already overflowing pool of artists mythologising the archetypal “Aussie battler”. Would her “other” consciousness offer us an alternative vision of the heartland of Australia and its inhabitants? The session I choose is the world premiere of the documentary, and the cast and crew are introduced to us. Uberoi is infectiously enthusiastic as she croons, “I left India to come to Australia 14 years ago, and am proud to say that this is my first Australian film”. The film lives up to its Australian promise with its self-deprecatory humour and down-to-earth charm. Disability, financial troubles and familial relationships are recorded with a camera that is intimate enough to capture harmony and discord with equal aplomb. The “few years later” conclusion tells us that the farmer and his wife are expanding their home for extended family and friends. I recall the kinship advantages of the joint family structure that still prevails in rural and provincial parts of India. It dawns on me that a filmmaker’s “other” consciousness is not necessarily radical; it is merely a discerning eye that sees and connects.

Monday arrives with a joint offering of two more Investment Fund films – Murray Fredericks and Michael Angus’ Salt and Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah. At first glance, it appears that Salt fits right into the category of Australian documentaries attempting to capture the austere beauty of this “vast brown land”. An obvious difference is that the subject of Fredericks’ photography and video work in not the desert, but the seemingly limitless expanse of Lake Eyre in South Australia. His day-to-day routine when spending a few weeks a year in the middle of this lake, amalgamated with personal reflections, aerial photographs and footage, and the sheerness of the light in the surrounds make for a landscape documentary with a difference. The difference lies in the enmeshing of the practical, the artistic and the social elements of the photographer’s life that both enable such an endeavour and make it a holistic effort to go with the elements rather than against them. I am intrigued about the creative genesis of Fredericks the narrator. Were the briefly alluded to life-changing events of his mid-twenties behind his decision to pursue the poetic despite shouldering the responsibility of a young family? Perhaps the personal could have been extended, the wife and children interviewed, and the short turned into a feature-length documentary. But then, the horizonlessness of Lake Eyre would have been bounded, tethered to the human. If Fredericks and Angus were aiming for a response of awe, not recognition, it has clearly been achieved.

Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson & Delilah, although grappling with the systemic issues confronting the nation’s young Aboriginals, is not quite Ten Canoes or Rabbit-Proof Fence in that it is more accessible, contemporary and buoyant. The film is quickly sold-out and wins much applause at its world premiere and subsequent Q and A. At the inauguration of the Screenwriters’ Fringe organised by the Australian Writers’ Guild that I attend later in the week, SA Premier Mike Rann describes the film as a definite audience-winner for Australian cinema. It seems ironic to me then that a movie with minimal dialogue is being flaunted as exemplary at a screenwriters’ gathering, and one where the paucity of good scripts in the Australian film industry is consensually held culpable for diminishing box-office returns. Another irony is that the sound-scape of the film largely consists of country and Latino music playing alongside visuals of indigenous art, petrol-sniffing teenagers, domestic abuse and the lowest rung of poverty. Thornton’s message then, to filmmakers and audiences alike, is that there is no formula for a successful Australian film, or any kind of film that aims to tell a human(e) story. The young Samson throwing stones at the hair-brushing Delilah, who he likes, is not a clichéd image of love, it is an observation that is rooted in the writer-director’s own experience of adolescent romance. At the end of the session, he emphasises the significance of making an indigenous film that depicts the violence realistically, yet ends on a note of hope.

The ensuing series of shorts I watch is under the umbrella title of “Made in SA”. The first two, Kind of Man and Past Midnight, take us on a journey through country Australia where despondent young women overcome their fears through encounters with strangers. The former film, directed by Kelly Schilling, is both realistic in terms of its content, and emblematic of a nation where immigration stories are increasingly dominating the popular consciousness. The central female character’s experience is chilling in its reinforcement of stereotypes of illegal African migrants, yet the gradual peeling away of these assumptions shows the way forward for natives and ethnics alike.

Vicki Sugars’ Past Midnight is haunting in its use of a simple road-trip and a temporary stopover at a fishing village that become quietly empowering for the female lead who is fleeing a broken relationship. In this case, the picturesque albeit unforgiving seashore is brought alive by the three characters of the film. Unlike Salt, the melancholic landscape, and not its overarching protagonist, is a catalyst for the plot. It is difficult to conclude which alternative works better in a narrative, but the fascination with the Australian landscape and its surrounds continues. The cinematic approach to this setting has shifted from one of fear, as seen in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Piano, to regard and conciliation.

The other three shorts, namely The Cat Piano, The Bully, and Necessary Games have been made with the assistance of the Festival’s Investment Fund. Eddie White and Ari Gibson’s animated short, The Cat Piano is cleverly conceptualised, with Nick Cave’s raspy voiceover lending it an Australian-rooted, other-worldy edge. It comes as no surprise when the film is accepted at France’s Annecy International Film Festival, widely known as the “Cannes of Animation”. (2)

My first viewing of Flinders University film lecturer Shane McNeill’s The Bully is at the Screenwriters’ Fringe, but a second watch helps me appreciate the underlying sophistication of the script and the outstanding performance of the child actor. At its heart, this short feature is about a boy who becomes a bully as a consequence of being bullied. However, the film’s social commentary on the vicious cycle of harassment in schools and parental neglect never comes across as ideologically motivated. It is a serious subject that is handled deftly and with the right dose of dark humour. The audience at the Fringe, comprising local and international screenwriters, is quite receptive to The Bully and discusses its potential use for educational purposes worldwide.

Necessary Games has been created in collaboration with the renowned Adelaide-based Restless Dance Theatre, and consists of three dance films – Moths, Sixteen and Necessity. Acting as interludes between the other films screened in the Made in SA section, these short pieces work with another form of difference, that is, dancers with disability (paired with dancers without disability). The choreography explores the individual’s unconscious in the sheer fluidity of the dancers’ movements, and also reflects the communicative games played in real-world relationships. As my eyes move from one game to another, one short film to the next, I sense that this particular ensemble of South Australian-made cinema is rich in content and diverse in form.

My Tehran for Sale

On the 1st of March, the last day of the Adelaide Film Festival, I see Iranian-Australian writer-director Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale (also aided by the Investment Fund). It turns out to be the most visually, sonically and emotionally satisfying film of the past ten days or so of frenzied cinema viewing. Mostly shot in Tehran with local artists and showing the seldom-represented liberal underbelly of urban Iran, the film is both lyrical and realistic, a document and a story. The Adelaide-based character who returns to Tehran and the subsequent immigration difficulties faced by his former partner add to the implicit socio-political commentary on a world where geographical boundaries are redundant for the artist, yet insurmountable for the outcast citizen. I want to speak to Moussavi and her very talented Iranian lead actors at the Q and A, but have another event to go to. Later in the evening, by pure coincidence, I see the threesome having coffee on Rundle Street at the same spot where I happen to be fuelling on caffeine with a friend. A few complimentary words are exchanged and I am encouraged to learn that there is another Moussavi film in the offing. My training in film scholarship beckons a critical approach to significant changes in national narratives, but the budding diasporic filmmaker in me can’t help but take a celebratory view.

After my run-in with Moussavi, I am reminded of Premier Rann’s speech on the conception of the Adelaide Film Festival. Although impressed with the range of films shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival, he realised it remained a mere showcasing platform for filmmakers. Thus in 2003, also incidentally the year I commenced my sojourn in Adelaide, the Adelaide Film Festival was born with the aim of being involved in every aspect of the creative process that is filmmaking through the Investment Fund program. (3) Six years and four festivals later, has the vision been realised? It is certainly on the right track if it is aiding the production of films like Samson & Delilah and My Tehran for Sale. Perhaps the most fruitful strand of Australian cinema, as film academic Mike Walsh puts it, “comes from the engagement of Australia and distinctly separate cultures.” (4) In the wake of the recent Oscar glory accrued to India-based Slumdog Millionaire, The Weekend Australian columnist Greg Sheridan commented on the comparatively dismal performance of the Australian film industry. (5) What Sheridan misses, however, is that the victory of Slumdog is not a win for India or Bollywood per se, but a big leap forward for cross-cultural cinematic collaborations. The most successful Australian films of the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival are testament to the creative and box-office potential of an outward-looking worldly Australian cinema.

Adelaide Film Festival website: http://www.adelaidefilmfestival.org

Endnotes

  1. ‘Nalli’ is Tamil for silk, and is also the name of a famous silk sari store in Chennai (India).
  2. The Adelaidenow story on the acceptance of The Cat Piano at Annecy can be found at http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,25181605-5006346,00.html.
  3. The Adelaide Film Festival’s description of the Investment Fund can be found at http://www.adelaidefilmfestival.org/program/affif/description.
  4. Mike Walsh’s report on the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival can be found at http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue88/9220.
  5. Greg Sheridan’s column in The Weekend Australian can be found at http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,25068492-26063,00.html.