It’s all about creating doorways. This was the message of writer/director Scott Hicks, winner of the 2013 Don Dunstan Award for outstanding contribution to the Australian film industry, which was presented at the opening night gala of the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF). Reflecting on his almost 40-year career as a director in South Australia and beyond, he acknowledged, “Without Don Dunstan there would never have been that doorway I walked through that became a filmmaking life” (1). Referring here to initial support gained from Dunstan and the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) in the 1970s, Hicks suggested the need for more doorways, so that new generations of Australian filmmakers continue to have the opportunity to succeed. AFF, being a film festival that administers a government sponsored investment fund that provides equity to get films made, offers such a doorway. Since 2003 the fund has invested $1 million into a slate of shorts, feature films and new media projects every two years, with tremendous results on display at the 2013 event. As well as boosting production in South Australia, the festival fund has fostered the creation of daring and innovative works that present diverse visions of contemporary Australian life.

Helmed for the first time by CEO Amanda Duthie, formerly Head of Arts and Entertainment at ABC TV, the 2013 festival also ran alongside the Adelaide Festival of Ideas for the first time, with a move from “mad March” to mid October. This meant an action packed 11 days that injected an exciting sense of “festival” into the festival state in what was previously a quiet month in the Adelaide arts calendar. The theme of “Screen Worship” reflects a focus on filmmakers at work on a variety of screens, be they in the cinema, art gallery, or on mobile devices, and the encouragement of audience participation through Q&As, conversations and online interaction with content. With work organised into strands encompassing a broad range of themes, this year’s festival highlighted a diversity of screen practice by Australian makers alongside that of their international peers.

Tracks

Tracks

Opening night film Tracks (John Curran), a recipient of the festival investment fund, was well-received in a sold out screening at the Adelaide Festival Centre. Based on the book written by Robyn Davidson (who was in attendance along with two camels who sat quietly aside the event’s red carpet), the film dramatises the author’s real life trek from Alice Springs to the West Australian coast in 1977. Accompanied by four camels and her dependable dog, Diggity, Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) chooses to walk nearly 2000 miles in harsh, dangerous conditions, a quest explained by her comment that ‘I just want to be by myself’. The journey is sponsored by National Geographic magazine, meaning regular visits/interruptions from American staff photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), whose real life work inspired the photography of the film. Wasikowska gives a strong performance in the lead role, portraying Davidson as a sometimes prickly but generally sympathetic loner. Her relationship with Smolan runs hot and cold, which is not surprising when he displays insensitivity to the customs of Aboriginal groups encountered along the journey. However, it is the photographer’s persistent kindness that Davidson finds particularly difficult to manage, and her eventual acceptance of Smolan could be viewed as one of the principal story arcs of the film. An Aboriginal elder named Mr Eddy, a guide who leads her through sacred lands that are otherwise off limits to unaccompanied white people, also aids Davidson in her journey. Throughout the trek the protagonist (dubbed “the Camel Lady”) is hounded by groups of overbearing tourists who have been following her journey. One memorable, comic scene sees the wise and compassionate Mr Eddy ward them off by removing his false teeth and playing the role of the scary Aboriginal savage.

Davidson’s journey is intercut with flashbacks to her youth, which gradually reveal the trauma that may account for her status as an outsider. These slow-motion moments, as well as Smolan’s visits, break up a journey that is otherwise monotonous, but never boring. Cinematographer Mandy Walker expertly frames the dusty and arid landscape in a way that captures the extreme heat of the desert, while Garth Stevenson’s score seeks to punctuate the gravity of Davidson’s situation and achievements. There were moments when I felt the frequency and intensity of the film’s non-diegetic music to be somewhat overbearing, as the images of the protagonist’s cracked, sun-damaged skin and her experiences fighting against the elements more than speak for themselves. Finally, Davidson arrives at the coastline and submerges herself in the ocean. The film’s final moments of underwater photography reveal an expression of peace on the protagonist’s face but left me with unanswered questions about how the quest had changed her. Tracks takes the viewer on an engaging journey with a fiercely independent young woman, leaving us to further contemplate the protagonist’s motives for undertaking such a dangerous and lonely task.

Charlie's Country

Charlie’s Country

Also part funded by the festival was Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s Charlie’s Country, the third film in what de Heer describes as an “accidental trilogy” involving actor David Gulpilil (following The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006). Whereas the two previous films explored Aboriginal culture and relationships with white people in the past, this poignant film returns us to Arnhem Land to explore contemporary problems in a remote Aboriginal community. Initial shots take us up close to the body of Charlie (Gulpilil), who sits alone in a moment of reflection at his home/campsite. I was initially disturbed by a close proximity of the tracking camera that follows him as he moves about on foot, as it drew attention to the film’s construction; however, Gulpilil’s outstanding performance – his searching eyes and the movement of his age ravaged body – meant that I was soon consumed by his quest for food and shelter in a situation of intense culture clash. More than once I found myself thinking back to the actor’s performance in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) more than four decades earlier, and processing the fact that this starved and weary body could in fact belong to the same person.

At the beginning of Charlie’s Country, we learn that the title character’s basic needs are in jeopardy. The primarily white police force expects Charlie to help them track criminals, but do little for him in return. His attempt to hunt for food in a traditional manner is thwarted when the spears he has expertly crafted are confiscated by a somewhat apologetic (and later cynical) police officer. At this point Charlie decides to leave the camp and live like his ancestors, building a shelter and catching fish in the river. However, when the weather takes a turn for the worse, his already delicate health further deteriorates. When discovered, Charlie is flown out of the remote community for emergency treatment. Tom Heuzenroeder and James Currie’s sound design is key in moments of emotional intensity. Here, for example, the amplified buzz of airplane propellers signals the fate of a diseased Charlie and his peers before him: to be transported to a lonely death in a Darwin hospital, separated from his land. Whilst providing treatment, an arrogant male doctor asks if he can call the protagonist by his nickname, Charlie, as he has “trouble pronouncing foreign names”. The cutting dialogue in this scene reveals the vast difference between the lives and experiences of the two men, and reflects the racism that is imbedded within the social systems Charlie must deal with.

Charlie’s life then spirals out of control. After discharging himself from the hospital, he becomes involved with a woman who encourages him to buy alcohol for a group camping nearby, and a later violent outburst lands him in prison. Nearing his release, a sympathetic parole officer informs Charlie that he is now a “banned person” and must stay away from “known drinkers”. When Charlie comments that everyone is a known drinker, she clarifies that specifically she means, “known to the police”. “The police are known drinkers”, replies Charlie with a glimmer of bravado and humour. “They’d better not associate with me.”

This is a deliberately slow-paced film and the trajectory of the narrative is not laid out at its beginning. Rather, de Heer takes us on a powerful journey that forces reflection on Charlie’s life and notions of justice/injustice. In a Q&A following the film de Heer revealed that the film had in fact been conceived when he visited an incarcerated Gulpilil in prison some years earlier. The actor’s involvement in the project was one means of recovery from a series of alcohol related problems. In this sense Gulpilil’s personal history, both on and off the screen further informs and reinforces the disturbing themes of this exceptional film. Charlie’s Country won the Foxtel Movies Audience Award for Most Popular Feature Film of the festival.

Tender

Tender

The AFF “Hive Fund” (a separate category of funding) was set up in 2011 to encourage the making of “ambitious/audacious arts projects to premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival and for prime time broadcast on ABC TV” (2).
This has allowed for the creation of stand-alone fiction film and/or documentary collaborations between leading Australian filmmakers and interdisciplinary artists. One such project that premiered at the 2013 festival was acclaimed digital artist Lynette Wallworth’s Tender, a touching documentary about a community in Port Kembla (NSW) who attempt to set up their own low-cost, community-driven funeral service. Produced by Kath Shelper (Samson and Delilah), this both at times amusing and heartbreaking story explores the group’s attempt to bypass corporate/commercial drivers of the funeral industry and to access their own burial ground. As their plans gain traction, one of their own group is diagnosed with a terminal illness and it becomes clear that his funeral will be their first task. In conversation after the film, Wallworth commented on her original intention to make a straight documentary about the group. Neil, the community’s caretaker, received his cancer diagnosis two weeks before she began shooting. This “brave man” agreed to take part in the project and, sadly, passed away before the ten-week shoot was over.

Over the course of the documentary’s 75 minutes we meet people who are making their own coffins, buying equipment such as “cooling plates” to keep bodies in their homes, and dealing with the grief of losing their much loved colleague and friend. The cinematography keeps us close to the participants, following expressions of emotion, even if this concerns minor character within a scene. Community members talk to one another, rather than talk to the camera, so that one has the impression of being along for the ride. A particularly affecting sequence is made up of still photographs of Neil’s body being prepared for his funeral. I felt privileged to view images of his friends lovingly washing his skin and saying their goodbyes. Tender is an insightful and uplifting film that made me question my own beliefs about life’s final ritual. As Shelper comments, “being immersed in [the] subject brings a strange comfort. Being around people who are not afraid rubs off a little” (3).

The Dead Speak Back

The Dead Speak Back

The 2013 festival lineup included the world premieres of three feature films from emerging South Australian directors that were produced through the SAFC’s now defunct FilmLab program. 52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde) and One Eyed Girl (Nick Matthews) came to fruition thanks to mentoring from script consultant Stephen Cleary and SAFC grants of $350,000. The considerably lower budget The Dead Speak Back (Jason Sweeney) began life as a short film project, with Sweeney attached as an “observer” to the lab. After teaming up with local producer Julie Byrne, this ambitious art film project was expanded in scope. The narrative sees Sweeney’s long time collaborator, performance artist Caroline Daish, take up the lead role of an unnamed woman grieving for her murdered young son (Miles Bessis). When the woman attempts to reconnect with her son in the spirit world, she is instead visited by a deceased older boy (Michael Cleggett) who wants to communicate. It would seem that both boys may have died at the hands of a sexual predator, and that the woman has a chance to relive the older boy’s last moments. During an audience Q&A Sweeney described the film as an exploration of “the beauty and terror of Adelaide”, and the unspoken occurrences of “missing boys”. Originally devised in collaboration with Adelaide-based playwright Fiona Sprott, and influenced by the work of iconic experimental filmmakers Maya Deren and Derek Jarman, Sweeney’s film lingers in dark rooms and dance halls, to create surreal and unsettling scenes. The bittersweet musical score (also composed by Sweeney, an accomplished musician and composer) drives the film more so than any concrete plot point and is successful in capturing a sense of unfolding tragedy and grief.

52 Tuesdays

52 Tuesdays

52 Tuesdays is an ambitious experimental film shot in suburban Adelaide. The story revolves around the journey of 16-year old Billie (astonishing newcomer Tilda Cobham-Hervey), who is somewhat surprised to discover that her beloved mother Jane/James (Del Herbert-Jane) wishes to transition from female to male. As James needs some time out, the pair agrees to spend every Tuesday afternoon together for a year, with Billie moving to her Dad’s house for the rest of the time. The film draws upon documentary elements in that it was in fact filmed over 52 consecutive Tuesdays, a method of production that gives the film a somewhat episodic structure. Meanwhile Billie is busy exploring her own sexuality with two older high school friends. Both story strands are extremely engaging, with Billie’s eventual crisis as a confused teen bringing the two together.

Bryan Mason’s editing style, which incorporates news footage from the year that passed during production, keeps the film moving at a steady pace and also highlights the wealth of material that influences Billie on her journey. The strong performances of the two leads are well-supported by a medium sized supporting cast that includes the outstanding Imogen Archer and Sam Althuzien as Billie’s sexually adventurous friends, and Mario Späte as James’ mischievous brother. It is worth pondering if this extraordinary film, which went into production without a full script (co-writers Matt Cormack and Sophie Hyde developed the story as shooting progressed) would have ever made it to the screen without the support of the SAFC’s FilmLab program. Certainly, the Lab’s attempt to “cultivate an atmosphere of collaboration and creative energy” seems to have more than paid off, and it was perhaps my favourite film of the festival (4).

Additionally, 52 Tuesdays was one of 18 projects to feature an online component launched under the banner of Little Miss Crossover, a showcase of interactive and cross-media works by Australian and international creators, on display in a dedicated space within the AFF club. My 52 Tuesdays is a web and smartphone-based project that follows participants’ responses to a yearlong series of questions. A new question is posed each week, with participants from around the world photographing their written responses to create a portrait of their own lives. This online extension of the film is a clever and innovative marketing ploy for the team at Closer Productions with countless users having already registered to participate (5). Within the Film Festival club, audience members were able to access the project on dedicated computers and tablets, so that the small screen experience was given its own space and time within the festival program. AFF Programming Coordinator Sarah Lancaster explains that “Little Miss Crossover” aims to allow “audiences to have a personal interaction with […] projects, to explore, watch and play – and then have the opportunity to hear from the people who’ve created them” (6). The project also allowed audiences to take a sneak peek at content related to films as yet unfinished, such as Adelaide director Ursula Dabrowsky’s Demon House. Other notable projects include The Otherside, an online accompaniment to Warwick Thornton’s new film The Darkside, which also premiered at the 2013 Festival.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive

While my review has so far focused on Australian work, this is not to say that I did not take in a wealth of interesting and controversial work by international makers. Fans of Mia Wasikowska could also see the actress in a supporting role in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which screened in the festival’s official competition. The film features Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve, a pair of sophisticated and conscientious loner vampires with centuries of experience and seemingly amassed fortunes under their respective belts. The hip couple lives in separate countries (the world-wearied musician Adam takes refuge in an abandoned neighbourhood in Detroit, while Eve graces the streets of Tangiers), but Tom’s suicidal mood brings Eve on a night plane to snap him out of his depression. The first half of the film sees the duo contemplate the world they live in, one in which “zombies” (humans) are now carriers of contaminated blood that is potentially lethal to vampires. From the film’s opening shots, in which a rotating overhead camera circles around Adam and Eve as they simultaneously awake in their separate abodes, Jarmusch draws us close to these enigmatic protagonists, into Adam’s musical world and the circumstances of his existential crisis. The couple are careful to maintain their blood supplies in an ethical manner, either through a friend (John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe, Eve’s centuries old confidant and the possible author of Shakespeare’s famous works) or a local hospital. Plot points are few as Adam and Eve cruise the Detroit streets at night in a vintage car, bearing witness to the destruction of beauty in places such as an old music hall turned car park. Then trouble arrives in the form of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Wasikowska), an irresponsible party-vampire whom Adam neither likes nor trusts. In a predictable sequence of events, Adam and Eve soon find their lives turned upside down and their precious blood supply gone.

Although slow moving at times, Jarmusch’s moody reflection on human progress over time is delightfully distanced from the scores of vampire films that have appeared in recent years. With Only Lovers Left Alive he explores the value of life and of art, reminding us of the latter’s ability to transcend the life of the creator. For example, Adam, the deliberately anonymous deviser of the guitar driven songs that make up the film’s soundtrack, is seen adding to a vast body of musical work, one apparently including a String Quartet given to Schubert centuries earlier. The legacy of his work, or that of Eve’s friend Marlowe, is worth more than any fame or fortune, a fact reinforced in one of the film’s final scenes. Here, the blood starved duo take a moment to observe a talented and charismatic female singer at work in a bar in Tangiers, with Eve expressing her certainty that the girl will become famous. “I hope not”, remarks Adam. “She’s so much better than that.”

Bastards

Bastards

Also screening in the official competition was Claire Denis’ Les Salauds (Bastards), which like Only Lovers Left Alive, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. This deeply disturbing film reunites Denis with several of her frequent collaborators including actor Vincent Lindon, who plays Marco, a ship’s captain who returns to land to discover that his niece Justine (Lola Creton) is in hospital. The girl appears to have sustained injures from a sexual episode in which she has actively taken part and Marco’s attempts to investigate mean that he is drawn into a dangerous, predatory world, eventually crossing paths with the wealthy and repulsive Edouard (Michel Subor), who may well be responsible for the abuse of his niece. Denis comments that the idea of the film came “after watching some Kurosawa films of the 1950s and ’60s, in which the lead character is Toshiro Mifune. I always thought Vincent Lindon had […] a solid body you can lean on. In Kurosawa’s films, the tragedy is that this strong man was crushed by corruption or mistrust at the end.” (7) Denis’ story also sees the protective male body fail when faced with monetary manipulation and sexual transgression.

As with Denis’ previous work, characters’ bodies are captured in close-up and extreme close-up shots, creating a haptic viewing experience. A focus on texture, from the opening image of heavy rain drops falling, to those revealing bloody sticks of corn on the cob, connects the viewer to the materiality of objects and locations, meaning an embodied viewing experience. Watching the first half of the film, I was thankful that Denis avoided disclosing the full details of Justine’s abuse as I had no trouble imagining the depth of transgression that this plotline suggested; however, the second half of the film returned to this subject on several occasions, with the last sequence, a shocking mise en abyme shot on security camera or mobile phone, giving full disclosure of previously unrevealed events. The grainy texture of this video footage meant that, as a reluctant viewer, I had to look longer and harder than I would have liked to access the details of the scene, and therefore felt somewhat complicit as a viewer of the repulsive activity contained within. The energetic music video-like soundtrack that accompanied this moment and continued throughout the film’s credits made me recall the ending of Denis’ masterpiece Beau travail (1999). While the earlier film’s ending functioned to reveal the full extent of the protagonist’s alienation from society, I was unsure what to take away from Les Salauds’ disturbing final reveal. The fact that the film’s female characters are active and consenting enablers of the various plotlines of misogyny also makes the story extremely hard to swallow.

Like Father, Like Son

Like Father, Like Son

Other memorable viewing experiences included Hirokazu Koreeda’s heartfelt drama Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son), and an interaction with moving image artist Daniel Crooks’ explorations of slowed time, which were commissioned by the AFF in conjunction with the Samstag Museum of Art. I also had the opportunity to engage with visiting filmmakers such as Warwick Thornton, who appeared in conversation with festival patron Margaret Pomeranz. Reflecting on his experience at film festivals worldwide since the release of Samson and Delilah (2009), Thornton described the red carpet as a potential trap for filmmakers without a greater motivation than critical success and celebrity. “It’s a trap, to design films for festivals, for the red carpet. There has to be a bigger passion.” He went on to describe AFF as a reasonably down to earth affair, a fact that I believe reflects the event’s aim of being relevant to both the general public and the industry, attracting a broad audience and introducing them to innovative areas of screen practice. By providing financial assistance to filmmakers and interdisciplinary artists with great passion and vision, the 2013 festival not only showcased a variety of bold new stories from around the globe but also brought some of them to fruition, creating doorways for audiences and creators alike.

Adelaide Film Festival
10-20 October 2013
Festival website: http://adelaidefilmfestival.org/

This report was commissioned and edited by Adrian Danks.

Endnotes

  1. Hicks quoted in http://localtoday.com.au/feed/get-local/film-tv/99673-camel-tracks-on-adelaide-s-red-carpet.txt.
  2. “Hive Fund”, Adelaide Film Festival: http://adelaidefilmfestival.org/funding/hive-fund/.
  3. “Five Minutes with Tender Producer, Kath Shelper”, Adelaide Film Festival:  http://adelaidefilmfestival.org/five-minutes-with-tender-producer-kath-shelper/.
  4. For more details of the FilmLab program see FilmLab for more information: http://www.safilmlab.com.au/lab.
  5. See http://my52tuesdays.com/.
  6. Lancaster quoted in “We Love ‘Little Miss Crossover’”, Adelaide Film Festival: http://adelaidefilmfestival.org/we-love-little-miss-crossover/.
  7. Denis, quoted in Karin Badt, “Cannes 2013: Claire Denis’ Bastards Perplexes Audience”, The Huffington Post 22 May 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/cannes-2013-claire-denis_b_3322414.html.

About The Author

Kath Dooley is a filmmaker and researcher who is currently completing a creative PhD exploring the work of contemporary French directors at Flinders University, South Australia.