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Thursday
May262016

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES: THE BRUNO DUMONT INTERVIEW.

The words 'Bruno Dumont' and ‘comedy’ are not often spoken in the same sentence. The French auteur’s films have largely been bleak, desperate studies of flawed characters struggling with tragic lives (The Life of Jesus, 1997; L'Humanite, 1999; Twentynine Palms, 2003; Flanders, 2006; Hadejwich, 2009; Camille Claudel 1915, 2013). But the 58 year-old plunges into the blackly ridiculous with Ma Loute (Slack Bay, in English territories), a Monty-Python-meets-Downtown-Abbey slice of magical surrealism in which he dissects the Gallic class divide as it existed in the summer of 1910. Set amidst the dunes and estuaries of his beloved northern French coastline, Dumont constructs a murder mystery that pits the vacationing upper class and clearly inbred Van Petegham clan (amongst them, Fabrice Luchini and a gloriously over-the-top Juliette Binoche) in conflict with local river-folk/cannibal peasants, The Bruforts (led by the titular teenager, played by Brandon Lavieville). “I always had comedy in me but I couldn’t find the right place to express it,” the director told SCREEN-SPACE (via an interpreter), while snacking on pistachios at the UniFrance tent as the Cannes Film Festival buzzed around us…

SCREEN-SPACE: Does this new willingness to explore comedy suggest a change in your own perspective of the world? Why a comedy now?

Dumont: When I finally settled upon the story of Ma Loute, commissioned the actors and set about scouting for locations, it was very liberating as it felt like I was about to fulfil a long-held desire. It ultimately fulfilled something that was lacking in my body of work, something (of which) I had not been fully aware. Comedy allowed me to more fully cover the spectrum of human experience that I had been striving to depict. Humour, (that) ability to find comedy in our lives, is something that had been lacking in my films. Also, my nature is to be adventurous, to try things that I have not done before, and that is not always easy in an industry that wants you to stick to what has been successful in the past. My next film is going to be a musical*, because I’ve never done that before.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you feel that you and ‘comedy’ were a natural fit?

Dumont: I add irony to make the drama at the heart of my work explode. (Just) changing my approach I make it more comedic. I also think I bring my own reputation down a peg by trying some comedy, too. So it feels good to have found an outlet. (Pictured, right; l-r, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrice Luchini in La Moute)

SCREEN-SPACE: Setting the film at the turn of the century recalls the beginning of cinema; much of the physical comedy recalls the great pratfalls of silent era comedians. Why this period?

Dumont: Setting the film in this period helped me deflect the question of ‘realism’ that always dogs me. Being in the past, made it easier to look more like a metaphor. The year of 1910 represents a poetic metaphor; a time and a place that does not exist anymore, so contemporary audiences can define it as an allegory. The advantage in recreating that period is that everything is very extreme; the difference between the poor and the rich is very visible. It is already comic, in a way. Comedy works on simplification and here the contrast is already simple. I am always looking for a means by which to use distortion and exaggeration, and this time can be easily represented as ridiculous. The costumes, for instance, and how the wealthy behave in each other’s company appears extreme and ridiculous by current standards.

SCREEN-SPACE: You pitch much of the dialogue very high, demand some very broad, boisterous performances from your cast, none more so than the wonderful Juliette Binoche. The film represents a fresh tonality in your work.

Dumont: Cinema is, by definition, something quite stiff. The frame and the mise en scene is something quite organised, necessitating structure. But once you have that structure, inside it you can let creativity and inspiration flow in. That’s what I did with the characters and with certain elements of the plot. I like having professional actors only if I can distort their performances. If I can’t there is no point taking them on. I don’t like them or need them for what they are. I would never take professional actors for the fisherman family, for example, because they would really piss me off, trying to ‘create’ fisherman characters. With the non-professionals, I don’t need to believe in their ‘normal’ acting, or in my asking them to do what they can’t do. I only take them if they are relevant to the subject matter, and here I had a bunch of crazy eccentrics. It was fun to work with them and to distort their performances. (Pictured, above; Juliette Binoche as Aude Van Petegham in La Moute).

SCREEN-SPACE: You find the grotesque in both the pompous Petegham family and the brutal Brufort household. But you don’t draw a conclusion on whose existence represents the better life.

Dumont: Cinema is not inherently a moral field. Cinema has to be above the good and the bad otherwise there is no way to reflect upon it. The clash of social classes in my film is so exaggerated, so grotesque, so beyond the limits, it is hard to take very seriously. On one side they are cannibals, on the other they are an inbred family, totally nuts and impossible to relate to either. But within the spectrum that audiences bring to a film, the characters represent a mirror of sorts to our self. We all have this primitive, rural human being in us, and we possess the potential to be a totally stupid bourgeoisie. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to take one side over the other. (And) these are cinematic characters, clearly not real people.

SCREEN-SPACE: Overnight, Variety published their review of Ma Loute and critic Peter Debruge called you ‘a grump’, the ‘misanthropic filmmaker’. How do you respond to that perception of you and your work?

Dumont: (Pause) I am absolutely the opposite of that. I wonder how they can see misanthropy, when I’m glorifying my characters cinematically. Some people say the opposite (to Variety’s opinion), that this director is not misanthropic and is a lover of human nature, so the problem is not with me but with the reviewer. (This is) an immediate reaction to what they saw, and fails to see the metaphor; it bases their understanding of the film on a first impression. When I film a jerk, my aim is to elevate him to a saint, but they just see the vehicle, the first layer of characterisation. While some say the character of Ma Loute is ugly, some say he is a beauty; interpretation does not depend on me but depends on the viewer. I am not a philanthropist but nor am I a misanthrope. I remain neutral, in creating my characters with my actors. I hear it, like you do, but what can I do? Cinema has nothing to do with reality, it is a representation, so all these moral questions and talk of misanthropy are meaningless for me. (Pictured, above; Dumont with his cast at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of La Moute)

*‘Jeanette,’ a musical drama based on Charles Peguy’s play Le Mystere de la charite de Jeanne d’Arc, will be produced for French television and play theatrically overseas.

Australian distribution of Ma Loute (Slack Bay) will be via Sharmill Films, who acquired the title in Cannes; release date to be confirmed.

Sunday
May222016

CANNES FAVOURS PAST WINNERS WITH 2016 COMPETITION PRIZES

One of the favourite sons of the Cannes Film Festival, veteran British director Ken Loach, has won the 2016 Palme d’Or for his working-class battlers drama I, Daniel Blake.

It is the second time the top honour earned by that the master of social realism, with his 2006 revolutionary story The Wind That Shakes the Barley also impressing the festival jury; in 2012, he won the Jury Prize for The Angel’s Share. The 79 year-old (pictured, above, accepting the honour) was first nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1981 for Looks and Smiles and has amassed 14 festival trophies in total. "Our breath has been taken away, as we weren't really expecting to come back (with this film)," said Loach, "We are all quietly stunned."

Aside from Loach’s well-received film, the weight of critical opinion held very little sway with Jury President, Australian director George Miller, and his fellow judges. French-Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan’s critically reviled drama Juste La Fin Du Monde (It’s Only The End Of The World) took home the Grand Prix, an honour awarded last year to 2016 Jury member Laszlo Nemes for his holocaust drama Son of Saul (Dolan was a Juror in 2015). "After an experience like this evening, we realised that the film's message got through," said Dolan in the press conference.

The best-reviewed film of the festival, Maren Ade’s blackly funny drama Toni Erdmann, travels home empty-handed. “We avoided at looking what other people were saying,” said Miller, when asked about the perceived snub. “We did the best we could after many, many hours of conversation.” (Pictured, above; Xavier Dolan accepting the award).

The Best Director honour was split between Frenchman Olivier Assayas for his wildly divisive supernatural drama, Personal Shopper, and Romanian helmer Christian Mungui for Bacalaureat (Graduation). Both were past Cannes attendees, with Assayas previously nominated for 4 Palme d’Ors while Mungui earned three trophies in 2007 for 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days. British director Andrea Arnold took home her third Cannes gong (after Red Road, 2006; and Fish Tank, 2009), winning the Jury Prize for her American road movie odyssey, American Honey. (Featured, below; the trailer for Christian Mungui's Bacalaureat) 

As dictated by the current voting guidelines, which demand films that win the top honours cannot vie for further honours, jury love was shared across many contenders. Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi (Palme d’Or nominee for The Past, 2013) won the Best Screenplay Award for The Salesman, his tension-filled drama also earning Best Actor kudos for his leading man, Shahab Hosseini. Best Actress winner was Jaclyn Jose for Brilliante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa, the jury called upon to deflect questions that the performance was more a stunning support turn than the lead role.

The Camera d’Or for best debut film was won by French filmmaker Houda Benyamini for Divines, a contemporary look at the problems faced by young women in Paris.

Prior to this evening’s ceremony, awards were announced for other programmes strands. Un Certain Regard jury president, iconic Swiss actress Marthe Keller, issued a statement on behalf of her fellow judges,, noting, Every film turned out to be rich in cinematic discoveries and insights into our world, addressing themes of family, politics and cultural differences." The top honour in this strand, Prize of Un Certain Regard was awarded to Juho Kuosmanen’s Hymyileva Mies (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki; pictured, right), a monochromatic boxing biopic, shot on 16mm, that represents a triumphant debut feature for the Finnish director. The French/Japanese co-production La Tortue Rouge (The Red Turtle), a dialogue-free animated drama from Studio Ghibli and Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit took the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize, with the low-key thriller Fuchi Ni Tatsu (Harmonium) from Japanese director Fukada Kôji earned the second-place  Jury Prize. Individual trophies were awarded U.S. director Matt Ross for his upbeat family drama Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen, while screenplay honours went to French siblings Delphine and Muriel Coulin for their military drama Voir du Pays (The Stopover).

Three prizes are awarded by the international critic’s organisation FIPRESCI. Cannes sensation Toni Erdmann, the darkly funny German/Austrian drama from Maren Ade, took Best Picture trophy for an In Competition title while Caini (Dogs) from Romanian Bogdan Mirica earned the corresponding honour from the Un Certain Regard line-up. The Best Picture winner from the Director’s Fortnight/Critic’s Week programme was the breakout horror hit from the festival, Julia Ducournau’s sibling rivalry/cannibal shocker Raw (scene clip, above).

The Cinefoundation strand honours short film contributions by student filmmakers, with 18 films (14 live action, 4 animated) shortlisted in 2016 for the three trophies. Jury president Naomi Kawase awarded first prize to Anna, directed by Or Sinai from Israel’s Sam Spiegel Film & TV School; second prize was awarded to In The Hills, directed by Hamid Ahmadi, from The London Film School. Jury members could not split a third placegetter amongst the hotly-contested category, dividing the honour between A Nyalintas Nesze, directed by Nadja Andrasev, of Hungary’s Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and La Culpa Probablemente, directed by Michael Labarca from Universidad de Los Andes, Venezuela. (Pictured, above; the Cinefoundation filmmakers)      

Wednesday
May112016

NOTES ON A SCANDAL: THE SCOTT HICKS INTERVIEW

Brilliant, often troubled personalities consumed by the power of music have yielded rewarding cinema for director Scott Hicks. After conquering the world and earning two 1996 Oscar nominations for his David Helfgott biopic, Shine, the Adelaide-based filmmaker delved into the complex genius of Philip Glass in his 2007 documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts. His latest journey into the flawed brilliance of musical obsessiveness is Highly Strung, an intimate portrait of the Australian String Quartet in the grip of member conflict and of the all-consuming power of the classic Stradivarius and Guadagnini string instruments with which they ply their trade. Ahead of the film’s Australian season, Hicks spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about his latest ‘music on film’ opus…

SCREEN-SPACE: As someone with a layman’s comprehension of classical music, Highly Strung was a very accessible film.

Hicks: That’s always heartening to hear because one of the great challenges was to how to make a film about these rare instruments and the rarefied world in which they exist and what fascinating obsessions drive it. Obviously, it enhances it a bit if you know a little bit about classical music, but this is a story about people who are possessed by these ideas.

SCREEN-SPACE: Given the events that unfold as the shoot progresses, how close to your original vision for the film is in the final mix?

Hicks: (Laughs) Oh, no, the whole nature of the film changed as I was making it. That represents the purity, the lifeblood, of documentary filmmaking. You can set out with a plan, with an idea; you have to have some sort of concept of what you are trying to do. But, at the same time, life has a habit of unfolding in its own direction and you have to follow where the film takes you. I had in mind something that probably would’ve been a bit more historical, with a bit more information about the instruments. But I got caught up in the day-to-day world of these individuals and went with that, and some unexpected developments happened. (Pictured, above; ex-ASQ first violin, Christian Winther, in Highly Strung)

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you envision the clash of personalities that ultimate played out?

Hicks: I filmed the very first concert of the Australian String Quartet’s new line-up, with these four magnificent Guadagnini instruments, and from day one I began to get an idea of the tensions that underlie these musicians. What a struggle it is to find a band that can stay together! Which I guess is true of any type of music. What do The Rolling Stones have over any other band? They stayed together (laughs).

SCREEN-SPACE: The sheer diversity of personalities that are possessed by this love of classic string music, and of the Stradiviri and Guadagnini instruments in particular, is remarkable.

Hicks: The music is the language of the film. Everyone in the film speaks the same language, but they all have their own agenda, whether they are musicians or dealers or collectors or craftsmen. Everything about their lives is filtered through these incredibly well engineered pieces of wood that are 300 years old. The passion was so infectious, none more so than in the hedge fund dealer in New York who, while cradling his Stradivari, says “Of all my investments around the world this is the only one I can touch.” And then he proceeds to play it! It is this passion that I was certain audiences could connect with regardless of the knowledge of classical music. (Pictured, above; Cremona-based luthier, Roberto Cavagnoli, right).

SCREEN-SPACE: Between the flawed, maddening genius of Christian and the grace and dignity of Roberto, your film finds its yin-yang, attains a fine balance.

Hicks: There is an amazing thing that emerges when you are making films and it applies as much to the documentaries as it does to the dramas I’ve created, and it’s called casting (laughs). I had no way of knowing what these people would be like on this journey, but it turned out that there were these archetypal figures, the yin-yang as you say – the passionate, flawed genius of the first violinist in Christian, set against the almost ‘old world’ feeling of Roberto, the luthier from Cremona, crafting by hand an identical copy of a Guadagnini cello from a plank of wood. Between those forces, that ‘force field’, there is a universe of ideas that I found fascinating.

SCREEN-SPACE: And acting as a kind of matriarchal spirit is the charismatic figure of Ulrike Klein…

Hicks: Well, Ulrike was the starting point for the film. She came to my wife Kerry (the film’s producer) and said she was collecting the four Guadagnini instruments, to loan to the ASQ in the hope that they would achieve an even greater standing in the world of international music. She said, “Do you think there is a story in this?” and immediately I could see the complexities that existed between all the diverse passions at play in this small world. What was so intriguing was that I began to ask myself what was intrinsic to Ulrike that lead her to this philanthropic, cultural idea. What happened, as you see in the film, is what I like to call a kind of ‘Rosebud’ moment, when it is revealed that her passion stems from a thwarted childhood desire. (Pictured, above; the director with Ulrike Klein)

SCREEN-SPACE: Which, in many ways, recalls a crucial part of the narrative of Shine…

Hicks: Exactly. In Shine, the first kind of ‘musical’ film that I made, there was a story element that was central to David Helfgott’s upbringing. In the film, his father says something like, “When I was a child, I saved and saved for my first violin, which I wanted more than anything, and when I got it, my father smashed it.” It was a thwarted musical instinct, just like that which emerges about Ulrike, that was so much part of the Shine story.

SCREEN-SPACE: Have you ever drawn a line between the artistry and talent of your subjects and the artistry and talent you bring as the filmmaker?

Hicks: (Pause). When I made the film about Philip Glass, on the very first day of shooting I pulled out my camera and started filming Philip cooking us pizza in his kitchen at Nova Scotia. In the process of cooking, he kept turning around and talking to me behind the camera, saying things like, “Do you like garlic, Scott?” And I’d answer, “Well, yes, but stop talking to me, Philip, I’m the documentarian” (laughs) But as the shoot progressed, I began to realise that that was the film and that he was inviting a relationship with me and choosing to ignore the fact that I was holding a camera. That created a tremendous sort of intimacy. What began as me thinking ‘Well I won’t be able to use this,’ actually dictated and drove the tone of the film. The same thing sort of applies in Highly Strung, in that you’re not pretending you are not there because the presence of the camera impacts upon every situation. And it would be crazy to imagine otherwise. It is, essentially, an attempt at some level of honesty about your engagement and involvement with these people as people. I think somewhere in there I answer your question, partially (laughs).

HIGHLY STRUNG begins a limited theatrical season in Australia on May 19 via Sharmill Films.

Sunday
May082016

PREVIEW: 63rd SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL

The production prowess of 15 film territories infuses the 12 features vying for competitive honours at the 63rd Sydney Film Festival (SFF). Opening June 8 with the World Premiere of Ivan Sen’s outback-noir thriller Goldstone (pictured, below), the 2016 Official Competition boasts 8 Australian premieres from such diverse filmmaking cultures as Denmark, Portugal, Hungary, South Africa, India and Brazil, in addition to festival regulars France, the U.K., Germany and the U.S.

Four of the competitive titles will be hitting Harbour City screens directly from the 69th Cannes Film Festival. They are Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice, a locally-lensed psychological drama exploring the hot-button issue of capital punishment; Raman Raghav 2.0, a chilling account of India’s worst serial killer, from Gangs of Wasseypur director Anurag Kashyap; Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius, starring Sonia Braga as the last resident of a historic high rise who refuses to vacate; and, Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan’s latest, It’s Only The End of The World, a bittersweet coming-of-death drama with Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux.

Other titles in the hunt for the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize are Martin Zandvliet’s WWII drama Land of Mine, a Danish/German co-production that examines Denmark’s mistreatment of German POWs; Certain Women, a three-tiered study in female empowerment that reteams director Kelly Reichardt with her Wendy and Lucy leading lady, Michelle Williams, alongside Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart; Portuguese filmmaker Ivo Ferreira’s Golden Bear-nominated Letter from War, a monochromatic tale of long-distant love set against Angolan colonial conflict of the 1970s; the UK docu-drama Notes on Blindness, based upon the life of writer John Hull, from co-directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney; actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s Venice-honored dark fantasy The Childhood of a Leader, with Robert Pattinson and Berenice Bejo (pictured, right); The Endless River, a South African crime drama from Skoonheid director Oliver Hermanus; and, the Cuban-set queer-themed father-son story Viva, from Irish director Paddy Breathnach and executive producer Benicio Del Toro.

Competitive strands across the 12 day festival include the Documentary Australia Foundation Award, offering a $15,000 cash prize to 10 hopefuls, among them the World Premiere of Taryn Brumfitt’s body-image advocacy doc, Embrace; the popular Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films; and, Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Awards.

Non-competitive features are as richly diverse as those in line for official kudos. From the ever-expanding roster of over 250 films, festival goers can see the latest from Steven Spielberg (The BFG, with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the titular CGI behemoth); Mel Gibson (Jean-Francois Richet’s Blood Father); Jake Gyllenhaal (Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition); Viggo Mortensen (Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic); director Whit Stillman (Love and Friendship, with Kate Beckinsale; pictured, right); Temuera Morrison (Mahana, for his Once Were Warriors director, Lee Tamahori); Michael Shannon (opposite Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon); director Richard Linklater (Everybody Wants Some!); Russian Ark documentarian Aleksandr Sokurov (Francophonia); Pedro Almodovar (Julieta) and, Daniel Radcliffe (as a corpse, opposite Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man).

There will be double the joy for fans of Ethan Hawke and Tom Hiddleston, each of whom have two pics in the mix - Hawke with Maggie’s Plan, opposite Greta Gerwig, and the Chet Baker bio, Born to Be Blue; Hiddleston with Ben Wheatley’s thriller High Rise and the Hank Aaron bio, I Saw The Light. Fans of animated films will be similarly delighted – in the Documentary strand is Roger Ross William’s Sundance honoree Life, Animated, the story of an autistic teenager and the curative power of his obsession with Disney films; the fifth instalment of the adventures of the acorn-focussed Scrat in Ice Age: Collision Course; and, Remy Chaye’s epic seafaring adventure Long Way North, a French/Danish co-production.

Gender diversity is high on the agenda for SFF 2016, notably in the programming of the sidebar European Cinema: 10 Women Filmmakers to Watch. Amongst the selection are challenging, engaging visions from Austria (Barbara Eder’s Thank You for Bombing), Greece (Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier), Sweden (Sara Jordeno’s Kiki), Poland (Agnieska Smoczynska’s The Lure; pictured, below), Germany (Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild; Icair Bollan’s The Olive Tree) and Denmark (Frederikke Aspock’s Rosita).

Other strands include focus programming on the territories of Ireland (John Carney’s Sing Street; Conor Horgan’s Queen of Ireland; Ken Wardrop’s Mom and Me) and Korea, particularly the region’s ‘Social Cinema’ movement (Jung Yoon-suk’s NonFiction Diary; Zhang Lu’s Love And…; Ahn Gooc-jin’s Alice in Earnestland). Returning will be the Sounds on Screen line-up, featuring the music of Sharon Jones (Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones!), David Byrne (Bill and Turner Ross’ Contemporary Color), James Lavelle (Matthew Jones’ The Man from Mo’Wax) and Janis Ian (Amy Berg’s Little Girl Blue). And the frightening Freak Me Out horror selections take on a broader global perspective than in recent years, with co-productions from Jordan/Qatar (Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow), Serbia/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Croatia (Nicholas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother), France/Belgium/Spain (Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution; trailered, below), Canada/US (Tyler McIntyre’s Patchwork), as well Aussie contributors Craig Anderson (the locally-produced Red Christmas, with Dee Wallace) and Sean Byrne (his US debut, The Devil’s Candy).

As is the case with the very best of international festivals, Sydney will offer reverence to past masters as well as embracing and exploring the future of the film. Restorations include the vast, previously-announced Martin Scorsese retrospective; Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story; Filipino auteur Lino Brocka’s 1976 social drama, Insiang; the late Chantal Akerman’s 1975 droll, atmospheric feminist epic, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; and, the Australian classics Bliss and The Boys. Futurists will flock to Down The Rabbithole: Virtual Reality, a series of panels, presentations and interactive eyewear opportunities exploring the next wave of interactive vis-tech co-presented in association with Jumpgate VR at the festival’s meeting place, The Hub.

The 63rd edition of the Sydney Film Festival runs June 8-19. Venue, session and ticket information can be found at the event's official website.

Wednesday
Apr272016

BORN IN THE U.S.A.:THE RICHARD SOWADA INTERVIEW

Independent: (adj) free from outside control; not subject to another's authority.

Australian filmgoers seeking to be challenged and energized will welcome a new cinema event called Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now. Featuring 32 films (including 11 Australian premieres), the 16-day program aims to contextualize the creative paths forged by American independent filmmakers, the current state of the sector and visions that suggest a vibrant future lies ahead. The rich schedule – presented under the strands Fiction, Intrigue, Experiments, Originals and New York - is the cumulative work of artistic director Richard Sowada, one of Australia’s leading film academics and event curators. His credits include the founding in 1997 of Perth’s iconic counter-culture film event, Revelation, and a nine-year posting as Head of Film Programs at the Australian Centre for The Moving Image. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the launch of the Sydney season on May 17 (other states to follow)…

SCREEN-SPACE: What is the current state of American independent cinema and how does your inaugural line-up capture that? 

SOWADA: It’s always been in a healthy state across experimental, documentary and feature film elements. I’m not sure why; it’s almost like that because the US walks such a precarious, perilous socio-political line with so many social and cultural divisions within itself, it engenders a kind of urgency amongst the creative community, like their world is about to implode and they have to act fast. Also, the sheer volume of work created forces the filmmakers to approach things in ambitious, inventive ways. The ambition isn’t always directed at scale of course, but perhaps something as small and simple as “I can do this”. The new works in the program grab hold of that actively. We throw weight behind quite experimental films, to high-quality political and socially oriented documentaries. The features also explore style, form, performance and technique. There are genuinely fresh ideas and exciting approaches, even in feature debuts.

SCREEN-SPACE: Given the dire 'superhero blockbuster' studio mentality, and funding/distribution struggle for truly indie cinema, might your byline 'American Cinema, Now' be courting disfavour?

SOWADA: What you’re talking about here are two different industries. One is based on selling popcorn, the other on working with ideas. The entire emphasis and tradition is different. Independent approaches always had to struggle against the massive amount of mediocre content; in publishing, art, fashion, music, business, everywhere, all the time. The whole independent approach is about finding a different way and they continue to do just that. This program is just one example. To see these films on commercial independent screens around Australia is a small miracle in itself. It’s opportunities like this that start to shift the funding and distribution possibilities for these kinds of films. If you can demonstrate an audience, you’re well on the way to breaking through and changing the status quo.

SCREEN-SPACE: Can we ever hope to regain the fever pitch state of indie film production that erupted in the wake of Pulp Fiction in the mid-90s?

SOWADA: The whole industry is a creative continuum. Pulp Fiction is used as a marker for the orgasmic explosion of independent cinema into (the) mainstream, but this revolution was going on before Pulp Fiction (and) has continued unabated since. Just because we don’t see a lot of it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Stranger Than Paradise and Blood Simple were on our screens 10 years earlier. Locally, Once Were Warriors came out in the same year as Pulp Fiction and changed the independent distribution and exhibition landscape in Australia. The brashness of something like Pulp Fiction didn’t create more independent works, it just bought audiences into the environment that was already there. The films also slowly morphed into a different kind of independent cinema which often has something softer, like what the the austere approach of the Dogme movement did for Danish cinema. Boyhood is a great and quite revolutionary example of that.

Above: Oren Moverman's Time Out of Mind, Opening Night film at Essential Independents

SCREEN-SPACE: 'Essential Intrigue’ profiles true cage-rattlers, like Robert Mapplethorpe (pictured, below; with singer Patti Smith) and Johnny Cash, as well as anti-establishment accounts of sectors like tech security and hip hop culture. Is independent cinema at its best when challenging the accepted norm?

SOWADA: I think that’s an accidental thing in many ways. Often these stories are personal and hidden. They’re buried deep in subculture(s) or forgotten corners of history. Those corners are hard to see by producers, funders, broadcasters and distributors who often feel they’re too ‘niche’ to explore. This word ‘niche’ is used by sectors of the industry to describe something they don’t understand. Therefore the misunderstood, specific or marginalised are deemed without audience. The independent sector, on the other hand, has a very different perspective; from lower down, they can get access into these corners and their inhabitants. I’m not sure if these filmmakers deliberately go out to challenge accepted norms but because they understand and respect their subjects and audiences so well, the works reflect their protagonists differently. The films are what they’re about, not simply a reflection of it. There’s a different, much more personal feel and approach where the magic overlay of style and content is very strong and individual.

SCREEN-SPACE: Does a correlation exist between the debut works featured in Essential Originals?

SOWADA: There’s a couple that play to genres like Near Dark and Blood Simple but I think the real binding element – and this cuts across all the titles throughout the program – is the respect they have for what’s gone before, just like Tarantino’s work. You can see Two Lane Blacktop in Kelly Riechardt’s River of Grass. You can see Cassavetes’ work in Stranger Than Paradise and Slacker. You can see Double Indemnity in Blood Simple. You can see Alien in Near Dark. What they do is take these inspirations, traditions, the special connections they have both with audiences and the sheer logistics of making a low-budget film and integrate them into their own signature. You can literally see the filmmakers taking the great moments and dissecting them to see how those moving parts work. It’s quite scientific study, experimentation and appreciation.

Above: Trailer for William Friedkin's Cruising, screening as part of Essential New York strand.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the great coups of the festival will be a rare screening of William Friedkin's Cruising. How do you expect the millenial audience to react to such a confronting, non-PC work?

SOWADA: You simply couldn’t make a film like that for commercial release any more. It’s hardcore, with little left to the imagination. Not having been part of the NYC S&M club scene in the 70s, the depictions seem very authentic, which is fascinating and vibrant to watch. You don’t question the realism and there’s so much detail. It must have been a difficult film to make and Pacino does a great job. New audiences are going to lap it up, so to speak. It’s so surprising. It’s high quality in every way - widescreen, great sound, excellent soundtrack, brilliant costuming, a tense story and completely underground, subculture setting. I think new audiences will walk away asking what happened to these high risk/high reward films? Matching it up with Franco’s performance experiment Interior. Leather Bar is going to tip the whole experience over the edge. Now that’s what I call a double feature!

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now screens at Palace Cinemas from May 17 in Sydney, May 18 in Melbourne, May 19 in Brisbane and Canberra and May 26 in Adelaide. Ticket and venue information via the event's official website.