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Entries in Australian (20)

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. 

Tuesday
Apr122016

WORKING CLASS MAN: THE HEATH DAVIS INTERVIEW

The burden of past glories and the crippling impact of addiction are dissected in Broke, a new Australian film from writer/director Heath Davis. Featuring a typically intense turn from the great Steve Le Marquand, the working class drama tells the story of Ben ‘BK’ Kelly, a once-great rugby league star whose gambling and self-medication through booze has led to desperate times; Claire van der Boom, as Terri, and Max Cullen as Cec are the strugglers who never lose faith in their fallen hero. In his narrative feature debut, Davis nails a hard-edged realism tinged with real heart. Ahead of the film’s theatrical season, Davis spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his small-scale, intrinsically ‘Aussie’ story that feels universally human… 

SCREEN-SPACE: There is a strong 'cinematic' feel to the characters, but more resonant is the 'blue collar' authenticity, the 'real people' that are BK and Cec and Terri. How did that dynamic emerge in the writing? Are these people from your background?

Davis: There's definitely a ‘real’ DNA, as I like to put it that runs through these characters. It was imperative that they and the movie ring true for identification purposes. BK for instance is a hybrid of people, ex-league players, I knew growing up in western Sydney. His character was pretty fleshed out on the page and then Steve made it his own. I encouraged that. He's been around these types of folk so it wasn't a big stretch for him. (Pictured, top; Davis on-set, with actors Claire van der Boom and Steve Le Marquand)

SCREEN-SPACE: Steve Le Marquand is that rare performer; an intense character-actor persona wrapped in a leading-man package. He must be an enormous asset in pre-production/rehearsal and then on-set. Describe what he brought to the character of BK and the relationship you, as his director, forged with him...

Davis: The obvious physicality and his unique bravado aside, Steve brought his life experience to the table. He's lived a rough-and-tumble existence and knows only too well the world these characters inhabit, so I knew we'd definitely have a believable lead character. He's really respected by his peers so when he came on board I knew he would draw other quality actors to the project. He's a very generous actor to not only his fellow cast but also crew. He made sure that there was no place for ego on set for anyone and that was crucial in creating the realism we were going for. (Pictured, right; Marquand with co-star Claire van der Boom)

SCREEN-SPACE: The National Rugby League (NRL) contributed to the funding of Broke. How and why did they become involved?

Davis: The NRL Education and Welfare Team came on board just before pre-production with some financial support. It was by no means a large sum but it was a lot to us. More importantly, we wanted their endorsement. And I think they realised it would be a good education tool to use for their players, especially juniors. (Pictured, left; Davis, left, on-set with actors William Zappa, Steve Le Marquand and Justin Rosniak)

SCREEN-SPACE: Thematically, Broke pits the facade of hero adulation against the reality of an addict’s self-destruction. Is it a celebration of hero worship or a warning of the dangers of fawning over false idols?

Davis: I've always been fascinated by the facade of celebrity. What you see is not always what you get. It's a human construct that simply isn't real yet we are so celebrity driven as a culture. I remember having troubles growing up understanding the context of how a footy player on a Sunday afternoon could be so adored yet so broken and lonely playing the pokies on a Tuesday night at the local. That juxtaposition makes for great drama. In the end I wanted to show that heroes in life are human and just because they have a specific skill set that doesn't necessarily equip them for life or make them role models.

SCREEN-SPACE: The final images in the film convey a beautifully complex, ambiguous future. Do you have hope for your characters?

Davis: Oh yes, I do. I see it as a bittersweet but honest conclusion. Without spoiling anything, I think BK gets what he needs and not what he wants, perhaps for the first time in his life, and he realises and accepts that. I think there's definitely good times ahead for this motley crew.

Following acclaim on the festival circuit, BROKE has its Sydney premiere on Wednesday, April 13 with other screenings to follow. Ticket and venue information can be found at the film's official website. 

Photographs by MK Creative Studios; Copyright Scope Red 2014

Thursday
Apr072016

AUSSIE AUTEUR PUTS 'FILM' BACK INTO SHORT FILM PRODUCTION.

For a moment, imagine that the arduous slog undertaken by the next-no-budget short film auteur is not already daunting enough. How could a filmmaker make the thankless journey exponentially more difficult? For Chris Elena, the answer was clear – forego all the burden-easing advancements made in digital camera tech and embrace every production problem presented by shooting on film. The result - a 15-minute contemporary drama called The Limited – is a testament to the drive and commitment synonymous with the origins of the art form…

“Film's aesthetic is warm and cinematic, which we wanted and needed for a film mostly set in small places with cold individuals,” says Elena, a respected voice and popular personality amongst the young turks of Sydney’s film-writing community. His vocal passion for the works of Paul Thomas Anderson fuels his own directorial flair for ‘pure cinema’; The Limited is a small-scale examination of the impact of schoolyard stories and macho posturing that soars emotionally and thematically through the use of Kodak 16mm stock. (Pictured, top; Elena, centre, with crew during the shoot).

“We needed to tell this story on 16mm, which has its own unique cinematic language,” say Elena, his script drawing upon his own experiences at an all-boy Catholic high school in the 2000s. “We shot on one location, with very little coverage, a narrative that is essentially four people telling each other lies that will impact their lives. We knew film (would) elevate that simplicity.”

With a ready-to-go script, Elena also knew that timing was crucial if he was to realise his ambitious production; once-giant film supplier Fujifilm had shuttered its film stock division in March 2013, with rumours circulating that Kodak were poised to do the same. “This was the medium I had learned about, had believed in the magic of since deciding to be a director at the age of 9,” he confides. “I wanted The Limited to be greater than the script I had written and for that, for me to be a better director and do this story and everyone who believed in it some justice, I needed film.” (Pictured, right; the young cast of The Limited)

Mentored into production by industry veteran, the late J. Harkness and employing an experienced DOP in Kym Vaitiekus, Elena realised a dream when he called ‘action’ on a tight 2-day shoot in 2014. “We had eight 400-foot reels, 3,200 feet of 16mm film,” he recalls. “As soon as you start rolling, you have 9½ minutes, or one standard roll of film, to get it perfect. We would shoot each take, change reels, place the film in a black bag and have it sent to be processed at the lab, all at once.” The process made for a focussed, energised set, with cast and crew fully aware of the limitations of film. “Each take has to be better,” says Elena. “When you're shooting on film, you allow yourself to trust whoever is looking at that monitor; they trust your word as they know this footage is precious.” 

Throughout the shoot and well into post-production, the young filmmaker was reminded of why film had fallen out of favour in the face of the digital revolution. “It’s horribly expensive,” Elena bemoans, despite an end-to-end budget of just in excess of A$5000 and made without any grant assistance. “Then the lab could get it wrong, the dallies don't look like what you saw in the monitor, sound editing and mixing is a nightmare with the noise from the camera making an appearance in every take.”

Having spent the best part of 2015 in the edit suite with Vaitiekus and cutter Leslie Heldzingen crafting his vision, Chris Elena is now in a position to consider the end product of his obsession with traditional celluloid. “We didn’t get the amount of coverage we wanted, but we made it work in the end,” he concludes. “We could've created this on digital but it never would have looked and felt this way. The raw dallies - without a colour grade, with minor scratches and dust on the frame - looked like what I always imagined films to look like. Every take we got, the work and effort was on display.” (Pictured, left; the director preparing a shot on the set of The Limited)

And, no, the director is not finished crusading for the existence of film stock. “I'll try to shoot on film until there's not a single reel left that Kodak can give me,” he declares. “The effort and potential for magic that comes with it is worth it in every way imaginable.”

Thursday
Feb182016

WATER WORLD: THE ANGIE DAVIS INTERVIEW.

From her home in the Byron Bay hinterland, Angie Davis has reached across oceans and continents to tell the story of Lobitos and its people. The Peruvian coastal village, its self-sustained emergence from under the shadow of ‘big oil’ and the surfing culture that has helped reform the region’s innate strength are examined in Double Barrel, the journalist-turned-filmmaker’s picturesque and deeply humanistic documentary.

In the US to support the festival rollout of her debut long-form work before returning home for the Australian premiere on February 27, Davis (pictured, above) spoke at length to SCREEN-SPACE about her love for the Lobitos community and how their struggle has inspired her, creatively and intellectually… 

What made the culture and people of Lobitos so alluring to you?

The people of Lobitos live a simplistic lifestyle without the modern comforts that we are accustomed to in the West. The rawness of north Peru’s coastal regions make for a number of complexities, such as a dramatic lack of rain, clean drinking water, and fertile soil. The locals are dependent on the ocean for food sources, yet the oil industry combined with commercial overfishing has significantly affected the fish stocks. Local fishermen have to venture further out to sea, in small boats or handmade balsa rafts at night, to hook a decent catch, which translates to greater running costs. I respect the local fishing community for enduring such hardships, while living with big smiles on their faces. And now the son’s of fishermen from the area are getting into surfing and living their lives around the tides and swells. It is this ocean-inspired lifestyle with the backdrop of the raw Peruvian desert that drew me to the area. 

How has the emergence of a modern surf culture integrated with the traditions of the township?

It hasn’t been so seamless. Lobitos was created as an oil town 100 years ago by BP, became one of the richest towns in Peru, and then fell to ruins when the lefts took power in the 60s, expelling all foreign oil companies from the country. In the 90s, the beaches attracted the affluent surfers from Lima who built hostels and surf lodges straight onto the shoreline, which wasn’t exactly welcomed by the existing community who lived back off the ocean a few blocks inland. Surfing has definitely put Lobitos on the map, both domestically and internationally, but the rate of development is alarming. A combination of profit-driven objectives and an ignorant lack of knowledge about how delicate sand-bottom surf breaks are to the movements of sand, tides and wind (means) overdevelopment on the beachfront can lead to the complete destruction of the town’s primary profitable resource - the waves (pictured, right; Davis with environmental advocate and big wave surfer Harold Koechlin and an Andean local). 

Double Barrel balances a human-interest story, environmental/social issues and sports travelogue elements. How did you reconcile your objectivity of a journalist and empathy of a social commentator?

This story was close to my heart. I started writing humanitarian journals for Amnesty International and throwing fundraisers for Surfrider Foundation from when I was 18. I was a surfer with a burning desire to travel and soon recognized a link between great waves being located in underprivileged regions and wanted to explore that more. I was working on a luxurious surf travel piece when I found myself in Peru, but abandoned that story when I saw first-hand that Lobitos was not ready for an influx of wealthy surf tourists. I decided that a film would give Lobitos a chance to move forward more sustainably and challenge audiences to consider their role in the rise and fall of surf communities, or any developing communities, worldwide.

Which filmmakers inspired you? 

I grew up with Taylor Steele’s surf movies. My interview with him on his film Sipping Jetstreams was my first published magazine piece, and I watched him evolve as a filmmaker from action-packed surf films to more travel-inspiring cinematic ‘journey’ pieces. Taylor was a great mentor on Double Barrel. In the end I wanted to make a surf film with ‘everyday’ people that everyone could relate to, with inspiring travel cinematography supporting a story that inspires hope. Too often environmental films finish with that feeling of “wow, I have no idea what I can do to help save the world.” Double Barrel highlights marine environment protection initiatives like the Juntos Por Las Playas Del Norte, a project that was inspired by our efforts making the film. 

The impact of industry on a population and their natural habitat is key to Double Barrel. How did your experiences living in Japan at a time of enormous hardship influence the film?

The Japanese disaster in 2011 was devastating. After the earthquake, we were forced to evacuate for what started as one night but eventually turned into about three months of uncertain life on the road. Nothing could prepare you for living through something like that. The aftershocks were constant and powerful, the constant threat of tsunami was exhausting, not to mention the unknown consequences of the Fukushima fallout. As someone who surfed, swam or walked alongside the ocean daily, and with a one-year-old toddler and being pregnant at the time, the entire experience was life changing. When I first visited north Peru and saw the aging refineries and platforms so close to the shore, the thought of what could happen brought up so much pain inside of me. My experience in Japan made me feel there was an urgency to make this film. I couldn’t bare to see another place I love and the people who inhabit it become so devastated by the consequences of building industry right on the coast. Surviving an event like Fukushima stays with you forever, but it has to be taken as an opportunity to grow and evolve from the experience. 

What are your thoughts on ‘film’ as a force for change? How would you define the relationship between your artistic vision for Double Barrel and the message you had to impart? 

Until I went to Peru and had the idea to make Double Barrel, I had never desired to be a filmmaker. I loved storytelling through writing and producing. Taylor had done a short film for Charity Water in Ethiopia, and helped raise $1million for fresh water wells. I was blown away by how much documentary film could appeal to a global audience, and actually impact developing communities. I knew I had to have a script and storyboard, so that it had structure and context. I didn’t really know a thing about filmmaking, but I knew I wanted the film to be of the highest quality possible, and placed myself around geniuses in their fields that were also passionate about the project. Dustin Hollick was a surfing ambassador for Patagonia who had made surf films growing up in Tassie, including a film ‘El Gringo’ which had sequences from Peru, so I went to him with the script knowing I could trust him. I could not have made the film without him. Dustin recognized my emotion to the place and knew that had to be included in the film, resulting in a transparency that tells the story as it truly happened. Cinematographer Tim Wreyford had previously shot Mick Fanning’s ‘Missing’ film and we shot the first half of the film together. Then I returned with Alejandro Berger who is one of the world’s best water photographers (pictured, above; Davis, left, whith her key crew members). I wanted to combine the format of surf films with longer music-driven surf and travel montages that would give a real sense of the place. We learnt a lot of lessons the hard way, and threw in a lot of our own money to get this off the ground, but the response so far has been incredible. I am very proud of everyone for sticking with it.

A Switchboard Media production, Double Barrel has its Australian premiere in Byron Bay on February 27. Ticket and venue information available here.

Wednesday
Jan062016

ASHES AND DIAMONDS: THE ANNE RICHEY INTERVIEW

It would become known as ‘Black Saturday’, the day in February 2009 never to be forgotten by Australians. In the hinterland of the southern state of Victoria, bushfires decimated acres, laying to waste rural communities like Marysville, where 45 lives were lost. Filmmaker Anne Richey knew the area well and was devastated by the destruction. In the wake of the disaster, she was inspired to tell a story filled with hope and human spirit; and so was borne The Weatherman’s Umbrella, a fairy tale adventure bringing to life the unique artistry of a Marysville landmark, Bruno’s Sculpture Garden….

“I first visited Marysville for the National Screenwriters’ Conference about a year before the fires,” says Richey, ahead of a public screening of her film at Federation Square in Melbourne’s CBD. “I fell in love with the gorgeous little town.” Central to its charms was the work of Bruno Torfs, a South American-born artist who had crafted unique life-sized figures that greeted guests who walked a rainforest track in the heart of Marysville known as the ‘Sculpture Garden’. The artist’s estate was all but destroyed by the ‘Black Saturday’ flames. Recalls Richey, “I kept returning to the images over the following year or so, and when I heard that the garden had reopened I visited the town to see if Bruno would mind if I wrote a film inspired by his gorgeous garden.”

Richey’s narrative framework uses much that family audiences will recognise from fairy tale lore. “Sarah’s journey echoes stories like Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden,” she admits. Played by ingénue Lily Morrow (pictured, top), our heroine encounters various eccentric denizens of a mystical forest as she helps a dithering weatherman (local identity Daryl Hull; pictured, right, with Morrow) find his lost parasol. Unlike the evening news variety who merely report and predict, Sarah’s new friend creates weather, and without his umbrella the region will go without rain.

Early in the script’s development, Richey organised a reading for the Marysville community in which Australian acting great John Wood voiced the titular role (the actor’s prior commitments prevented his casting in the film). “It was very important to me that it be done this way. I wanted to make sure that everyone was okay with the content of the story before we began making the film,” says Richey. “Fortunately, we didn’t receive any negative comments, and I think it helped that people knew about the storyline (before) helping out.”

Ineligible for funding via both Screen Australia and Film Victoria, a determined Richey moved ahead with the shoot regardless, employing a no-budget work ethic that utilised non-pro actors (with the exception of industry veteran John Flaus, as Sarah’s Great Grandfather; pictured, right, with Morrow and co-star Jacob Vulfs) and crew drawn from the township and its surrounds. For Richey, this bare-bones approach proved a godsend. “It seemed as though every time I vaguely mentioned needing something, it (not only) appeared but was in a form which was so much better than I could have imagined,” she says. “It was a very lucky shoot in so many ways. When there’s virtually no budget, everything needs to be done creatively, and because of this it became a real community effort.”

It may be the ‘community effort’ - the spirited sense of small town unity that the 16-month weekend shooting schedule captured - which proves to be The Weatherman’s Umbrella greatest legacy. “It’s a film which showcases the amazing talents and extraordinary landscapes around Marysville,” Richey says, who fostered the sense of family by using key locations and props that held special meaning for locals in the wake of the bushfire disaster. “While we were making the film, quite a few people told me that (we) had arrived at the perfect time. (Our) film didn’t have anything to do with the fires but was just about making something fun. People had rebuilt their homes and I think were looking for a way of moving forward.”

For Richey, whatever positive energy the people of Marysville draw from her film merely reflects the unwavering commitment that they contributed. “It’s been great to see so many people in the area helping the film along its way,” she says. “The people involved in the film were so welcoming towards the project, and they were so inspiring. They’re such a generous, talented and kind group of people.”

Footnote: Bruno’s Sculpture Garden has been fully restored and now features over 120 of Torf’s original works; it was recently included amongst the 100 ‘Essential Experiences’ tourist sites in Victoria by the travel website Experience Oz. In The Weatherman’s Umbrella, Torf can be seen in the role of ‘Bearded Man’ (pictured, above).

Anne Richey will present The Weatherman’s Umbrella at a special event screening on Thursday, January 14 at Healesville Memorial Hall, Victoria. The film is available for community screening bookings via Fan-Force.