Australian films at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Sapphires

The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.

And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.

Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.

There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.

Features

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.

One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.

Being Venice

Being Venice

The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.

Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.

Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.

Errors of the Human Body

Errors of the Human Body

Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.

A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.

Hail

Hail

Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.

Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.

Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.

Last Dance

Last Dance

David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.

Mental

Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.

Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.

Save Your Legs!

Save Your Legs!

A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.

The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.

Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Documentaries

Coniston

Coniston

In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.

One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.

Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus

Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.

First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.

The First Fagin

The First Fagin

Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.

Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.

Lasseter’s Bones

Lasseter’s Bones

Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.

His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.

With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.

Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.

Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.

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A new kind of intimacy: Tony Krawitz, director of The Tall Man

Tony Krawitz

Tony Krawitz, writer and director of 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz is best known within the Australian film and television industry as the young South African-born writer and director of the acclaimed short feature Jewboy, a stunningly accomplished piece about a Chassidic taxi driver working in Bondi and experiencing a crisis of faith. The film premiered at Cannes and won three AFI Awards, including two for Krawitz himself – for Best Screenplay in a Short Film and Best Short Fiction Film (shared with Liz Watts). An AFTRS graduate, Krawitz has since been working predominantly in local television drama (including City Homicide, All Saints, The Silence and The Surgeon), but what’s putting him in the spotlight right now is his first foray into documentary, The Tall Man. Already, the film has premiered as an official selection at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, and has been announced as one of the four Nominees for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary – and that’s all ahead of an Australian theatrical release on 17 November.

The Tall Man is produced by Darren Dale (company director of Blackfella Films, Australia’s premier Indigenous production company and long time producer for SBS) and based on the non fiction book by Chloe Hooper. It’s a sobering but gripping examination of the case of Cameron Doomadgee, an Indigenous man living on Palm Island in Far North Queensland, who on 19 November 2004 reportedly swore at a police officer, Senior Sargeant Chris Hurley, and 45 minutes later, lay dead in a police cell, with massive internal injuries likened to those of a fatal car crash victim. The outraged Palm Islanders rioted and burnt down the police station, but subsequent investigations never resulted in a conviction of the policeman. What they did result in, was a galvanising of the entire Queensland Police Force, who came out in support of their fellow officer, amidst accusations of collusion and mishandling of the case.

The Tall Man investigates these events and the legal case around them, but the focus is firmly on the people whose lives have been most affected by the tragedy – Doomadgee’s family, friends and the island’s community. In the interview below, Tony Krawitz talks about the process of gaining trust, exploring grief, and attempting to grapple with the paradox that Palm Island is both paradise and prison to those Indigenous people who live there.

AFI: Congratulations on your film’s nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary. One of the striking things about the film is its visual beauty despite the harshness of the story (and we should mention Director of Photography, Germain McMicking here). Can you talk about the look you were aiming for?

Tony Krawitz: The look came about organically through doing the research. Palm Island is just such a beautiful place. And yes, the story is such a sad tragic story that we thought it would be an interesting counterpoint to show the beauty. It’s kind of ironic that it looks like a picture postcard and yet something so bad happened that day. Also the film is so upsetting at times that we wanted to show the positive aspects of life on the island as well – those amazing kids and their grandparents, having karaoke nights and good times.

AFI: What was the significance of the scenes of a man on horseback that recur throughout the film? Are there a lot of horses on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: Yes, there are a lot of wild horses – maybe thousands on the island. We drove to the top of the mountain one day and there were about 50 horses up there, a whole big family of them. And some people keep them. Otherwise, they let the horses roam free and they know certain ones, and some afternoons after school kids just go and lasso a horse and go riding. So it’s got this great freedom to it. But in terms of structure, that guy riding on the horse symbolises the great sense of freedom about Cameron Doomadgee. The people who knew him describe him as quite a free spirited person.  He loved horse riding, and loved going to the neighbouring island and hunting and fishing for days at a time, and diving, and all those kinds of things. Seeing a man looking free on horseback just reminded me of Cameron and what I’d heard of him. It’s just that mix that people talk about on Palm Island – of being really free because it’s like country life, away from the city – and then feeling completely trapped because they are on an island, and feeling like they’re under the control of the police.

The Tall Man publicity still

Wild horses roam free on Palm Island - a place that is both paradise and prison. Image from 'The Tall Man'.

AFI: How closely did you follow the Chloe Hooper book upon which the film is based?

Tony Krawitz: I’m not sure how close it is anymore, because I know that book backwards. I’m a big fan of the book and the film is quite similar in a lot of ways – obviously the events are the same. The big difference is that Chloe was at a lot of the events, so in the book she’s describing being in the courtroom day by day, what each day is like, how people are feeling, and it’s happening in the present. Whereas in the film, all the people we’re interviewing are looking back at the events and commenting on those events. It’s in the past.  That’s one of the biggest differences. In my mind they complement each other.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule like for this film? How much time did you spend on Palm Island?

Tony Krawitz: I don’t remember exactly because we finished shooting at the end of last year. We went there about five times. We went there quite a lot. Sometimes we just went there so people could get to know us more and find out what we were doing. We filmed over at least a year.

AFI: Were people happy to talk to you? Were they glad this film was being made or were they difficult to win over?

Tony Krawitz: Everyone was happy, especially the family. I’m a whitey, so the company that hired me was an Indigenous film company, and they work obviously in Indigenous communities a lot. So everyone knew this was going to be a film made by Indigenous people, but with a white director on board. Most people just felt that nobody in the media had really spoken about Cameron as a person, with a life and a family, but that they’d just spoken about his death and the day that led up to that. They were really happy that the film would talk about those important events leading up to the tragedy and that day of his death, but that it would also be a celebration of his life.

Darren Dale producer of The Tall Man

'A man who needs four mobile phone batteries' - producer Darren Dale.

AFI:  Can you talk a little bit about your producer Darren Dale and how you came to be working with him?

Tony Krawitz: Darren and I met through mutual friends over the years and I’ve  known him through workshops with young Aboriginal filmmakers. So we’ve known each other for some time but we hadn’t worked together before. He just called me up one day and asked me if I was interested and gave me the book to read. He is quite extraordinary. He’s one of the busiest people I know.

AFI: His credits are quite extensive – including short films for Warwick Thornton and Beck Cole, and First Australians for SBS and producing the Message Sticks festival…

Tony Krawitz: He’s great. He needs four extra batteries for his mobile phone – especially when we were up in Palm Island! He was dealing with a lot. It was a really small crew and very hard work. But as much as it was a very tragic time, we also had an incredible time of being with the family who were just so gracious with us – inviting us to their house, taking us fishing, daily life stuff that wasn’t just about the filmmaking.

AFI: Had you been involved in documentary filmmaking before?

Tony Krawitz:  I made a short seven minute documentary at university, and then I researched a documentary that never got made. So I’ve always been interested in making documentaries, but this is the first long one I’ve made.

AFI: You’ve made a short feature and lots of television, but how was this particular film different from your other experiences as a director?

Tony Krawitz: It was really great actually. It’s quite a profound experience to have strangers tell you their stories and invite you into their homes. There’s a level of intimacy that’s quite different to working in fiction. With this particular story it was tough because you’re dealing with people’s grief. It’s not like the subject matter is really easy – you have to ask people really tough questions. But it was a privilege.

AFI: In past interviews you have spoken about how you grew up in South Africa and the situation of the Indigenous people in Queensland reminded you of apartheid South Africa. That’s a pretty strong criticism.

Cameron Doomadgee from The Tall Man documentary

Cameron Doomadgee as a young man (right, in Australian flag t-shirt), from Tony Krawitz's documentary 'The Tall Man'.

Tony Krawitz: Yes. That’s what Aboriginal people were saying to me too, so that’s not just me making it up. Also from reading Chloe’s book and talking to Aboriginal activists or people who have to deal with life in remote communities, it’s clear that Australia is a tough place for Indigenous people. For me as an outsider to it, it reminded me of apartheid. I grew up in a privileged position under apartheid, but I was back in South Africa recently for two years, which was really interesting. South Africa and Australia share a similar colonial history, and when you look at the history of a place like Palm Island, you discover that it was a bit like a penal colony. It was set up for recalcitrant natives in the 1920s, and people were in dormitories. When I was interviewing older people in the documentary, who grew up in the dormitories, you see that people are still living with the after-effects of colonialism and they’re on this island where they feel like they’re living under a police state. You can argue the actual specifics of apartheid and apartheid law and how it’s different to the situation of Indigenous people  – you can argue the nitty gritty of it – but the overall feeling that people have has striking similarities.

AFI: One of the points the film makes is the huge power of the police. And when the police collude, it’s very difficult to fight that, and whether you’re Aboriginal or white, you could be in that position of powerlessness.

Tony Krawitz: Yes, and that happens. In Far North Queensland it’s so common for Aboriginal people to talk about things like being pulled over by the police just because of the colour of their skin. The only people who wouldn’t talk to us for the documentary (apart from the police!) were Aboriginal people who were too scared to talk to us because they thought the cops might see them and beat them up one dark night! So that’s a real kind of fear up north.

AFI: Are you concerned about how the police will view the film?

Tony Krawitz: It will be interesting to see how the police react to it. We’re not uncovering new evidence. Everything in the film has already been spoken about. It’s not an investigative documentary in that sense, it’s more about going through the emotional side of the case. So we’re not trying to make [policeman] Chris Hurley out to be some kind of demon, just to show him as a flawed human being, as we’re all flawed human beings.

AFI: The sound design and the score for the film are really atmospheric, creating both a sense of beauty, sadness and menace. Sam Petty was the Sound Designer, and Antony Partos and David McCormack did the music. You’d worked with them before?

Tony Krawitz: I’ve worked with Sam a lot. But not Antony and David before. It was quite hard in a way – we just wanted to make the people who are the subjects of the film the focus and not go too heavy on sound design or music. We didn’t want to make it too overly emotional. I was just lucky to be able to collaborate with them. I think they did a great job. We wanted to find a balance to not let the score be the main thing – finding a way to add to the experience, but still giving the interviewees the space to say things in their own words.

AFI: Right now you’re working on shooting a feature film adaptation of Dead Europe, Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. That’s quite a full-on book! 

Tony Krawitz: Yes it is pretty full on! And really hard to adapt. Right now I’m in the office and there are people running around madly getting ready for it. We start the shoot in Sydney for the Australian parts of the story and then we go to Europe, but it’s all very exciting and it’s a great challenge.

AFI: We look forward to seeing it. Best wishes for The Tall Man too, and thanks for your time.

The Tall Man releases nationally 17 November through Hopscotch.

The Tall Man is one of the four films nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary at the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards, with winners announced January 2012. Click through for A Closer Look at the Nominees for Best Feature Length Documentary.