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Dungog Film Festival Wrap

Born in 2007, the Dungog Film Festival has grown in one year from a baby fest with a dozen films and 1,400 visitors, into an adolescent of 80 films and an estimated 4,000 visitors, doubling the population of Dungog for the duration (May 29 – June 1). Andrew L. Urban reports on the world’s biggest showcase of Australian filmmaking centred on the country’s oldest cinema, The James.

You may hear extravagant claims about this year’s Dungog Film Festival, expressed in the heat of the moment, like the filmmakers who told Zoe and Wendy at the Dungog Visitors Centre that they had just got back from Cannes and Dungog was the best film festival they’d been to. But it’s true that the second DFF has all the hallmarks of something special. For starters, it’s a showcase exclusively for Australian films, which makes it unique. Secondly, it is not a competitive festival, which makes it friendly. Thirdly, it’s in a pastoral area in the Hunter, near vines and mines, away from big city distractions and full of charm, which makes it pleasant. Fourthly, Dungogians (for the most part) welcome the visitors, their community embracing the filmmaking community.

But, crucially, it’s also an event which has brought out a significantly greater degree of involvement from its all important supporters and sponsors. More on that later. More, also, on the legacy of the old James (opened 1914) and its long time operator/projectionist, Ken Reeves, who has just retired, but came back to the James for a historic moment on the last day of the Festival.

If a film festival is judged by its programming policy, Festival Director Allanah Zitserman deserves credit for establishing the first Australian film festival dedicated to Australian films. It seems a strange oversight, and it’s worthy of note that both of its founders are of European descent: Zitserman of Russian and managing director Stavros Kazantzidis of Cyprian backgrounds.

For a four day festival, limiting the program to Australian films is certainly feasible; the challenge is to make it diverse and interesting. This year, 52 short films added bulk to a selection of feature length dramas and docos, with several of them getting their first public screening. Opening the festival was Peter Duncan’s excellent new drama, Unfinished Sky, two weeks prior to its commercial release. Duncan and one of the film’s co-stars, David Field, were both on hand to answer questions. The access to filmmakers for its program is a highlight of such a focused Australian festival, and audiences responded warmly and with enthusiasm to a large contingent of filmmakers and actors in their midst.

Closing night film was Christopher Weeke’s Bitter and Twisted, which was invited to screen at the Sydney Film Festival at a 3pm Saturday screening, but producer Bridget Callow preferred the Closing Night slot offered by Dungog. She and Christopher attended the event with several of the cast including Noni Hazlehurst, Leanna Walshman and Matt Newton. The film, originally intended as a black comedy loosely inspired by memories of his own youth by Weekes, was generally regarded as one of the highlights of the festival – but not funny. A well observed and layered film about a suburban Sydney family coping with grief offers exceptional performances and an emotionally raw, powerful screenplay.

Between the two dramas and using a second screening venue inside the Dungog RSL, Zitserman programmed some films that have had recent theatrical releases (but not in Dungog Shire!) like Cactus, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger, Black Water (which is still not certain of a NSW release but has been doing well in Darwin), Bruce Petty’s energetic Global Haywire, the popular The Black Balloon and the engaging All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane.

Premieres included the hard hitting crime drama, The Line by Michael Adante, starring Peter Phelps; the gripping Blue Mountains misadventure, Monkey Puzzle, by Mark Forstmann, starring Ryan Johnson, Ben Guerens, Ella Scott Lynch, Billie Rose Pritchard and Socratis Otto; and the world premiere of The Nothing Men from Mark Fitzpatrick, with Colin Friels, David Field, Martin Dingle Wall – all of whom (except Colin Friels who is shooting overseas) were in attendance. This tough and engaging drama has a darkly humorous beginning and a violent, unexpected twist. The well honed screenplay and the sparse locations make it a stand out.

For something completely different – as an Australian entry – you couldn’t go past the private, invitation only screening of Benjamin Gilmour’s drama, Son of a Lion. Produced by Carolyn Johnson, the film had just screened at the Marrakech Film Festival. Shot on DV Cam and finished on 35mm film, Son of a Lion is set in the North Western area of Pakistan and is the story of a man and his 11 year old son, at odds over whether he should go to school ( his wish) or stay at home in the village where his father makes guns. It’s not an Australian story, of course, but it has easily recognisable complex, universal themes and the non-professional actors do a remarkable job. (The film will screen in the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals prior to an August cinema release through Gil Scrine Films.)

The Tender Hook also had its Australian premiere at Dungog, prior to its commercial release. Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne and Pia Miranda star in this love triangle set in 1920s Sydney, from Jonathan Ogilvie, who came to the festival with his family. The film, boasting strong performances and excellent production design, is a tad underdeveloped but was well received. Pia Miranda was also in town, but part time local resident Hugo Weaving was working on a film in Europe. The Dungog Vintage Car Club provided matching cars from the 20s for the stars.

The least successful film (for me) at Dungog was Honeymoon in Kabul; its world premiere screening was anticipated and well attended (as were all sessions) but the very poor quality of its sound marred what was essentially a novelty film that could have worked better as a short. The film follows clown doctor Jean Paul Bell and his new bride Maggie Haertsch to Kabul on a mission to take presents to children’s hospitals. The amateurish production, intended to be ultra realistic and raw, did not have a good enough story to overcome its limitations.

Of the eight documentaries in the festival, I can only comment on two I have seen. Kim Mourdant’s Bomb Harvest has already had a release and is a unique story well told about Aussie bomb disposal larrikin Laith Stevens cleaning up the unexploded bombs in Laos. The new doco, Lockout, from director Jason van Genderen and producers Greg Hall and Diane Michael, is a striking work in more ways than one. It tells the story of Australia’s longest and most dramatic industrial dispute when mine owners locked out several thousand miners in 1929 over pay rate issues. The conflict lasted some 15 months, crippled the industry and overpowered a government, leaving even Labour politicians covered in shame.

The Australian premiere of Miracle on Everest was presented by its director Jennifer Peedom and executive producer Chris Hilton – and was talked about in positive terms. It is a remarkable true story of high altitude cameraman Lincoln Hall, who was pronounced dead after the effects of altitude sickness – but was found alive the next morning. Producer Hilton was also around for the screening of Julie Nimmo’s Songlines to The Seine, about indigenous art showcased in a new museum in Paris.

Helene Barrow’s ever Say Die Matildas had its world premiere at the festival, an inspirational doco on the Aussie Women’s Football Team; Richard, by Maya Newell had its NSW premiere and Julian Shaw’s fascinating portrait of controversial South African political Satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, Darling!, helped make up the Sunday shorts program.

Now to the unusually immersive approach taken by many of the sponsors. Under CEO Dr Nikki Williams, NSW Mining as the Presenting Sponsor was not content to simply write a cheque – this association of mining interests threw human resources and experience at the festival to support and even create infrastructure, keen to ensure that the festival delivers a credible, smoothly operating event. Staff from the association helped give the festival a professional shine, and also hosted what I can happily label the best film festival party that I have enjoyed anywhere in Australia.

In a specially designed and constructed marquee (in the large paddock opposite the two bedroom house I shared with festival photographer Enzo Amato), Kennards had designed a bright, inviting and happily surprising environment for what was billed as The NSW Mining Underground Party. The colour theme was shiny white, from white hard hats on the serving staff (male and female) to the large white balloon lights. As well as first class catering and generous servings of Wyndham Estate wines (or Byron Beer for alternatives), the party started really cooking with the wonderfully voiced soul singer Lisa Hunt and her band.

Wyndham Estate also kept stocked the bar at the Festival Lounge, open from morning till night for certain pass holders and festival special guests, which included a large contingent of filmmakers.

Newcastle University’s Communications unit provided workshops in digital filmmaking and editing, under lecturer Susan Kerrigan, creating interest among the youth in Dungog Shire – and elsewhere.

Before the festival, staff from Brother (office equipment) turned up to help plant 1,000 trees in the are to offset the carbon emissions generated by the event and Hyundai made available a fleet of cars to transport VIP guests from the Barrington Tops accommodations to the events in town. The drivers were part of a large volunteer fleet, boys and girls, young and old, men and women, some of whom no doubt members of the 60 strong Dungog Film Society.

The range of corporate (in and out of the film industry) and Government supporters is a tangible sign that there is widespread belief in Dungog’s mission, with organisations such as NSW FTO, the AFC, Atlab’s EFilm Australia unit, the Dungog Shire itself and media storage specialists, Preferred Media among the supporters.

A two or three hour drive from Sydney (an hour from Newcastle), Dungog is accessible enough and far enough to be a dedicated destination for a film festival. To make it easy and fun, CountryLink put on a special train consisting of three carriages (including buffet car and the first batch of Wyndham Estate wines) to take guests from Sydney central to Dungog. The fully catered ‘party train’ delivered close to 100 filmmakers into Dungog station on Thursday afternoon, where they were met by a school jazz band. The station is 100 metres from the historic James Picture Theatre, which has been expanded to its original 560 seat capacity as a result of the festival.

So now to that moving moment of history at the James. The Hopson family took over the James in November 2007, when much loved and respected projectionist Ken Reeves was no longer up to the task. Their 12 year old son Luke is the new projectionist (the James operates at weekends) and is a smart youngster clearly in love with the cinema. And very fond of Ken, who taught him the trade.

On the last day of the festival, Ken returned to the James to perform his last act as the cinema’s projectionist. It was the screening of the 1949 Charles Chauvel B&W classic, Sons of Matthew and the two carbon rod projectors from the 20s were also being retired. The last change of reel tradition calls for the incoming projectionist to do the honours, but 12 year old Luke Hopson graciously invited Ken to make the change – a ritual that requires timing, sensitivity and love of cinema. The change went smoothly, and the Hopsons were moved to tears as Ken completed the task. (This writer had a lump in his throat, too.)

Other Aussie classics in the program included The Cars That Ate Paris, Long Weekend and Newsfront – all with the cooperation of The National Film and Sound Archive’s Graham Shirley, who also presented a segment from the oldest Australian sound on film recording (the Duke and Duchess of Kent at Farm Cove in March 1927), plus a seminar on outback Australia on screen. Workshops, seminars and panel discussions at two other venues completed the program, including a masterclass with producer Al Clark and one with Jim McElroy, and An Inconvenient Truth presentation by Nell Schofield from Showtime, followed by a discussion about carbon footprints in the film industry. (Nikki Williams from NSW Mining was quick to point out how the mining industry was some 15 years ahead of filmmakers in tackling the issue.)

Allanah and Stavros were a little overwhelmed by their own success, but happily so. “It’s been amazing,” was all Allanah could say, beaming as she was celebrated in thank you speeches and on stage celebrations.

Dungog offers a comprehensive overview of Australian filmmaking and is poised to become an annual showcase which has the potential to develop into an important festival, with appeal to audiences and filmmakers from around Australia and perhaps around the world.
Andrew L . Urban

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