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Dungog Film Festival wrapped


3rd Dungog Film Festival May 28 – 31, 2009

The 2009 Dungog Film Festival opened with the world premiere of Stone Bros, Richard Frankland’s road movie with belly laughs, an attempt to bridge Australia’s black / white cultural abyss with comedy. It also signals the Festival’s coming of age as a platform to showcase new Australian films, a role that’s the mark of a genuinely valuable festival. Andrew L. Urban reports.

If you accept that 11 new (not yet released) feature films over a single weekend represent a decent preview of coming Australian movies then you’d have to say that Dungog 2009 offered a pretty good snapshot. In the context of the biggest showcase of Australian filmmaking - which includes another 8 or so either recently released or classic Aussie films, over 100 shorts, a dozen docos and three so far unproduced screenplays, performed live on stage by first class actors - this third edition of the festival (which relied heavily on the generous and increased support from NSW Mining – more on that later) has confirmed that the first two festivals weren’t just a flash or two in the pan.

Is it now perhaps time to invite the local distributors and a few international scouts to the 2010 event? Yes, says Festival Director Allanah Zitserman. What would a festival scout and a distributor have made of this year’s premieres? (Assuming they’d done their homework and already seen the other films in the program – not counting the few classics like The Year My Voice Broke, or Bliss.)

Perhaps the first thing they’d notice is the shortage of uplifting, life-affirming Australian films (not only at this festival, either). With the exception of opening film, Richard Frankland’s funny, entertaining yet meaningful Stone Bros and the world premiere of Jennifer Ussi’s Girl Clock, the themes are either bleak, like Kriv Stenders’ excellent Lucky Country (with a sombre, unyielding ending) or tense, such as the splendid thriller genre pieces, Storage and Bad Bush or the also excellent supernatural thriller, Lake Mungo, a fine debut from Joel Anderson. If you were not told otherwise, you would easily believe Lake Mungo to be a genuine documentary about a series of events that have haunted a family in the aftermath of the tragic death of their teenage daughter. This superbly constructed and executed film gets everything right, to the smallest detail. (Our full review and an interview with Anderson will be published on the film’s release on June 25, 2009.)

Immersive in its mood of early Australian bush life, Lucky Country is a fable of this land as well as a story in which the best instincts of mankind barely survive the ravages of fate, nature and humanity itself. Muscular and poetic all at once, this is an intense drama which pits pride and greed against hope and despair – and is proud of the irony and ambiguity reflected in the title. The ending may work in a Festival setting, but will probably mitigate against it commercially ….

Sam Genocchio’s Bad Bush, a thriller in the psychological sub-genre, takes two unrelated elements – a dope growing psycho and a traumatised mother with a brand new baby – and builds a gripping scenario. With a twist.

Crime related themes continue in Brad Diebert’s Hobby Farm, set in the late 1970s about an unlikely moral hero who gets caught up in a criminal underworld rife with illegal gambling, prostitution and sex-slavery. Storage, by Michael Craft, tells the story of 17-year-old Jimmy (Matt Scully) who goes to live with his Uncle Leonard (Damien Garvey), an ex SAS officer. Leonard runs a below-ground storage facility in the city and while exploring the maze of corridors, Jimmy comes across a deeply disturbed man, Francis, who seems to be storing evidence of a crime in his storage unit. Jimmy and Leonard are shocked to discover, in a red drum barrel at the back of the unit, evidence that suggests Francis is a murderer. But appearances can be deceiving – and deadly. Also stars Saskia Burmeister.

Other films in the program that generated buzz include George Gittoe’s doco-drama, The Miscreants, a harrowing tale from Terror Central; Scott Murden’s The Dinner Party (based on actual events); and Perth filmmaker Christopher Kenworthy’s The Sculptor.

The festival was also an opportunity for locals and visitors to do some catching up – with films like Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max, Shawn Seet’s Two Fists One Heart, the Macrae brothers’ The View from Greenhaven and Matthew Newton’s acclaimed but so far unreleased Three Blind Mice, about three young Navy officers hit Sydney for one last night on land before being shipped over to the Gulf to fight.

As well as its focus on Australian films (expanded by two New Zealand movies this year: Harold Brodie’s excellent The Map Reader and the closing night film, Paul Murphy’s heart warming Second Hand Wedding) the other major feature of the festival is its location – a regional town whose only claim to movie fame is its cinema, the James Theatre, Australia’s oldest continuously running cinema. That Dungog has an active film society should come as no surprise, though; as so many regional centres, they are starved of movies and screen culture, so this festival could well be emulated – perhaps should be emulated.

But it’s not getting any easier, says Zitserman. “This year has been harder than last year,” she explains, “partly because it’s a bigger program and partly because there are more people visiting so we need more logistical support. Our vision is to get all the distributors and exhibitors here but it takes time to build a reputation. We want to establish the notion that if you want to know what’s going in Australian cinema, you must be here.” And she adds emphatically, “we are trying to tell all filmmakers not to send screeners of their new films to distributors, but to bring the films to us and show them in a more realistic environment, with a real audience.”

Although further growth is limited by sheer physicality – Dungog has a population of about 3,500 and the festival brought in some 5,000 more over the four days – Zitserman hopes to add a third screen to enable more flexible programming. The James, with about 400 seats and the RSL with about 100 is just not quite enough ….

The Country Women’s Association shopfront space was turned into the Gala Box Office this year, a church hall becomes a theatre for script readings and the empty rooms above the hardware store is festival HQ. Street stalls appear, filled with trinkets and made to order take away (like Turkish gozleme) and the cafes are full.

Minister Assisting the Premier on the Arts, Virginia Judge, launched the Festival. “Dungog is an opportunity to honour and support our wonderful Australian filmmakers and rejoice in the fact that we have a vast wealth of ideas and talent in this state.” Judge said regional New South Wales was becoming one of the most popular film destinations in the world. “Between January 2005 and December 2008, over 661 productions were filmed in rural NSW - generating $32 million for the local economy and creating over 5,655 jobs,” she said.

As for the festival, it brings an estimated $1.2 million into the town; NSW Mining is the festival’s biggest supporter, and not only does the industry put up some $150,000 in cash, there is twice as much put in by way of human resources; some 10 volunteers (and some of the families) from the industry body’s office work for months to prepare for the festival.

NSW Mining CEO Dr Nikki Williams was quick to rebut suggestions that the coal mining industry was conducting some kind of surreptitious PR campaign through its sponsorship. “I can’t accept that the mining industry is all evil with an ulterior motive. Some media reports have intimated that some of our volunteers are ramming PR down people’s throats. That’s untrue and outrageous; these volunteers put in enormously long hours to do the hard yakka; it’s not glam work, but essential logistics in a town that has no infrastructure. Other wise the experience would be lesser.”

Having declined naming rights, NSW Mining, says Williams, “isn’t supporting Dungog to promote itself but to promote the Dungog Film Festival. There is no benefit to us from all those months of preparation.”

In her speech at the gala opening night dinner following the screening of Stone Bros, Williams fronted the critics of coal, saying they had painted mining as the Evil Empire, or Big Carbon. “Well I am it, I am big carbon ….Darth Vader, the Mother of Evil.”

So much of mining goes largely unobserved, she said, rather like filmmaking, and the unknown can raise curiosity not to mention suspicion and fear … but just like Darth Vader, evil is not always as it seems.” (See more extracts of Williams’ “Evil Empire” speech.)

Published June 1, 2009
Andrew L. Urban
Editor & Publisher


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