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The Dungog Film Festival has established itself as something of a darling of Aussie filmmakers and has become a launch pad of some substance, if not for the biggest Australian films as yet, at least for those which are ready at the right time. The 4th edition offered sophisticated programming and a rich mix of new and classic, established and emerging, reports Andrew L. Urban, our man in Dungog.

The past, present and future of Australian cinema met at Dungog last weekend, offering the ever growing crowds a menu from a handful of classics from Charles Chauvel, a couple of modern classics from the 80s as well as premieres of new Australian films and even a work in progress, as well as readings of scripts not yet filmed. Over 130 shorts filled out the program in batches, with masterclasses from Nadia Tass, who also presented her 1986 classic Malcolm, and Gillian Armstrong with her 1982 musical Starstruck.

The festival opened with the world premiere of Belinda Chayko’s charming, nuanced and gently melancholy Lou, starring John Hurt, Emily Barclay and youngster Lily Bell-Tindley. Hurt plays the grandpa to Bell-Tindley’s Lou, and as his mind wavers he mistakes her for his late wife, while Lou’s single mother (Barclay, excellent) tries to cope with the hardships of daily life. Warmly received, the film was preceded by Shane Genders’ short, The Edge of Reality, starring John Jarratt as a washed up Elvis impersonator. (Elvis also popped up in another comedy short, in which it wasn’t a possum in a young couple’s roof but an Elvis.)

But the short that made the biggest impact was Alexandra Schepisi’s 24 minute drama, One Night, about five single women (two of them friends) who set out to try and have a fun night in Melbourne. It’s a tragi-comic essay on young contempo women in Australia, and it’s not a pretty picture. The young Schepisi set out to make something different, real, confronting – and succeeds.

"a mystical element to the Aussie outback horror genre"

One Night screened prior to Road Train on Friday night, which adds a mystical element to the Aussie outback horror genre, an element that tends to mystify but not as intended, while the performances by Xavier Samuel, Georgina Haig, Bob Morley and Sophie Lowe are tops. Not an original premise (four youngsters stranded in the outback with a predator on their tail) the film is likely to appeal to fans of the genre, driven as it is by a complex and oversized score from Rafael May – as big as the road train featured in the film, and as menacing.

All the other premieres also filled the venerable old James theatre to capacity (which is expanded to over 500 for the festival): Michael Bond’s Los Angeles set Passengers, and the Saturday night special, Surviving Georgia, from Kate Whitbread and Sandra Sciberras. The filmmakers and some of the cast from each film presented their work and took questions.

Passengers, starring Angie Milliken and Cameron Daddo (who also produced) engaged the audience with its well observed dialogue as a married Aussie couple in Los Angeles make their way through heavy traffic to friends for dinner. It’s a virtuoso work for all concerned, not least for cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai, who had to be something of a contortionist in the back of the car where most of the scenes take place. The excellent dialogue and top performances make engaging cinema as the journey on which they started out, symbolic of their marriage, comes to an unplanned end. Daddo and director Bond both came out from Los Angeles for the event.

"an audience pleaser"

Surviving Georgia attracted overspill crowds and extra seating had to be rushed in. Writer/directors Sandra Scaberras and Kate Whitbread delivered a romantic comedy from what was originally written as a heavy drama about a woman (Caroline O’Connor as Georgia) who leaves her two young children before they reach puberty – and then 12 years later tries to reconnect and gain their forgiveness. Pia Miranda and Holly Valance play the daughters (Heidi and Rose), with Shane Jacobson as the country town cop who falls for Rose and Spencer McLaren as the city guy chasing Heidi. It’s an audience pleaser with a well maintained tone that allows the themes to breathe and terrific performances. It was preceded by Air, a witty short from Murray Fahey about an exotic customer who walks into a music store to buy an air guitar.

A fourth premiere, screening in the makeshift ‘theatre’ at the local school (sponsored by DVD rental company, oovie, and thus christened the oovie theatre), also played to a packed house: Matthew Chuang’s Braille has a strong story and fine performances about a blind man who plans to retake a stolen blood diamond from its unexpected hiding place, with the help of a small team of specialist operatives. Flawed but promising, the film lacks the clarity it needs for this sort of heist caper, and should not have relied exclusively on hand held camerawork, so the audience can be more involved in what’s going on.

The festival also offers an opportunity for testing films prior to their completion, and Owen Elliot presented his work in progress of Bathing Franky, starring Henry Szeps as Rod, Shaun Gross as Steve and Maria Venuti as Franky, the bed ridden mother around whom is told the story of recently released prisoner Steve and the irrepressible dreamer Rod. Audience feedback after the sellout screening will be analysed to feed into the completion process. Written by Michael Winchester, the film explores the impact that Rod has on Steve, whose uncertainties about life contrast with Rod’s fanciful world of the imagination. The film was shot in and around Dungog.

Recent Australian films also had a run: Accidents Happen, Subdivision, Beneath Hill 60 and Before the Rain (AFTRS & NIDA coproduction) were the catch-up program, while an extensive selection of documentaries completed the schedule.

"festival’s growing popularity"

The festival’s growing popularity was evidenced by the large numbers who attended all the sessions – but the growth also put a strain on resources and event management. Several sessions ran late, which created a ripple effect of problems for patrons relying on punctuality to transition from one to another. Seating at all venues is problematic: in the James theatre, In the James, then, the choice is either comfort but very far from the screen, or discomfort closer to it. The comfy armchair seats that are in weekly use for standard sessions only extend to half the theatre, which is how it normally operates. By lifting the mid-room screen, the cinema can be more than doubled in capacity to 560 – but the extra chairs are the hard plastic variety secured to each other. This is the seating at all the screening venues, halls and such that are converted for the weekend. The audience seemed largely tolerant of these issues (and of the technical squawks) but that tolerance may wear off in the future.

With barely 60 hotel/motel beds in town, Dungog Visitors Centre had to again find beds for the masses: they managed 150 home placements. The other 7,000 or so festival attendees (many of them locals, of course) either drove in and out from other Hunter Valley locations or came for the day - or camped/squatted anywhere they could (invcluding the town hall).

The festival has given Dungog a $2 million weekend, but this isn’t going to save the James (oldest Australian cinema, opened in 1914), which is struggling to keep open as digital projection offers both an opportunity and a hurdle. The hurdle, of course, is $130,000 for the new gear. The opportunity is for easier and quicker access to films, leading to increased patronage.

But the festival has also given Australian filmmakers a new and increasingly valuable platform to showcase their films. Charles Chauvel would have been heartened to see his legacy honoured at the well attended morning screenings courtesy National Film and Sound Archives, of In the Wake of the Bounty (introducing Erroll Flynn) , The Rats of Tobruk (introducing Chips Rafferty) and Jedda – films which gave the festival a depth and a perspective on Australian cinema history. Watching The Rats of Tobruk, I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s marvellous talent for handling dramatic material with a light touch, and surprised by how little the film had dated.

"a valuable resource"

The Dungog Film Festival is now a valuable resource, thanks to the vision and energy of its organisers, Allanah Zitserman and Stavros Kazantzidis, and to the hefty support (financial and logistical) of NSW Mining, thanks to Dr Nikki Williams. But it needs to be carefully nurtured; getting bigger should not be the criterion. Getting better should come first.

Published June 3, 2010

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Road Train



Surviving Georgia


Bathing Franky

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