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The inaugural Cockatoo Island Film Festival (Oct. 24 – 28) is imposing itself on the arts calendar with a certain bravado, reports Andrew L. Urban. Is it justified?

“Rollicking and compelling” is how the jury at last weekend’s inaugural Cockatoo Island Film Festival in Sydney described the Golden Feather Award winning film, 7 Boxes, from Paraguay, the first major film from Paraguay in more than half a decade, directed by first time filmmakers Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori. The film was one of 15 features from 15 countries in the competition.

7 Boxes

The jury, comprising celebrated cinematographer, Don McAlpine, mutli-award winning director, Peter Andrikidis, managing director of Matchbox Pictures, Helen Bowden and actor, Alex Dimitriades – said they were impressed and pleasantly surprised by the film, a powerful story of a Paraguayan wheelbarrow porter and his dream of becoming a star.

“It was exciting, very intriguing and had a certain quality of what we suspect Central America is like,” said McAlpine.

Accepting the Golden Feather Award on behalf of the directors Esteban Bedoya, Charge d’Affaires for the Embassy of Paraguay, said the triumph of the win was outstanding recognition of a young film industry that has emerged from 40 years of dictatorship only in the past two decades. “Juan Carlos and Tana will be thrilled and proud when I ring them. I will have to wake them on the other side of the world but for both of them and other young film makers in our emerging movie industry this will be a wonderful inspiration,” he said.

Austrian actor Karl Markovics won the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Vision for his directing debut, Breathing. Thomas Schubert makes his “stunning” acting debut in the film, a moving study of a young boy who has been institutionalised his entire life, but a new job finally provides him with the ability to seek out the mother who abandoned him.

The documentary prize was awarded to Marten Persiel’s German film, This Ain’t California, a punk fairytale that mixes the masterful grace of roller boarding, with the gritty reality of teenage life in the former German Democratic Republic.

The documentary competition jurors, Jennifer Peedom, Stephen Oliver and Ivan O’Mahony, said the shortlisted films were either very personal or globally appealing; This Ain’t California achieved both. The jurors commended the director on the film’s uniqueness of perspective, importance of subject matter, bravery and how it connects to audiences.

Australia’s Bec Kingma won the award for her short, A Silent Night; “Clearly the director has an understanding of all departments in film that you need to be in control of to make a good film being sound vision, script and performance,” juror, Jeremy Sims said.

Ella Bancroft was awarded the NSW Mining sponsored Young Indigenous Documentary Fellowship, while Jo Anne Brechin was named Young Filmmaker of the Year.

This major new film-centric festival in Sydney is imposing itself on the arts calendar with a certain bravado, having announced “We have a vision to bring to Sydney a world class festival on the scale and with the multi entertainment appeal of other international festivals such as Cannes and Sundance.” This was raising expectations to unattainable levels, of course, and the opening night shambles was a sober reminder to promise less and deliver more.

The much reported problems of opening night seem to have resulted at least in part from the fact that a number of invited guests failed to reply – but turned up anyway. The cheap plastic seats became torture implements after a couple of hours – and that’s one of the symbols of the main challenge of hosting a film festival on a disused industrial island. It is simply not naturally configured to such an event and everything has to be improvised, including the all important seating and screening facilities.

Not at all like Cannes or Sundance, Cockatoo Island has no existing cinemas (with comfortable seats) or screening rooms; no functional cafes or restaurants, no bars. It has rusting cranes, abandoned machine rooms, charmless brick buildings and acres of uncovered concrete spaces. You have to hand it to all concerned that they must be profoundly optimistic and ambitious to even attempt to turn this drab island into a cultural festival for five days in October. Not once but at least over the next 20 years, which is the term of the agreement between the Harbour Trust (which is responsible for the island) and the Cockatoo festival organisation.

The service levels of catering will need to be raised and licensing needs to reviewed: no alcohol may be served before 3pm, which might be sensible in one respect, but it lessens the appeal of a lovely lunch at the hilltop eatery which is perhaps the only part of the island where the views obliterate the dingy surroundings.

When I visited, I saw not a single cockatoo, but hordes of noisy and rather wild eyed seagulls, posing the obvious question. (I don’t know the answer.) More importantly, the skies were blue, the sun warm, the wind light; but it was obvious that rain or strong winds – or worse, both – would make the place inhospitable and possibly intolerable, with the distances between clusters of activity and the large open spaces that have to be crossed on foot. To my eyes, the island is ugly; it was first used a prison in the early days of the colony, then a shipyard. Any character it may have is surly and foreboding – at the very best interpretation, it’s dull, made bearable only by the occasional views across the water.

But perhaps the first and most obvious physical obstacle is also the event’s biggest point of difference: it is a Sydney harbour island that can only be reached by a 15 minute ferry ride from the edge of CBD. The downside is that Sydney’s transport system has not taken these five days into account and getting to the ferry point is in itself a challenge (and or cost), whether by car or by public transport. And again, the weather plays a crucial role; bad weather would play havoc with the ferry trip.

Putting aside the weather risk, the festival on Cockatoo Island offers something unique – a destination film festival that could, given a lot of work, imagination and care, offer Sydney not just a second major film festival, but one that could appeal to a different audience. Walking past the patch of tents set up to cater for those who wanted to stay on the island for one or more nights, it was obvious that the island’s ambiance would be more appealing to a younger market than the venerable old Sydney Film Festival, held four months earlier in the year.

Being a destination event – where the mental and physical investments play a bigger role also means that patrons would ‘graze’ more on the program. For Sydneysiders the two film festivals offer not so much an alternative but an addition. Obviously, Cockatoo won’t program films that have screened at Sydney and it is unlikely that Cockatoo’s programming in October would pre-empt options for Sydney eight months later.

A good example is how Cockatoo gave a platform on its opening night for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which had created a buzz at its world premiere at the Venice film festival in September. Roadshow was delighted to work with Cockatoo and made Anderson available to be present, because the festival slot boosts the film’s pre-release profile. It opens on November 8, two weeks after its Cockatoo Island screening. So Venice will be a regular hunting ground for Cockatoo Island, and so will Cannes in May. This could cause conflicts with Sydney, which at a pinch can take advantage of the high profile Cannes entries by late programming into its June schedule, but I suspect both festivals will be able to harvest from Cannes. There is a limit to how mach Sydney can take at such a late stage in its planning, for one thing.

The stated ambition of the Cockatoo Island team is to provide a program built not exclusively of screenings, but punctuated by live music and even sporting events (eg the yacht race around the island). Like so many of the activities, including master classes and script readings, the organisers have turned to sponsors for help. 

For example, in the case of the Peter Weir/Burkhard Dallwitz Masterclass, a two hour session devoted to studying their collaboration on The Truman Show and The Way Back, the session was sponsored by the music rights collection agency APRA, the Australian Directors Guild, and us at Urban Cinefile; your reporter moderated the Masterclass, which included four clips from the two films, held in a large, first floor space, with a portable screen and more of those plastic chairs. What the space lacked in ambience and atmosphere was made up by the enthusiasm of the audience.

According to its website, Cockatoo Island Film Festival has an impressive advisory board with expertise and experience across IT, law, urban planning, marketing, accounting, investment, media and finance. With such a formidable brains trust to draw on, it should be possible to build on this year’s promising beginning, learn from the problems and innovate to a successful future – starting with the basics. One valuable exercise would be to seek direct and frank feedback from a few dozen patrons.

“Through our sponsors and supporters, we were able to deliver 84 screenings (including many world and Australian premieres), four concerts, master classes with luminaries including Jane Campion and Peter Weir, parties and receptions, a wide variety of food and beverage options and a great transport system,” said co-founder Allanah Zitserman. The Festival reports 34,000 ‘admissions’ – or individual ticket sales over the five days.

“The overwhelming popularity of our opening night led to some challenges that we worked hard to address immediately. Our goal has always been to build a fun, multi-day and truly immersive event of film and music event and this was clearly achieved. Cockatoo Island presents a stunning palate and helped make this a truly unique festival. It is great that there is an appetite for this type of event and one that people will want to see continued.” 

The three films in most demand were: the Australian Premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master on Opening Night; the NSW premiere of a collaboration of seven of the hottest directors from Latin America and France 7 days in Havana, on Friday night; and the Australian Premiere of Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his popular 1999 novel, The Perks of being a Wallflower on Sunday afternoon.

Adam Saunders, the US producer of the closing night World Premiere, Family Weekend, said: “We enjoyed our experience at the Festival and are very grateful to those responsible for bringing us and Family Weekend to the exceptionally beautiful Sydney Harbour.”

Geoff Bailey, the Executive Director of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which manages Cockatoo Island, said: “The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust is proud to be a Leadership Partner of the Cockatoo Island Film Festival. 

“Our vision is to revitalise the world-heritage-listed Cockatoo Island into a venue for exciting events and cultural activities. It was great to see how the film festival organisers transformed the industrial halls into state-of-the-art cinemas for the first time. Movie-lovers were transported into the remarkable world of Australian and contemporary film and the ambience of Cockatoo Island, with its spectacular harbour setting, was enlivened in an entirely new way.”

American star Olesya Rulin (l), the director of her closing night film, Family Weekend, Ben Epps, Hilary Epps and producer and co-star Adam Saunders.

Published November 1, 2012

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Esteban Bedoya, Charge d’Affaires for the Embassy of Paraguay, accepting the Golden Feather Award for 7 Boxes – directed by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori

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