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The Asia Pacific Screen Awards (Nov 23, 2012) have now got to the stage of being probably the biggest and most prestigious film event in Australia, says Geoff Gardner; it seems we are indeed in an Asian moment, as this year’s Awards are presented in Brisbane. But still no Federal support.

It seems we are in an Asian moment. The Federal Government, dazzled by huge but now diminishing taxation revenues from mining exports, is telling us of an Asian Century and the need for the nation to engage ever more deeply, commercially and culturally, with the continent. The Prime Minister is calibrating a re-election bid with a policy pillar based on this imperative. 

What’s already been done to engage, indeed is continuing, hasn’t been completely overlooked. In its White Paper the Government tells us that: “Cultural connections across a range of areas can be powerful forces for bringing people together. Exchanges in culture build greater understanding, foster cultural appreciation and offer commercial opportunities.” The Federal Government’s national film agency was quick to suggest it was on board, pointing to an array of initiatives big and small it is undertaking in the region. 

"strong relations with Asian partners"

Screen Australia’s list of initiatives seems to have been assembled notwithstanding that the White Paper has no specific mention of any new or expanded role for the film industry: “... our leading cultural institutions and major performing arts groups have strong relations with Asian partners. There is extensive collaboration between some smaller arts and cultural organisations and at an individual level.” Examples of collaboration given later include video gaming, the Korea International Art Fair and something called Asialink.

But what the hell! For the big city cinephile at least, Asia is frequently as close as a central city multiplex or art house. Just recently in Urban Cinefile,  Andrew L. Urban identified some 17 national film festivals that breeze through Sydney and Melbourne at least every year. These are complementary to the broad range of international selections at the big, well resourced and all embracing film festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Among those smaller national events are annual selections of new films from China, India, South Korea, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and who knows where else. 

There are probably anything up to 300 new films a year on offer from all these sources. The supporting funds stumped up by foreign governments, producers associations, sponsors, embassies and consulates when added to the enthusiasm mustered by the mostly volunteers who do slog work of publicity and at screenings is manifest. (At times the number of volunteers manning information booths outnumbers the patrons.) You could spend your life productively checking them all out.

"the current crop of Asian film events have their advantages and disadvantages,"

But the current crop of Asian film events have their advantages and disadvantages. Even though patrons at the major film festivals benefit by having selections made by hard-marking festival directors who want to bring the best to their audience, they still have a somewhat uneven history when it comes to regional representation. BIFF, the latecomer to this group was established in the early 1990s by Des Power and others with a view to making its selection from East Asia the central part of its program. That faded away, especially when Richard Moore got the BIFF Artistic Director gig a few years ago. He decided to downplay the Asian component. 

But the region’s cinema, broadly defined, has come back this year with a terrific selection of films selected in conjunction with, and concurrent to, Queensland’s annual Asia Pacific Screen Awards, about which more later. 

Night of Silence

The problem for the cinephile in dealing with the national film events is that attendance basically involves near-complete speculation. Turning up at the ticket box and putting your money down for a film selected devoid of any critical support or other background is fraught with the risk of major disappointment. A couple of the national selections in particular have become known to punters for selections that occupy that narrow range from the bland to the terminally boring. Mainstream and prestige pictures dominate. Adventurous and provocative indy productions are studiously avoided. 

But, notwithstanding the program selections, the numbers attracted, can be up to 20,000 admissions Australia-wide for something as well-resourced as the annual Japanese Film Festival, or as small as several thousand for the half dozen mostly near masterpieces selected for the latest event on the scene, the Iranian Film Festival.

"no one should downplay the informal competition for attention that occurs"

As the events have evolved, and no one should downplay the informal competition for attention that occurs among them, the resources devoted to them have become grander. Frequently the venues are now major city multiplexes or the prestige art houses, although the evolving model for most of these national events has these additional features which act as deterrents against broader acceptance:

* large amounts of sponsorship support is required from either the home country or its diaspora and such sponsorship prefers big budget showcases and well-known names from the home country;

* tickets are generally - though not exclusively - priced beyond the usual admission price of a movie and little or nothing is offered by way of concessions; and 

• projection standards are variable especially where it comes to screening anything that has a retrospective or classic element to it. Films shot in academy ratio are almost invariably screened widescreen thus causing projectionists to routinely eliminate heads and shoulders of characters on the screen.

(I’m not sure at what point in time the festivals, any festival, got to that tipping point when they decided that their fare warranted a higher price than that paid by the common moviegoer. Since it has occurred, it has led, especially for extremely well-attended events like the annual French and Italian festivals, nowadays in a league of their own, to generate massive ticket sales and huge returns to distributors. These events generate box office millions around the country. 

Popular individual films may be screened anything up to fifty times across a dozen cities and gross a couple of hundred thousand dollars each. The distributor’s return stands in very well, much better in fact, than for what used to be achieved via a ‘regular’ commercial release. The advertising costs especially associated with such a release are effectively eliminated or borne by the sponsors and national film bodies back in the home country. But I digress.).

"engaging with Asia in an effective and hopefully lasting way,"

Beside all this unco-ordinated and somewhat spotty activity, one venture has attempted to go about engaging with Asia in an effective and hopefully lasting way. Established more than half a decade ago as an initiative, once again driven by Des Power, by the Queensland Government, the Asia Pacific Screen Awards have now got to the stage of being probably the biggest and most prestigious film event in Australia. They have cost the state Government a bucket full of money but they have hit the button right across a very broadly defined Asia-Pacific region. 

This was especially reinforced last year when Ashgar Fahradi’s A Separation won the top prize beating Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. It was the closing of a circle. A Separation only got finished after APSA itself awarded Fahradi the funds to get the film completed in time for the Berlin Film Festival where it took out the Golden Bear and started it on a stellar path that also lead ultimately to the Foreign Language Oscar. 

Those production investment funds can now be accessed by several hundred film-makers from the region. Script assessment and production potential are as rigorously assessed as possible and the names of people, beyond Fahradi, who have been awarded funds include such highly regarded names as Peng Tao and Sergei Dvortzevoy. 

Notwithstanding this and notwithstanding APSA’s submission to the White Paper draftees seeking broader Government support, there’s nothing to suggest, at least in the Asian White Paper that the Federal Government is enamoured of or enthusiastic about APSA and its competition focussing on Asia and the Pacific or that it might be financially supported more broadly by the citizenry of the Federation. 

"keep up its deepening profile in the region"

So, it seems that APSA’s virtues will need to enjoy continued near total support from Queensland to keep going and keep up its deepening profile in the region. This year’s Award Ceremony was held on Friday, November 23 in Brisbane. Composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto performed and accepted a special award.

The best film of the year were selected from Khers (Bear, Islamic Republic of Iran), Tepenin Ardi (Beyond the Hill, Turkey, Greece), Orda (The Horde, Russian Federation), Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng (Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, Republic of Korea) and Wu Xia (Hong Kong (PRC), People’s Republic of China).It’s an impressive list and Jan Chapman’s Jury had to make some tough decisions in this as well as other categories; 34 films from 18 Asia Pacific countries and areas have been nominated for the various sections from an unprecedented total of 264 films entered in this year’s competition. 

* Geoff Gardner is a former director of the Melbourne Film Festival and currently a member of the APSA Feature Film Shortlisting Panel.

Published November 29, 2012

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Beyond The Hill – Best Film, Asia Pacific Screen Awards 2012

APSA 2012 winners

In My Mothers’ Arms – first Iraqi film to win an APSA; Best Documentary

Gangs of Waseypur

Entries for the Fund closed on November 23, 2012 with a record total of 82 feature-length projects submitted from 67 of the region’s filmmakers, representing 22 countries. Four projects will each be awarded MPA APSA development grants of US$25,000 bringing the total investment over three years to US$300,000. Established in 2010, the fund is intended to stimulate film production in the Asia Pacific. The MPA APSA Film Fund is exclusive to APSA Academy members.

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