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TOO FEW TRUE STORIES

Wretched lives in suburban limbo, coming of age in suburban limbo, doing drugs in suburban limbo …. our cinematic storytellers need to get out more and find a wider range of engaging and appealing stories. And they are out there waiting to be told, vibrant with truth, primed with drama, sprinkled with humour, argues Andrew L. Urban.

Why are Australian filmmakers so reluctant to tell the truth? OK, I’m being a bit cute here; what I really mean is why don’t Australian filmmakers make more movies inspired by / based on / adapted from real life. Biographies, for example, offer a wealth of fantastic material. Real lives are dramatic, comedic, farcical, moving and gripping.

The only recent Australian biographies are Romulus My Father (dir. Richard Roxburgh, 2007); Hunt Angels (dir. Alec Morgan 2006), which is a hybrid docudrama; and Unfolding Florence (dir. Gillian Armstrong, 2006). Before that, you have to go back to Swimming Upstream, based on swimmer Anthony Fingleton’s autobiographical novel, and then to 2000 for Chopper, and for Maurice Murphy’s wonderful film about his growing up during the war years, 15 Amore. And notably, there was Shine – back in 1996. These are all excellent films of lasting value; many have done well commercially, and all of them have been critical successes.

That’s just seven Australian biopics in 12 years, of which two are closer to documentary than drama. Considering the colourful characters that inhabit Australian writing, rock and roll and sport – not to mention media, business, performing arts, politics and pubs – this genre seems to be under-explored. Biographies offer a pre-existing set of characters, context and the bite of truth. And it isn’t just the great achievers who are interesting – see Chopper.

"a rich source of storytelling, and not just biography"

The untold stories of people under the media radar who also offer deep reservoirs of gripping human drama and/or comedy. As for the high profile subjects, they range from heart or eye surgeons who change medical history to fallible entrepreneurs and movers in politics. The stories can be riveting – so much so that their appeal extends well beyond Australia. It’s a rich source of storytelling, and not just biography. Open any newspaper at any page and you’re bound the find the seed for a great movie – fact based or at least fact inspired.

A couple of examples: James Gray’s film, We Own the Night (Aust release Feb 28, 2008), was inspired by a newspaper photo of police officers in a hug at a funeral. Charlie Wilson’s War (dir. Mike Nichols, 2007, Aust release Jan. 24, 2008) is based on the true story of how playboy congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a renegade CIA agent, Gust Avrokotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a beautiful, wealthy Houston socialite, Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), joined forces to lead the largest and most successful covert operation in history. They wanted to provide essential weapons to help the Mujahideen in Afghanistan beat back the Soviet Army. Their efforts contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, with consequences that reverberate throughout the world today.

An article about a Russian orphan boy from a children’s home who decided to find his own mother and taught himself to read and write, before running away from the children’s home became the basis for multi-award winning, Oscar nominated Russian film, The Italian (dir. Andrei Kravchuk, 2006; Aust. Release April 25, 2007.)

As for biographies, you can make a list of your top subjects, famous or not. To start a long list of possible Australian subjects, I’d say Kerry Packer’s life would make a terrific movie … working title, Goanna.

It’s with a sinking heart that I go to the previews of yet another coming of age movie, or a movie about drugs ruining a teenager’s life or an attempt at comedy with plastic characters doing silicon things.

Published: May 1, 2008

 

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