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The screenings of Australian Rules at the Sundance film festival in 2002 proved the film – with its powerful racial and domestic violence issues - not only plays well to an audience, but that it’s got a punch, producer Mark Lazarus and director Paul Goldman (pic) tell Andrew L. Urban.

From the film’s first screening at Sundance 2002, producer Mark Lazarus knew Australian Rules would work with both adult and teen audiences. “We knew it worked after the first joke and everyone got it,” he says. The five sold out (and emotion-charged) screenings at Sundance preceded equally successful Adelaide Festival screenings. “Some thought we’d made a Ken Loach-style film,” says Lazarus, “but it plays wider than that.”

Even so, internationally, the film will be distributed as “arthouse, for lack of a better term,” says Lazarus. “I can see it at places like the Lincoln Centre or the Angelica in New York, for example.” Australian distribution is through Palace Films, one of the crucial early investors, the list of which includes Italy’s Istituto Luce, the Australian Film Finance Corp, Showtime, the South Australian Film Corp, Adelaide Festival of Arts and SBS Independent. International sales are through Beyond Films. 

Lazarus credits Palace Films managing director Antonio Zeccola for “one of the most crucial bits of advice . . . to give our central character some balls. It encouraged us to recut the second half of the film.”

"impressive for its economy and power"

Australian Rules is impressive for its economy and power in handling a complex handful of issues and themes. Paul Goldman’s debut feature is based on a novel that is partly based on a true story, but without being a dramatised doco. Primarily a rites of passage story about Blacky, superbly played by a young and vulnerable Nathan Phillips in his feature debut, Australian Rules is also a hard hitting social document about Australia today. The setting is strictly provincial, but the subject is painfully universal.

Prospect Bay is a poor fishing village in South Australia, where Gary ‘Blacky’ Black (Nathan Phillips) is an unremarkable 16 year old in a battling family of four siblings. He is also part of the local Australian Rules football team – albeit not its star player. His best friends are the edgy and very white Pickles (Tom Budge) and Dumby Red (Luke Carroll), a charismatic Aboriginal kid with a lovely sister, Clarence (Lisa Flanagan), whose affections Blacky slowly earns. The racially divided town comes together on the football field, since the Aboriginal players make up half the team. Blacky’s mum (Celia Ireland) offers some winning tips, but success at footy, however hard won, does not equate to success at home, as Blacky’s racist, abusive father, Bob (Simon Westaway), demonstrates in a moment of drunken violence that impacts on the whole community – but most of all on Blacky.

“I’ve always loved rites of passage stories,” says Goldman, “and some of my early favourites from Australian cinema are The Last Picture Show and The Year My Voice Broke.” But Goldman is also connected to the story via his friendship with author Phillip Gwynne. “He’s a close friend and I first read the unpublished manuscript of his novel, which is largely autobiographical. I saw the socio-political background, plus the issues of masculinity and domestic violence that it touches on. And I really wanted to make a film that is very culturally specific – and to say something as a filmmaker.”

"juxtapositioning of comedy and tragedy"

The film’s juxtapositioning of comedy and tragedy, and its slightly unusual dynamic structure (the Grand Final football game is played in the middle of the film, not at the end) make it interesting for audiences, and as Goldman says, the film leaves issues open ended for discussion. “Catharsis can leave you feeling drained…I wanted to keep open the debate.” The debate he refers to is about racism, a subject central to just about every corner of the world today, in one form or another. But Goldman has no illusions about changing the world. “The film raises the issue but I don’t believe it can make a profound difference. But a film can engage a community and politicise a group of people. A documentary more so than drama, I think.”

Goldman is already in pre-production on his next project, The Night We Called It A Day, again involved with Lazarus, who is credited as script editor on the film. In fact, after tracking it for almost five years, he brought the project in to Ocean Pictures, where it’s produced by Emil Sherman with the UK’s Nik Powell. And this time, the budget is bigger and the cast higher profile. (Lazarus has since left Ocean Pictures.)

The Night We Called It A Day is based on Frank Sinatra’s controversial 1974 tour of Australia, when after calling journalists hookers, Sinatra was besieged by a Union blockade. The comedy drama, told from the point of view of the young Australian promoter (yet to be cast) will star Dennis Hopper as Sinatra, Melanie Griffith as his then wife Barbara Marx, and Portia de Rossi as the insulted journalist. Shooting is planned for a September 2002 start.

Published August 29, 2002

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