SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 1997 / CRITICAL VOICES
HUNTER CORDAIY comments on the Australian content of the 44th Sydney Film Festival, which closed June 20, 1997.
The 44th Sydney Film Festival was an important opportunity to
showcase a number of new Australian films in respected
international company. Whilst the Sydney Film Festival is not
strictly a 'market' it does have a role in securing distribution
deals for films before the subsequent Melbourne and Brisbane
The Festival can also be a first critical outing for films
slated for release in the next few months and good notices from
the Sydney Festival are used as garlands by local distribution
companies to attract audiences.
Sydney Film Festival audiences are extremely patriotic and it
is often difficult for critics to swim against this tide without
being accused of some form of national betrayal. Whilst this is a
sign of an immature critical environment it is also true that the
Festival atmosphere - grand art deco theatre, 2000 passionate
film goers per session paying dearly for a seat - can encourage
support for a film which later, in the clearer air of the
distribution circuit, fails to live up to the first rush of
support it might have enjoyed.
This last sentiment might well apply to the opening night
film, Doing Time For Patsy Cline (Dir Chris Kennedy) and starring
Matt Day as Ralph, Richard Roxburgh as Boyd and Miranda Otto as
his companion, Patsy. This is a road film that despite a
promising beginning, heads straight for jail in a small country
town and stays there, frustrating the ambitions of Ralph who is
headed for Nashville to launch his Country & Western career.
The comic elements of the film hinge around the naive country
boy enmeshed in the life and possible crimes of two sophisticated
city slickers driving across country. The romantic possibilities
between Patsy and Ralph are entirely thwarted by the script and
little use is made of the country and western festival supposedly
taking place a few yards from the cell in which Ralph eventually
Kiss or Kill (Dir. Bill Bennet) is the savage side of genre
film-making that Patsy Cline did not dare to explore. With the
same actor Matt day in the central role, plus Frances O'Conner,
Bennet's film teases its audience in a mischievous often vicious
way, especially in the opening sequences which have sudden
oblique cuts pushing the story forward in the style of early
But the film quickly falls into a genre mould of two
(attractive) criminals on the run across wide open country with
plodding slightly comical cops in pursuit. There is, of course, a
macguffin - in this case a videotape of a famous sporting
personality in bed with a young boy, but this plot device is of
little interest compared to the bigger story of identifying which
of the central characters, Nikki and Al, is actually a
sleep-walking killer. Nikki and Al live in the shadow of Bonnie
and Clyde, trying to stick to small time crimes but are
increasingly found with corpses in their tracks. The reference to
Beatty and Dunaway is also carried through in the sexual tension
between them, which is only fully realised near the end of the
film when Nikki is handcuffed.
Kiss or Kill has a visual style which is speedy, mirroring the
inner tension of the central characters. Bennet uses the outback
landscape well, and the effect of jump cuts and sudden changes of
perspective gives a manic sense to even the dullest small town
service station or motel. If it wasn't for the presence of two
established Australian actors in supporting roles - Barry Otto
and Max Cullen - one could be forgiven for thinking that this was
an American thriller made for television. And that suggestion
might be a fair indication of where some of the brightest
Australian talent might be heading.
By contrast, the Australian record in documentary fikm-making
is exemplary and the Sydney Film Festival has always been a
reliable platform for this important part of the local industry.
Two films - Maverick on a Mobile (Dir Graham chase) and Exile in
Sarajevo (Dir. Tahir Combis and Alma Sahbaz) make the point that
documentary is truly the courageous side of the industry and no
topic is too gruesome or politically sensitive to be avoided.
Graham Chase's film follows west Australian MP Graham Campbell
in the two weeks running up to the last federal election. A
perfect subject for a documentary, Graham Campbell is best
described as a narrow-minded vulgar racist who happens to have
the largest constituency in Federal politics (in terms of land
area...six times the size of Japan) and the highest proportion of
aboriginal voters of any electorate.
Maverick on a Mobile is a timely reflection on a significant
moment of political change in Australia, when issues which it was
assumed were accepted if not settled (multi-culturalism, our
future in the Asia-pacific region, government expenditure
priorities) were literally dismantled overnight.
The comic relief from the implications of this political
reversal for Australia are provided by Mr Campbell who, like all
small personalities thrust into the tungsten glow of media
attention, doesn't realise when he is showing himself up as the
rural buffoon he really is. For example his home base of
Kalgoorlie has a sign in the main street which reads 'at this
spot in 1897 absolutely nothing of any significance happened'
and Mr Campbell holds court with pronouncements on progressive
issues such as immigration and multi-culturealism while drinking
in Skimpies Bar, so named because the barmaids wear little else
but G-strings. To pronounce on national political issues with any
sense of being informed from such a Jurassic environment is
Mr Campbell was dismissed by the Labour Party because of his
unacceptable political opinions on these contentious issues prior
to the election, and subsequently won the seat as an independent
as part of the political tide turning Australia back at least 100
Maverick on a Mobile, along with last year's documentary Rats
in the Ranks, will take its place as an important if very
depressing record of the inadequacies and dangers of the current
Exile in Sarajevo is a report from the battlefield " at
the end of the century in the heart of Europe". If ever
there was the realisation of the 'wasteland' wrought by war and
barbarous politics its the setting for this documentary, made
more powerful for being shot on video.
The co-director and narrator, Tahir Cambis, take the audience
on a journey which is often harrowing -there are rivers of blood
in the streets - and yet the film never loses sight of the fact
that the true story is about the lives of others who live in
Sarajevo rather than visiting film-makers.
Amidst the shelled carcasses of city buildings there is some
semblance of family life, occasionally a dance competition or
aspiring fashion models posing. What these images reveal is the
spirit of a people under siege and how easily the 'story' can
switch from the political panorama to the intensely personal.
Exile from Sarajevo is a film from the heart and reflects the
depth of commitment to quality film-making that has supported the
growth of the local industry for many years.