Dateline: Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane, August 1997:
Brassed Off, Gridlock’d, The Full Monty, Albino Alligator,
The Van, Libertarias and Ulysses’ Gaze are just some of the
non-Australian films which were on the programs of either the
Sydney, Melbourne and/or Brisbane film festivals over the recent
weeks, all with a commercial release pending or already in train.
Adrian Martin, film critic at The Age in Melbourne, found it
"disconcerting to see so many films this year supplied by
local distributors … also slated for imminent release."
Why? What’s the problem?
Like Martin, there are those who believe that a film festival
- especially if non competitive - should be a platform for films
that audiences will NOT be able to see in general release. Or as Martin puts it in respect of Melbourne, "the festival lacked
a really challenging cutting edge and lost sight of its
evangelistic, educational function." A festival, the
argument goes, has no raison d’être if all it does is
preview films that will be coming out, like some advance
And the reason for that is that any film that has commercial
potential is somehow ‘safer’ (Duller? Takes less risks?
Predictable?) than the films we want to see in a festival.
Festivals are for those patrons willing to take bigger risks with
their admission money and their available time, in pursuit of
their inherent interest in cinema, rather than merely going to
movies for odd hours of entertainment.
As Martin and others recognise, the festivals do indeed also
program films that will never be seen again. The question is why
program the others, except perhaps Australian films, which are
rightly launched and introduced at such festivals. (As a special
benefit to subscribers, so they see local works first.)
One answer might be found in the popularisation of a festival,
which in Melbourne’s case is evident, with a 20 % rise in
attendance. Critics of this policy say that it is precisely this
factor which is turning festivals into preview screenings.
Popularity is the domain of mainstream commercial films, not of
But arthouse films, which is a generalised description for
festival fare, now enjoy a growing popularity. The term refers to
the independent cinemas that show these less populist, more
‘artistic’ films, often made for little money but with
lots of creative passion and experimentation, with substantive
themes and subject matter, and often with an edge.
Questions also arise about the fewer number of short films
that Melbourne showed this year; about the drive to commercialise
festivals with populist - albeit important and interesting -
‘attractions’ like the Sergio Leone retrospective and
the Kevin Spacey presentations. This, some say, is driven in the
case of Melbourne, by its move to the city and the need to make
it something more than a film culture event - more grandiose,
more politically effective, more financially sparkling.
There are no clear, irrefutable positions on these issues,
because, after all, what’s wrong with getting a wider
audience for quality films. (In this context, you can read
‘quality’ for films that do not rely on superficial
ingredients to be appealing.) What’s wrong with mixing a
program to allow for some cutting edge work, like the confronting
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, as well as some with more
accessible elements, such as Brassed Off or Albino Alligator?
At least this gives those independent films an extra avenue
for wider recognition, in what is an unequal fight for market
placement alongside the major studio movies like Con Air,
Conspiracy Theory, and Contact.
But this rationale sits at odds with the demand that festivals
be the showcase for the more radical works of filmmakers, a place
where the films are those that are made to test creative, not
One thing is sure: the debate needs to be rational and
positive, thoughtful and genuine. Unless there is a clarification
by consensus of the criteria for what sort of festival each city
wants, nobody will be satisfied.
Me? I go for sharp, cutting edge, provocative cinema as the
natural fare for festivals. The question is, how much am I
prepared to pay for that?
BUT ALSO . . . David Edwards, our Brisbane correspondent, adds
his own note: "Having just attended the Brisbane Fest, I can
say that, in my view, the programming in the 1997 event was
superior to previous years. There were a larger number of
challenging films, particularly from Asia, which will probably
never see a release in this country. The fact that these films
are being shown here is gaining BIFF a reputation as an
increasingly important showcase of Asia-Pacific film. This has
been reinforced by having a number of Asian directors visit the
Fest in recent years.
Of course, BIFF also has a responsibility to the people of
Brisbane to show more commercial films which have, for some
bizarre reason known only to distribution companies, by-passed
Brisbane. Hence, the showing of films like Breaking the Waves,
Mother Night and Daytrippers."