And The Winner Is… The AFI “Best Film” Project

Over the coming months, David Ashton – The Outland Institute’s Northcote correspondent – will be undertaking a grueling and potentially dangerous task: he’ll be watching all the Australian Film Institute‘s “Best Film” winners from 1976 onwards (prior to 1976 documentaries and non-features were eligible for the main prize, but David‘s going for the hard stuff). Here he sets the scene for what is to come…

Lately the word on everyone’s lips is Ozploitation. Thanks to a spiffy new documentary  – and endorsement from Quentin Tarantino – everyone and their blog is talking about Australian movies. The violence, the nudity, the tax breaks and the film-makers who dared to exploit them. But there’s another type of Australian film-making that’s been going on behind the scenes, running parallel and underground to the films we know. Bold, innovative film-makers who dare to make films where the sex and violence is done tastefully. Film-makers who recklessly ignore public opinion in favour of critical plaudits. For these people, “hauntingly beautiful” isn’t just a lazy critic’s cliche – it’s a way of life. Some of these directors are so determined to see their films made they even write their own scripts.

I call this style of movie artsploitation. This freshly-minted genre includes such overlooked classics as Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke and Shine. Films acclaimed in their day, but now only dimly remembered by an industry which prefers to canonise films like Patrick, Turkey Shoot, and that one where Sigrid Thornton gets stalked by a Mr Whippy van.

Artsploitation might not have Quentin Tarantino to champion it, but it does have the Australian Film Institute. Each year the AFI celebrates the films it considers the finest made in Australia – no matter how poorly they’ve done at the box office. In order to shed new light on the whole artsploitation genre I’m going to watch and review all the winners of the AFI “Best Film” award since it was first designated to be specifically for Australian features in 1976 (can you guess the film?)

Don’t worry – I’ve come here to praise the Australian film industry, not bury it – and a quick look at the list of AFI winners reveals that they’re mostly quite good. This (hopefully) weekly series of film reviews will be a year-by-year look at the recent Australian film industry. Before we start that, however, let’s take a look at the early years of the Australian film industry.

The Australian film industry was off to a good start in the silent era. For a while Australia had one of the largest film industries in the world – 150 feature films were produced here between 1906 and 1928. Even in those days – when Australia still saw itself as an outpost of the British Empire – the most popular subject was a uniquely Australian one, the bushranger. While there’s dispute over whether George Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) really is the world’s first feature-length film, there’s no doubt that it was wildly successful. The film toured the country for nine years and spawned a wave of bushranger movies such as Robbery Under Arms (1907) and Captain Midnight (1911). Even outside the bushranger genre it seemed that what audiences wanted to see was Australian life (or at least an idealised version of the myths of Australian identity) with films such as The Drover’s Sweetheart, Mates of the Murrumbidgee (both 1911) and The Sentimental Bloke (1919).

The bushranger genre was to suffer a fatal blow in 1912, however, when the Australian government – worried about the romanticising of these anti-authority figures – banned the bushranger film. A bigger blow came in the 1920s when monopolies controlling the distribution and exhibition of films colluded with US distributors to squeeze out local productions in favour of imported films. Despite a royal commission in 1928, Australian cinemas would continue to be dominated by foreign – mostly American – films.

The one ray of light in the period that followed was Cinesound Productions Ltd. With guaranteed distribution by the Greater Union cinemas (with whom they were strongly affiliated), they continued to produce Australian features including the popular Dad & Dave films and On Our Selection (1932). They ceased production of features during World War II (although their 1942 documentary Kokoda Front Line won Australia it’s first Academy Award) and after the war the British Rank Organization bought a controlling interest in Greater Union. Once again the local productions were squeezed out in favour of imported fare.

The years that followed were bleak for Australian films – although the success of Jedda (1955, directed by Charles Chauvel, which was Australia’s first colour film and the first to focus on the experiences of indigenous Australians) and They’re a Weird Mob (1966, directed by English film-maker Michael Powell) showed that audiences were keen to see Australian stories on screen.

Things began to change in 1968 when Prime Minister John Gorton proposed the establishment of a national film school to foster the skills needed for a local industry. Opened in 1972, its first intake included Gillian Armstrong and Philip Noyce – both of whom have gone on to direct acclaimed features here and abroad – and it played an important role in training the generation of Australia’s film makers who were crucial to the Australian Film Renaissance. The other significant factor in this renaissance was the founding of government funding bodies. The South Australian Film Commission was first, and under the Whitlam government it was soon followed by national funding. There was also tax breaks on offer, with the 10BA Scheme offering a 150% tax deduction on money invested in Australian film.

Australian film-making soon fell into a pattern. The cinemas continued to be dominated by Hollywood and no one expected Australian films to turn a profit. Australian films were made either with government funding – projects chosen for their artistic merit, often looking to the arthouse cinema of Europe for inspiration; or as a tax write-off – usually attempting to emulate mainstream genres from the US. Curiously, the line between the two was sometimes blurred. Is The Cars That Ate Paris (1974, dir: Peter Weir) a violent horror film, or a dark social satire? Is Storm Boy (1977, dir: Henri Safran) a Disneyesque boy-and-his-pet story, or a hauntingly beautiful character study?

Sadly, as the tax breaks petered out, it became increasingly hard to get a film funded in Australia. The Ozploitation film died out and the Artsploitation films gradually became more conservative. Australian films have too often tended towards blandness, trying to carry enough artistic weight to justify themselves on grounds of cultural merit, while avoiding any risks which might alienate a potential audience. Nevertheless amongst the less exciting movies there have been undoubted commercial successes (hello, Crocodile Dundee) and there are filmmakers who are prepared to take stylistic risks (hello, Rolf DeHeer). And through it all Australia has shown strong support for our brightest and best talent lost its best talent to the allure of Hollywood.

This is far from an exhaustive history of films in Australia. I haven’t mentioned Chips Rafferty or Mad Max. I haven’t mentioned the importance of the Australian TV industry or the newsreels and government documentaries that were sometimes the only films being made in this country. Looking back over the history of Australian film it’s encouraging to see that even in the worst of times Australian film-makers have struggled – often successfully – to bring Australian stories and Australian culture to the screen. What’s more, it’s often the Australian-ess of Australian films – their Australianicity, if you will – which has been their appeal to local audiences. From Ned Kelly to Chips Rafferty, The Sentimental Bloke to Barry MacKenzie, Phar Lap to Crocodile Dundee, Australian audiences love to see Australian characters on screen.

So next week, the AFI award goes to… a period-set, beautifully-filmed coming-of-age story in a rural setting. Join me then, and we’ll also tell you the next two films in the series for those who wish to play along at home.

– David Ashton

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9 Responses to And The Winner Is… The AFI “Best Film” Project

  1. Glenn says:

    Well said! Nicely put. And was quite a rational argument, too, that we’ve always been swamped with American product, it just takes something special to really get noticed. Sometimes we have periods where a lot of our product gets noticed and earns nice box office and then there are times when not much seems to stick at all (ie; now) but these things run in cycles do they not?

  2. outlandinstitute says:

    I certainly hope that’s true, Glenn – I was looking at the nominees for this year’s AFI Awards and was startled by how… small it seemed. I felt there were no stand-out crowd-pleasers, no highly-acclaimed works, no “wow” factor. There’s a full list here:

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/entertainment/film/afi-nominees–compete-list/2008/10/29/1224956103870.html

    It’ll be interesting to see what themes David starts to see in these films. I’ve been watching a few and it seems the stories (and canvases) get smaller as the years go by.

  3. Dave AA says:

    I predict that the next AFI awards (2009) wil be dominated by Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Australia.

    Unless it turns out to completely suck of course.

    Looking back at the history of Australian cinema what strikes me is that audiences love Australian films and they love them best when they are outrageously Australian. The most successful films (The Adventures of Barry MacKenzie, Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle etc et al) tap into that, while films which attempt to water down or disguise the Australianess fail.

  4. Glenn says:

    Perhaps none of this year’s nominees will be the sort of take on the world as many of our classics have done, but I think “Three Blind Mice” (which wasn’t nominated for anything, shamefully) is an excellent and incredibly well-made movie, “Black Water” is a nifty lil horror flick, “The Black Balloon”, “The Jammed”, “The Square”, “September” (also not nominated for anything) and “Unfinished Sky” are strong solid flicks and titles like “The Tragedy of Hamlet”, “Bitter & Twisted” and “All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane”, whilst all problematic and flawed in different ways, showed a really nice development of Australian film. Of course there was plenty of trash – “Salvation”, “The Plex”, “The Tender Hook”, “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”, but you’ll get that every year in every country that produced more than five films a year, no?

    It hasn’t been a particularly memorable year for Aussie films (only “Three Blind Mice” and “Australia” -most likely- will get near my top ten) but it wasn’t as dire as, say, 2004, a year in which a girl whose most noteworthy appearance beforehand was appearing on a jeans commercial (Chloe Maxwell) got herself a Best Actress nomination for the terrible “Under the Rader” and, coincidentally, hasn’t made a single movie or tv guest appearance since.

  5. Did BLISS win in the 80s? I hope so, my all time fave (artsploitation?) oz film. Can wait to read Davids conclusions

  6. Janet says:

    Didn’t Three Blind Mice just win an award for Matthew Newton? Somewhere else in the world, not here of course.

    I quite liked September. My Dad and I were amongst the handful of people who actually watched it on the big screen. In fact, I’d like to see it again, as I was interested in the director’s use of Tom E Lewis and Steve Dodds as the uncles who enlighten Kelton Pell as to his rights.

  7. Dave AA says:

    “I call this style of movie artsploitation.”

    So does Variety, apparently. They’re quoted in the Melbourne International Film Festival guide using the term to describe the film BLOOD APPEARS.

  8. outlandinstitute says:

    Yes, I noticed that – damn Variety, ripping you off. Surely they could’ve come up with their own, indecipherable term – like “artsplo”, or something.

  9. Pinky says:

    Wow, I’ve been tracking down a lot of these same films, (alongside a lot of the also-rans) in recent years. I can barely tell you how delighted I am find this series/blog, as there are precious few sites on the interwebs giving serious thought to these films, which are, as you say “quite good” overall.

    My only disappointment is that you didn’t commence a few years earlier (although I understand your reasoning), as I’d be interested to read your thoughts on “Sunday Too Far Away” and especially the almost completely forgotten “Libido”. Actually, the latter especially must be one of the earliest, very conscious, attempts to develop this ‘artsploitation’ genre (never heard the term before, but it’s a good fit!) and Schepisi’s segment feels like a test-run for “The Devil’s Playground”.

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