Silver screenings from Down Under

Artistic director Ros Tatarka was faced with a tough choice when picking the movies for this year’s Australian Film Festival thanks to a bumper crop.

My Year Without Sex 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
My Year Without Sex 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
While our own film industry has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, our Australian counterparts have also been making hay while the success shines on them.
Every year around this time, we are offered a tantalizing concentrated taste of what the movie industry Down Under has to offer the world at the annual Australian Film Festival. The event, now in its seventh year and sponsored by AICE (Australian Israel Cultural Exchange), is extending its geographic hinterland to this country.
In 2004 you had to make your way to the cinematheques of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa to catch the Australian movies. But this year, Galilean moviegoers will find it easier to get a closer look at Aussie contributions to the silver screen, as the festival is hosted at the Nazareth Cinematheque (June 24-26), as well as in Jerusalem (June 20-26), Haifa (July 1-6) and Tel Aviv (July 7-10).
The program of six feature films, two documentaries and two shorts was devised by Melbourne-based artistic director Ros Tatarka, an award-winning film and TV producer with stints on a string of highly successful television series, such as Prisoner, Neighbours and A Country Practice. She also spent five years as head of the business unit responsible for stimulating and supporting growth and excellence in the screen industry in the state of Victoria.
Tatarka, the daughter of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, says her country’s film industry has added value to offer the rest of the world, in addition to megastars such as Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
“What we have to offer is our own unique view of the world. Our stories deal with universal themes, but we tell them in our own distinctive voice.”
The artistic director has visited Israel several times over the years and has relatives here. She also keeps tabs on cinematic developments here. Tatarka believes her compatriots could learn a thing or two from our endeavors, financial constraints notwithstanding.
“I try to keep up to date with the latest Israeli releases. The Israeli film industry has had great success with its feature films both at home and internationally. As a result of that success, we in Australia have looked closely at the Israeli approach to low-budget filmmaking.”
Naturally, success comes with a price, and the progress made by the Australian film industry in recent years has only served to make Tatarka’s film festival job more complicated.
“It was a difficult choice!” she says. “2009 was a spectacular year for Australian film. A record 50 films were released in 2009 – the highest number of films in over 25 years.”
That made presenting something akin to a representative lineup here that much more challenging. “I wanted to offer a diverse program of Australian contemporary cinema, and I believe this years’ program does exactly that,” she says. “We have films from renowned filmmakers including Scott Hicks, Robert Connolly [who will be a guest at the festival] and Sarah Watt, as well as first-time feature directors including Warwick Thornton, Rachel Ward and Glendyn Ivan. There is an impressive array of genres on offer, from the dynamic political thriller Balibo to the confronting yet uplifting drama Samson & Delilah to the funny and heartwarming comedy My Year without Sex.”
Success notwithstanding, Tatarka says that Australian cinema has its own unique mountains to climb too, partly due to classification and also because of the seeming linguistic common denominator with the world’s movie superpower. “Australian films are often categorized as ‘art house,’ and on the world stage we have to compete not only against independent cinema from the US and the UK but also against European art house cinema. Marketing is a major issue and one that is stimulating considerable debate in this country. As an English-speaking country, the difficulty is compounded in our own home territory, where we struggle to compete against the box office might of the major US studios. If you look around the world, local films in non-English speaking territories generally derive a much greater share of the local box office.”
Another common denominator between Australian and American cinema is the wide open spaces and spectacular landscapes they have at their cinematographic disposal. Australia certainly makes the most of that in many a movie as will be seen in some of the items in next week’s festival. “Australia is sometimes seen as being at the ‘end of the world,’ and that undoubtedly holds a certain fascination. The Australian landscape features predominantly in many Australian films, often as a significant ‘character’ or presence. And it has a genuine mystique that captivates audiences,” she says.
The festival program also includes a couple of top-notch documentaries. Glass – A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts offers a fascinating look at the septuagenarian American composer’s colorful life, while The Choir is an inspiring account of how music affected the lives of a bunch of inmates at one of South Africa’s toughest prisons. With the soccer World Cup currently in progress, even with the strong message of hope that shines through, the latter offers a glimpse of life in South Africa that, perhaps, the authorities there would prefer to keep under wraps until after the tournament.
Tatarka says Australia is particularly good at making high-quality documentaries. “We produce some excellent documentaries. Most of them are for television, but the last five years have seen a renaissance in feature documentaries. We have two excellent feature documentaries in this year’s festival.” Making good documentaries means taking an unbiased view of situations and issues and conveying the story professionally.
According to Tatarka, Australian filmmakers tend to go for broke and are not afraid to tackle painful, and potentially damaging, areas too. “Take a look at two of the feature films screening at this year’s festival – Balibo and Samson & Delilah. Balibo deals with the political cover-up of the murder of five Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975. It depicts a highly controversial story and denounces the Australian government of the day for being complicit in the men’s deaths. Samson and Delilah is a love story set in a small Aboriginal community outside Alice Springs. It unsparingly depicts the tragedy of life for Aboriginal teenagers in remote communities – life plagued by drugs and racial discrimination.  Australian cinema does not shy away from exploring themes of politics and race. There will always be subjects that are considered taboo, but undoubtedly there will always be filmmakers wanting to cross the boundaries.”
Tatarka is also a firm believer in the power of cinema to conveymessages and change popularly held views of some issue or even of anentire country. In that regard, she sees the AICE festival and thecorresponding Israeli film festival in Australia as valuableinformational vehicles.
 “Through the film festivals, we hope to stimulate interest, debate,awareness and critical discourse about our culture and screen industryand ultimately to deepen the ties and understanding between our twocountries,” she says.
Still, one should not go overboard about the potential of theAustralian or Israeli film industries to leave their mark on the world.It is a little-known fact that Australia produced the world’s firstfull-length feature film, The Story of The KellyGang in 1906 and thrived during the silent era. But even withthat temporal head start, the United States and, to a lesser degree,the British film industries gradually put a stranglehold on theAustralian scene to the extent that Australian features were oftenexcluded from movie theaters. 
“It’s important to note that Australia’s population is relatively small– only 22 million people,” says Tatarka. “Our film output and ourbudgets are minuscule in comparison to the US.”
The same, of course, can be said about our own film industry. But alltold, both Israel and Australia have a lot of movie endeavor to shoutabout.
For more information about the AICE Australian Film Festival: