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A Film Resurgence From Down Under

Stronger government funding, a recent blockbuster, and a flair for originality have overcome the Australian movie industry's slump

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 1993


LAST year, a low-budget Australian film that had originally been a student project was picked to go to the Cannes Film Festival. The next day, distributors from all over the world were lined up to buy it.

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"Strictly Ballroom," a story about the triumph of individuality over hidebound tradition in the world of ballroom dance, drove the Cannes, France, audience to cheers and went on to become a commercial success.

Many in the film industry here are hoping the same thing will happen again this year. Last month, the Australian Film Commission announced that an unprecedented number of Aussie films have been chosen to take part in the 46th Cannes Film Festival, which begins May 13. Five were picked this round, three more than the previous record.

Other Australian films, while not going to Cannes, are making their mark around the world. Yahoo Serious's "Reckless Kelly" is doing well at the box office here and will get mainstream release overseas. And the wildly ambitious "Map of the Human Heart" (reviewed in the April 19 Monitor), which was filmed on several continents and features an international cast, has just been released in the United States to generally favorable reviews.

Without question, the film industry in this nation of only 17 million people is earning international recognition again after a slump of several years in the late 1980s.

In the '70s and early '80s, government funding and generous tax incentives helped produce such mainstream hits as "My Brilliant Career," "Man from Snowy River," "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," and the commercial blockbuster, "Crocodile Dundee."

But such directors as Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, and Dr. George Miller left the country after success with those films brought them lucrative offers from Hollywood.

Moreover, the plentiful government funds resulted in a deluge of mediocre films. In the '80s, the government began to gradually reduce the tax incentives, and in 1988 created a new government body, the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), through which it funds films. From a peak of 42 films in 1987-88, the average number of films produced annually through government funding over the last four years has been 25.

The financial picture has stabilized since the late '80s. Last year the FFC was allocated $60.9 million and helped fund 50 films, TV movies, and documentaries. Filmmakers are required to raise some funds themselves. The industry's impulse today is to produce fewer, higher-quality films, and promote them better.

Each state has its own office that funds films. And a different government body, the Australian Film Commission, provides new and young filmmakers with enough money to get them through the development phase.

A whole new generation of directors is coming of age, with a different set of concerns than those of the earlier directors. Many are doing contemporary urban dramas that are influenced by 20 years of feminism and an increasingly multicultural society.