Aussiewood reinvents itself
In push to create more international hits, Australia's film industry is reorganizing and offering hefty rebates for new productions.
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A number of Australian films have appealed to both domestic and international viewers by adding an Australian twist to different genres. "Mad Max" was a road movie set in apocalyptic Australia, "The Man from Snowy River" was a Wallaby Western, and "Crocodile Dundee" boomeranged from Aborigine country to America and back for a fresh take on the fish-out-of-water comedy. But those successes are a thing of the past.Skip to next paragraph
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"In a curious way, Australian cinema ... seemed to shy away from genre, as if it wasn't quite respectable enough," says Brian McFarlane, author of "The Oxford Guide to Australian Cinema." "We had a lot of films that seemed preoccupied with projecting the national life and taking on big issues."
In recent years, the industry has been dominated by small-scale, personal films dealing with subjects such as immigration, dysfunctional families, and coming-of-age rites. Unfortunately, those ubiquitous dramas often lack, well, drama.
Case in point, a 2007 film called "Noise" focuses on a passive policeman tasked with solving two sets of horrific murders. But the laconic character just sits in a van while people in a community vent their frustration at him. In the end, he doesn't even solve the case. Its star, Brendan Cowell, later noted that in American stories, the protagonists feel a sense of crisis if they don't get what they're after. "In Australia, if they don't get what they want, it's kind of all right. And that's the problem," Cowell said in a 2008 documentary about Australian cinema titled "Into the Shadows."
A few commentators attribute that lack of cinematic tension to a generalized cultural trait: Australians are – crikey! – averse to conflict.
"Australia is a society that coheres around the middle and it's all based around everyone trying to agree with each other," says Lynden Barber, former artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival and a professional film critic.
Another reason many Australian screenplays sometimes eschew a classic storytelling structure, he says, is that filmmakers want to distance themselves from seeming too Hollywood-like.
There are commercially inclined filmmakers in Aussiewood. But instead of trying to make the next "Crocodile Dundee," they're making low-grade thrillers about killer crocs. Michaela Boland, Australia's correspondent for "Variety," can't fathom why more filmmakers aren't making comedies, since Australians love to laugh. This year's sole hit – albeit a minor one – is "The Black Balloon," a Toni Collette drama that delighted audiences with its humor. (It has a limited US release Dec. 5.)
But most of the scripts aren't good enough to compete with international fare, says Screen Australia's Mr. Brady. There's widespread consensus that the industry most needs to invest more time in rigorous assessment of screenplays. Eric Bana, for one, has indicated that he'd make more films in his home country if he were offered better material. The actor returned to the Outback to film 2007's "Romulus, My Father."