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

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.

"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.

Four out of the five films chosen for Cannes were directed by women, some of whom link their success to government funding of the industry. "The level of government support has enabled us to develop without the studio system that exists in America," said Laurie McInnes, director of "Broken Highway." "I know a lot of women directors who have gone to America and worked there who say it would have been a lot harder there, because the studios are male-run."

Jenifer Hooks, executive director of Film Victoria, the state's film-funding body, agrees that Australian film is resurgent. "It's a combination of the financing system continuing - you need to have known, accessible financing to work towards - and there's a greater sense of confidence. Success [of `Ballroom' and `Romper Stomper'] is something that buoys everybody."

Phillip Adams, former chairman of the Australian Film Commission, columnist, and public-radio show host, says: "What's happened in Australian films is that there's been a celebration after having come out of losing our own culture. We never heard our own accent in films until the '70s films that reclaimed history. These preoccupations have passed.

"The kids making films now don't care about big issues of national identity. They're approaching things with style, quirkiness. Many deal with a profusion of ethnic views."

Tracey Moffatt, director of "Bedevil," says, "I wanted to put down on celluloid some ghost stories I grew up hearing from my extended Aboriginal and Irish-Australian families ... stories that had sent shivers up my spine as a child and which, over the years, had become myths.

Ms. Moffatt and the other four directors are the first generation to have come of age in a multicultural Australia. Some of them look at the cultural clashes between the homogeneous Anglo-Celtic culture and the newcomers.

Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom" is a happy, campy satire at one slice of that society that resists a dancer doing Latin steps with a woman in a flame-colored dress. Geoffrey Wright's "Romper Stomper," on the other hand, is a gritty look at suburban alienation and skinhead violence toward Asian immigrants.

Despite plot differences, the two films have common origins. "What unifies such disparate films as `Ballroom' and `Romper' is that they're writer driven or creative driven," she points out. "They're generated by a writer's perception of their own life and times. The '70s films were producer-driven: `Hey, what can we make next?' "

And Australians are taking pride in the fact that filmmakers standing by their own original vision are being taken seriously in the international film world. It puts Australia on the map.

"That's the only reason you have a society committed to spending taxpayer dollars on films," Hooks says. "The only reason is to interpret our own life and times to ourselves. If that happens to strike a chord elsewhere, fine. It's our tiny corner of interpretation of our lives that's outside of American cultural hegemony."

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