Australia Returns To Prominence Under Offbeat Young Directors

New breed of filmmakers is less obsessed with history, more confident of identity

Fresh from his recent international success with ''The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,'' Australian director Stephan Elliott went off to Hollywood this year to make his first American film.

But movie mecca is not all it's cracked up to be, the 31-year-old filmmaker says. He walked out on directing ''The Best Man'' only two weeks into production because studio executives tried to ''harness me.''

Now, the director of ''Priscilla'' -- a cheeky comedy about three transvestites in the Australian outback -- is miffed because American movie giant Steven Spielberg is doing his own take on the theme that will be ''terribly politically correct, like a Walt Disney version of 'Priscilla.''' But protesting such poaching does little good, he insists.

''You don't argue with Mr. Spielberg,'' says the Australian whose film was celebrated at Cannes and won the Oscar for best costume design last month.

A new generation of young, innovative Australian filmmakers are trying to make their mark without totally abandoning home for Hollywood.

Breaking the mold of past Australian films and their obsession with history, the new breed of directors has brought controversy, modern themes, and a uniquely Australian perspective to cinema, won international acclaim at Cannes and other film festivals, and become top box-office successes at home.

In addition to ''The Adventures of Priscilla,'' other recent hits include: ''Muriel's Wedding,'' a satiric wedding fantasy of a lonely, romantically deluded young woman, by P.J. Hogan; Baz Luhrmann's ''Strictly Ballroom,'' the championship quest of an unconventional ballroom dancer; ''The Sum of Us,'' a family portrait of a widower and his gay son and their search for tolerance and understanding, directed by Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton; and ''Proof,'' a film about the manipulative power of a blind photographer, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. (Moorhouse has just finished directing ''How to Make an American Quilt'' for Steven Spielberg's production company.)

Like older predecessors now rooted in the United States, the young directors are following the lure of big money, studios, and Hollywood stardom. Still, buttressed by growing national and cultural confidence, they are also keeping links to the autonomy and artistic independence they enjoy at home, film critics say.

''The younger directors are a bit more wary of being absorbed by Hollywood,'' says Peter Thompson, a respected Australian film critic and director. ''They find themselves being courted by Hollywood. But their attitude is, 'We don't want to be taken over. We want to do our own films.'''

The successful new crop marks another cinematic renaissance in a country which made some of the world's first feature films at the turn of the century and built a thriving movie industry, only to be overwhelmed by British and American exports.

After years of struggle against foreign dominance, cinema got a new lease on life when government subsidies were introduced about 25 years ago. During the 1970s and early 1980s, a new generation of Australian directors captured international attention: Peter Weir with ''Picnic at Hanging Rock,'' ''Gallipoli,'' and Hollywood productions such as ''Witness'' and ''Dead Poet's Society''; Bruce Beresford who directed ''Breaker Morant'' and later ''Driving Miss Daisy''; Fred Schepisi, director of ''The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'' and ''A Cry in the Dark''; and Gillian Armstrong with ''My Brilliant Career'' and her recent release, ''Little Women.''

But their defections to Hollywood depleted Australia's film ranks. For much of the last decade, filmmaking stagnated as government tax incentives lured a flood of private investors long on making money and short on creativity and innovation, government officials concede.

''Because it was driven by investors wanting tax write-offs, there were a lot of limitations,'' says Judith Rich of the Australian Film Finance Corp., a government agency that has helped underwrite some of the country's recent successes but faces declining government resources.

The emergence of the new batch of young directors, many only in their early 30s and working with small budgets of US $2 million to $3 million, has been a creative and lucrative fillip to Australian cinema. While most films underwritten with government financing are lucky to earn back 50 percent of their budgets, ''Muriel's Wedding,'' ''Strictly Ballroom,'' and ''The Adventures of Priscilla'' outgrossed their costs and are among the country's most financially successful films.

The film successes also mirror a growing social confidence in Australia, those in the industry say. ''I believe both as a nation and as producers of cinema we are growing up,'' Jenny Sabine, head of the VCA School of Film and Television, wrote last year. ''The Australian cinema, and dare I say psyche, also seems more assured. We no longer need to immerse ourselves in romantic examinations of Australian history. We now tell our contemporary stories in a manner which is not self-consciously Australian.''

Still, the financial clout of American moviemaking continues to dominate here. Only about 8 percent of box-office receipts go to domestic films. Powerful American film-distribution companies are also taking a higher profile. ''A lot of American film distributors are flocking to Australia to get involved with these films at an early stage,'' says Ms. Rich of the film finance agency.

But directors and film-industry observers say that the recent string of hits proves there is an important niche for Australian films outside of competition with Hollywood.

''I want to make American films, but that doesn't mean I want to dump Australia,'' says Elliott, director of ''The Adventures of Priscilla.'' ''Australian culture is evolving. We really don't know where it's going, but that doesn't bother us anymore.''

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