Two film canisters sit on a table service with the film partially unwound.

Film festivals

The unsung heroes of Australian film
 Sandy George
Courtesy Closer Productions

It is timely to answer two questions: are the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) and Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) investment funds kick-starting projects that would otherwise not be made, and are they helping them reach an audience?

Several South Australian producers now swear that quality documentaries — but not features — would not have been financed without the AFF, but director Katrina Sedgwick’s sterling taste is a factor, not merely the existence of the fund.

Adelaide producer Sophie Hyde has had considerable Sedgwick backing, including for Life In Movement which won the $10,000 FOXTEL Australian Documentary Prize at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2011, four months after premiering in Adelaide. She worked closely with Bryan Mason on the biopic about Tanja Liedtke, who died before being able to take up a new role as Sydney Dance Company artistic director.

‘Katrina was the first in with absolute agreement this was a film worth making,’ says Hyde. ‘In part because of her support we were able to leverage other finance. Although Screen Australia came in with their special documentary funding too, I believe we would have struggled to raise any real budget without Katrina.’

Others say similar. Many film investors play it safe. Hyde and her collaborators have been able to make brave production choices due to Sedgwick’s curatorial point of view, she says, although changes at the South Australian Film Corporation have also helped.

There is no hard evidence of MIFF getting new projects up but the additional funding it provides is allowing the production of feature-length versions of one-hour television documentaries. This is the case for three documentaries by Queensland-based producer Veronica Fury: Machette Maidens Unleashed! (2010) from the 2010 MIFF program, The Curse of the Gothic Symphony (2011) and First Fagin (2012).

‘All were already commissioned for television when we applied so it (the money) was not critical (to the project going ahead) but it was very very advantageous because it gives them a bigger life,’ says Fury.

The festival expects a world premiere for its money and the resultant kudos can attract attention from distributors and other festivals. After MIFF, Mark Hartley’s Machette Maidens Unleashed!, about the Filipino exploitation film industry of the 1970s and 1980s, was seen in more than 30 festivals around the world, including Toronto, one of the most important platforms for getting attention in North America. It subsequently got a small cinema release in Canada and the US, where it is now on DVD. Back home in Australia, after its ABC screening, it was released as part of a DVD package that included some of the genre films it examined.

Similarly, Granaz Moussavi’s Australian/Iranian drama My Tehran For Sale (2009) got a Toronto spot after AFF in 2009, prompting deals to be signed, says producer Kate Croser.

Both MIFF and AFF are clearly helping films find audiences beyond their own patrons. The almost hysterically excited response to AFF opening night film Mrs Carey’s Concert (2011) delivered enormous word of mouth for the cinema release that quickly followed.

Within days of a very positive critical response from AFF audiences for Tony Krawitz’s The Tall Man (2011), producer Darren Dale had contacted and got agreement from Hopscotch for a cinema season. Television executives — in this case at SBS — usually value the publicity that an earlier cinema life brings. The film is based on Chloe Hooper’s book about Cameron Doomadgee’s death in police custody on Palm Island in 2004.

‘It felt like a good audience because a lot of filmmakers and others interested in film were there,’ says Michael Cody, producer of another 2011 AFF film, Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail (2011), a study of intriguing former inmate Daniel Jones. ‘I guess that could backfire but it was very positive for us.’