Australian films stand on their own merit

Lee ZachariahThe argument that Australian audiences only embrace local films once they’ve picked up a gong at an international festival is inherently flawed says Lee Zachariah in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

As much as we like to pretend that we collectively fulfil the world’s need for a country comprised entirely of laid-back, mellow beach dwellers, we do seem to get disproportionately excited when someone else mentions us. Our cool exterior drops away as our local news bulletins breathlessly report that CNN or the BBC or really anyone in one of the ‘real countries’ acknowledged our existence.

We feel detached from the world, and therefore crave its validation.

So when a director or producer complains, as they so often do, that Australian critics will only embrace a film once it’s been given the seal of approval overseas, it’s difficult to argue with them.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

The argument goes something like this: “You, film critic, had no interest in Australian art movie until it won That Major Award at That Foreign Film Festival, and then you gave it a five star review. And you, audience, you didn’t bother to see this film until it picked up top honours at Sundance. Fickle, I name thee, fickle.” I paraphrase.

Oh, I sympathise with Filmmaker Q. Strawman. Who wouldn’t? Australian films are struggling for attention in a multi-media drenched world, and the more options viewers have, the harder it is for local films to get noticed. The odd Camera d’Or or Redford award (which I shall herein refer to as a ‘Redfward’) certainly goes a long way to piquing everybody’s interest.

There’s no doubt that external validation has its effect, but perhaps we’re looking at this from the wrong angle.

I attended an early screening of Samson and Delilah in March of 2009 knowing absolutely nothing about it. I emerged from the film jumping up and down about how great it was, apoplectic with joy that I’d just seen something both great and local. Two months later, it picked up the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

(Lest you think this story solidifies my prognosticating genius, I published my praise-filled Samson and Delilah review at the same time as my praise-filled Two Fists, One Heart review. I was taking the runaway firehose approach to critiquing that week.)

I remember this story, because of how rare it was that I was seeing a film before its prominent film festival debut. It’s very rare that critics or the public will have this opportunity. Yes, audiences only embraced the brilliant Animal Kingdom after it picked up a World Cinema Jury Prize Redfward at Sundance, but – and this is key – they did not have a chance to see it beforehand. Sundance was in January. The film opened here in June.

So when filmmakers complain that we only embrace films once they’ve won awards, this is far more than a statistical inevitability. We’re looking at the same data, but we’re interpreting it differently. We’re misidentifying the cause and effect. Perhaps critics and audiences do not hail our best local product as works of genius because they win awards; perhaps they win awards because they’re works of genius.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and critic best known for ABC comedy program The Bazura Project and the film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. Find him on Twitter @leezachariah.
Encore issue 13

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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