The Palace Cinemas recently hosted a German Film Festival at their locations around Australia. The full program consisted of a staggering amount of films, almost fifty, all of which were produced within the last few years and demonstrated a vast range of genre and narrative. While I expected to be impressed I was nevertheless genuinely surprised at the quality and diversity of the films on offer, featuring remarkable performances, tight scripts, and exceptional production quality.
These days it’s difficult to have a conversation about national cultural capital without reference to native screen productions. And while Germany has never lost the glory of its musical, artistic, dramatic and literary legacy, it is now firmly establishing a platform on the world film stage as well.
Each film on offer was unique and seemed to revel in Germanic culture of the present and the past, representing national roots in subtle yet distinct threads without the usual pedantry or self-consciousness that one associates with non-Hollywood movies. Even the references to Hitler and the holocaust were charmingly unaffected: they seem to be able to acknowledge the best and worst of their identity without attaching any unnecessary gloating or guilt. In other words, these films made me feel that perhaps Germany is one of the most self-aware, successful, advanced, and emotionally secure nations of the modern age.
Naturally this got me to thinking about the Australian film industry and what kind of festival we would produce in similar circumstances. I was interested to discover that while the Palace’s German Film Festival is in it’s fourteenth year, the Australian Film Festival began in 2012, just three years ago. And while the GFF screened in eight locations around Australia, the AFF is only available to those privileged enough to live in Sydney.
Germany has a population of roughly 80 million, about four times that of Australia, which while significant is not as vast a difference as that between our respective artistic outputs. Yes, Germany has an impressive cultural history stretching back centuries at least, and including some of the most notable advances in Art music, visual arts, theatre and literature, but considering the impact the two world wars had on their economy and industry they are producing a remarkable amount of viable artistic product. Researching further I found this rather detailed description of the German arts funding model, which demonstrates the immense value they place on local cultural institutions.
While Australia has a fairly respectable artistic scene in terms of music and theatre, our film culture, like our literature, is still trying to free itself from a strange sort of identity crisis. Ask one of your friends to name just ten good Australian films made in the last three years. Chances are they can’t. That’s not because ten great films don’t exist, but mainly because no one has seen them. They aren’t promoted in film festivals. They aren’t screened four times a day in your local cinema. They are barely advertised at all.
Now ask your friend to name ten movies set in the Marvel Universe. Exactly. That might be a somewhat vulgar comparison but at the very least it demonstrates the shockingly low value we place on our own screen industry.
And if you find someone who can name ten good Australian movies, I guarantee almost all of them take place in the outback or deal with an aspect of bogan culture or some gory true-crime event. Or star Hugo Weaving. I saw only three German films and was immersed in three completely different yet symbiotic representations of German culture: a cyber-thriller complete with native trance music and Europol agents; a period drama featuring stunning landscapes and historical literary figures; and a schoolyard comedy with ironic references to youth culture and modern generational identities.
There are plenty of great Australian directors, screenwriters and artists making compelling and authentic narrative statements. But they should be more accessible and they should be better funded. Our film students should be encouraged to make modern crime thrillers as well as deep psychological portraits of the Australian bush. We should be able to investigate our own colonial history beyond just The Man from Snowy River. We should be able to represent all aspects of Australian life without drawing on the usual cringe-worthy stereotypes of outback hardship, beer-drinking ute drivers, crocodile hunters or chain-smoking teenage mothers.
Until our government finds some kind of artistic soul and makes the connection between cultural identity and actual funding, the survival of Australian films is really up to the Australian public. We need to make a choice to spend money and time on local talent instead of re-watching Captain America for the third time, and then maybe one day we’ll actually have a film industry that can afford to make huge studio blockbusters.
Try having your own Australian Film Festival one weekend. The local DVD store probably doesn’t stock anything beyond The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding, so you might even have to fork out and buy the movies (you’re not going to find them on Netflix or Apple TV). Try some new releases like Theses Final Hours, The Babadook, or The Rover. Then there’s Animal Kingdom, Red Dog, Felony, Paper Planes or The Proposition, and this great list of films from the 00’s.
Of course you’ll notice the afore-mentioned propensity toward bogans, horror, and the outback. If you do manage to find a modern thriller, urban drama, or even a comedy that doesn’t major on awkward Aussie stereotypes or self-satisfied quirkiness, please let me know. That would be a film miracle. In this age of ‘diversity’-mongering our narrow-minded oeuvre seems embarrassingly parochial.
It’s no Palace International Film Festival. But at least it’s a start.