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By Amelia Groom

With over 18 Australian features and documentaries (including 12 world premiers) screening at the Sydney Film Festival in June, it’s going to be a fantastic time too see the broad range of content our local filmmakers have been getting their hands on.

From bird enthusiasts to Phillip Glass, a prison choir, the connections between art and the body, an Indonesian gold mine, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, asylum seekers and Newcastle, there’s sure to be something for everyone.

One of the most unique films in the Australian program is Julian Temple’s The Eternity Man ‘ an operatic portrait of iconic Sydney character Arthur Stace, the ex-alcoholic who spent 40 years roaming Sydney streets and branding them with the word ‘eternity’.

Australian composer Jonathan Mills and poet/novelist Dorothy Porter collaborated on an opera of Stace’s life in 2003, and UK director Julian Temple joined them to make the film version. With a 25-piece orchestra the unique Sydney story was shot live at The Gap, Luna Park, Balmain, The Rocks and Kings Cross.

Sydney songstress Christa Hughes plays Arthur’s sister Myrtle, a madam of a brothel who, Hughes says, stands for a bygone era of Sydney. ‘Julian Temple was keen to capture not just the story of Arthur Stace but also the history of this city. Myrtle is a very strong character and I think she kind of represents old Sydney.’

‘It’s also a way of seeing what the city has become today,’ says the forthright Hughes, ‘Sydney used to have interesting characters that were known not for being rich and fabulous but for being eccentrics, people with something to say. I think today it’s become quite characterless, which is a real pity ‘ affluenza has stung us bad, but hopefully it’s just a phase.’

The Eternity Man will play in the Sydney Film Festival as a special screening at The Studio, Sydney Opera house on June 14 at 5pm.

In a climate where Australian films often still struggle to reach audiences, Sydney Film Festival director Clare Stewart says a festival is an ideal context for leveraging interest in films that might otherwise miss a breadth of audience here.

‘We gave the world premiere to The Jammed at last year’s festival, and as a consequence of it’s success it went on to get theatrical distribution and reach a much more significant audience than might have been expected for that film.’

‘Of course if you look at how many Australians see Australian films next to how many French see French films, for example, there’s just no comparison,’ says Stewart, ‘but we are definitely moving forward.’

‘Within the international film festival context, the Australian films that are being considered in that environment are starting to have a more international flavour, so it’s interesting to see a movement away from the more stereotyped, colloquial notion of Australian film, and I think that’s a positive thing.’

Stewart believes that as a festival they need to provide platforms for exploring how the industry can do things differently to get our films out there.

‘It is a very tough playing field in the world out there and one of the things we’re doing at the this year’s festival is a program with our partners at the United States Study Centre,’ says Stewart.

‘A guest speaker, Bob Pisano [President and Chief Operating Officer of the Motion Picture Association of America], will talk at an industry-based session with Australian filmmakers about strategies for entering the American market, which is something we have struggled with here in the last few years.’

But according to Stewart, the films programmed for the festival show that ‘we’re definitely making powerful and significant films that should be being promoted locally and within the world cinema arena.’

‘A couple of trends are showing with the Australian film program,’ says festival director Clare Stewart. ‘One, which we certainly noticed at last years festival, is the prevalence of very diverse, independent cinema that is made on relatively low budgets but that uses new technology to push the boundaries of what stories are being told.’

One example of this, she says, is Michael Joy’s Men’s Group. ‘This film centres on a group of men who are coming together informally, to work through their issues. It’s taken a really interesting approach to filmmaking ‘ day by day the actors never knew what was going to happen so there’s a very real impromptu quality.’

‘It’s similar to Mike Leigh’s improvisational techniques but they’ve been pushed to the extreme, and there’s a very interesting energy. It’s a fascinating process and one that only the nimbleness of digital technology could allow, because it’s far to expensive to shoot film in that way.’

Stewart also lists Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo as an example of new films using the latest technology to explore different storytelling modes.

Lake Mungo is set up like a television documentary about the disappearance of a teenager, but it slowly morphs into something much more like a ghost story and you begin to become aware that’s it’s very much a narrative piece. It’s very much playing with a structure to create a completely new kind of film.’

Besides this experimental trend within the independent filmmaking side of things, Stewart says there are also a couple of examples in the program of Australian filmmakers really thinking about their role on the world stage.

Children of The Silk Road, for example, obviously a big budget film with high production values, is very significant at the first Australia-China co-production and it’s a very interesting combination of cultural elements. There’s the tempo and feel of a Hollywood-type film, there’s the melodrama that is found in mainstream Asian cinema, and there’s the tenacity and adventure that appeals to Australian audiences.’

‘Almost completely opposite to that is Son of a Lion, which is a film that in so many ways came out of nowhere ‘ it was completely off the radar in terms of official production mechanisms.’

‘It’s a film that evolved after Benjamin Gilmore visited a village in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. He returned to the village with a script and ended up workshopping the whole thing with the local village people, so they all played a role in the making of it.’

‘Stylistically, Son of a Lion is very much like Iranian cinema, and it shows a real tenacity and verve for an Australian filmmaker to go somewhere so far away and adopt those sensibilities.’

For the first time, this year’s film festival will have an official international competition, honouring ‘new directions in cinema’ and granting $60,000 to the winner ‘ the biggest prize at an Australian festival.

A dozen films will be in the competition, and they’ll be screening at red carpet events for the first twelve nights of the festival. Festival director Clare Stewart says it’s about taking the Sydney Film Festival to the international stage, and putting it alongside events like the Cannes, Sundance, Venice and Montreal festivals.

She also says that from a programming perspective it was very important that Australian films be a part of the international competition because ‘it remains absolutely imperative that we focus very hard on making Australian films that deserve an audience, reach that audience.’