LATELY, THREE LOCALLY made films have escaped Adelaide for the world, all directed by women. Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Rosemary Myers’s Girl Asleep have all won film festival awards, are critically acclaimed and showcase the innovative ways in which new South Australian films are being made on criminally low budgets. 52 Tuesdays was made for $700,000, and The Babadook cost $2 million to make, shoestring budgets when compared to the recent Lion, the Australian film starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, that was made for $12 million, or the blockbuster Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which cost $200 million. The Babadook, 52 Tuesdays and Girl Asleep are part of a new wave of movies shot in South Australia that are more globally appealing, urban and modern than the films that made the SAFC (created by Don Dunstan’s Labor Government in 1972) a national treasure after Sunday Too Far Away.
Since then, South Australia has had a rich but sporadic history of indie and commercial hits after the SAFC turned its focus to television in the ’80s with Australian period drama, TV movies and mini-series such as For the Term of His Natural Life (starring Anthony Perkins, no less, with a young Colin Friels in tow), Robbery Under Arms and The Shiralee. Then, in 1994, the SAFC became a production facilitator rather than a film company, as it stopped producing films to instead assist independent film companies.
Great films were made after Bruce Beresford’s 1980 SAFC-funded double-header Breaker Morant and The Club seemed to close the Don Dunstan arts-loving era with a Cannes-winning (for Jack Thompson as best supporting actor in Breaker Morant) full stop. These include Cannes and Academy Award-winning films such as Shine, Scott Hicks’s 1996 global hit, which made an international star of Geoffrey Rush, who won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the talented but troubled pianist David Helfgott. Rolf de Heer, on the other hand, delivered an acclaimed film every couple of years for two decades, including his unofficial trilogy with David Gulpilil (The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country), while Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, about two Indigenous teens who steal a car and journey from their remote community to Alice Springs, won the 2009 Cannes Caméra d’Or for best first feature film. But the local film industry couldn’t just rely on Hicks, who had international Nicholas Sparks adaptations to direct in-between returning home to shoot passion projects, and de Heer, who now lives in Tasmania. Enter, a new breed of filmmaker and films.
A couple of factors enabled this new wave to prosper. One is the biennial Adelaide Film Festival, and the various funding initiatives that surround it. The other is the creation of the $43 million Adelaide Studios, owned by the state government and run by the SAFC, in the Glenside cultural precinct, which has provided a home for thirty tenants, including local creatives such as Closer Productions and Triptych Pictures, as well as providing studio and post-production space for local, interstate and international filmmakers. Feature films that were shot in South Australia in 2016 include Hotel Mumbai (featuring The Lone Ranger himself Armie Hammer as well as Dev Patel) from local director Anthony Maras, Cargo starting Martin Freeman (The Office) and the low budget Rabbit from Sydney director Luke Shanahan.
THE ADELAIDE FILM Festival began in 2002, appearing in the local festival glut that is ‘mad March’. In a smart move to escape the floodlights of the Adelaide Fringe and Adelaide Festival of Arts, the film festival moved to a new date in October in 2013. Since 2005, the Adelaide Film Festival has included the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund (AFFIF), funded through the state government, to discover and fund new Australian work. The films the AFFIF has helped push and finance (along with other funding bodies such as Screen Australia) is a list of some of the county’s most important works of the last twelve years: Look Both Ways and Ten Canoes (2005); Dr Plonk and Forbidden Lies (2007); Samson and Delilah (2009); Snowtown, Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure and the TV series Danger 5 (2011); 52 Tuesdays, Charlie’s Country and Tracks (2013); and Girl Asleep and A Month of Sundays (2015). Another intriguing initiative that was part of the AFF was the HIVE LAB and HIVE FUND (in collaboration with the ABC, Screen Australia and the Australia Council for the Arts), which ran for three festivals (2011, 2013 and 2015), where creatives from different disciplines collaborated on one-off short or feature-length projects. This helped to deliver the fantastic I Want to Dance Better at Parties, a twenty-seven minute hybrid documentary by film director Matthew Bate and Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek that focuses on how a single dad, mourning the loss of his wife, overcomes his fears by learning how to dance. Other notable films funded by HIVE include the musical The Boy Castaways and, most successfully, the feature Girl Asleep.
Released in US cinemas in October 2016, Girl Asleep is based on a play of the same name (both written by Matthew Whittet, who also stars in the film) from the local children’s and young adult theatre company Windmill Theatre. For the film version of the play, theatre director and Windmill artistic director Rosemary Myers took it upon herself to direct Girl Asleep in an astonishing cinematic debut. Premiering at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2015, Girl Asleep won the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Though Girl Asleep contains some Wes Anderson-like quirks there is more to it than mere twee delights. It focuses on the uncomfortable Greta (Bethany Whitmore), who is about to turn fifteen, is afraid to leave her childhood behind and whose only friend is the equally awkward Elliott (Harrison Feldman). Greta’s parents decide to throw the outcast a party against her wishes. This presents a seismic clash of childhood with adulthood. Girl Asleep’s coming-of-age themes aren’t revolutionary. Far from it. But it is how these themes are presented that distances it from an afterschool special. Set in the ’70s, that daggiest of decades that director Myers mines for visual gags with its retro look and feel, Girl Asleep celebrates being yourself, even if that means embracing your dag status. As the party commences, Greta enters a live action Hayao Miyazaki-like forest fantasy land in which she encounters a warrior woman (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) who helps her escape wild wolves and monsters which replicate her coming-of-age troubles. The whimsical set design in the dream land and in the very uncool real world of the ’70s by Windmill’s resident set designer Jonathon Oxlade translates seamlessly from stage to screen, while the universal teenage themes are juxtaposed with a fantastic sense of humour. It is the most joyous Australian film to hit screens in a decade and one that, though it is undeniably Australian, contains Western themes and humour that transcends borders. But there is something particularly Adelaide about Girl Asleep as it doesn’t aspire to be cool or edgy; it is just a well-made film that is a prime example of what can be achieved if you give a creative company, such as Windmill, a chance with a feature film project.
A COMING-OF-AGE story with a difference is Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays. Hyde is part of the local filmmaking collective Closer Productions, based in Adelaide Studios. The collective materialised when two film companies merged bringing together Matthew Bate and Rebecca Summerton of Plexus Films with Hyde and Bryan Mason. Since forming, they have had a run of documentary successes such as Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure and Sam Klemke’s Time Machine (both directed by Bate), plus the Ruby Award-winning Life in Movement from Hyde and Mason. The real success, though, is the groundbreaking feature 52 Tuesdays. Directed by Hyde, from a script by fellow Closer writer and filmmaker Matthew Cormack, the film was shot documentary style every Tuesday for a year, to show how the relationship between daughter Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) and her mother Jane (Del Herbert-Jane) develops as Jane transitions to a man, James. Released a year before Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the hyper-realist gimmick of 52 Tuesdays quickly evaporates as the relationship struggles are realistically heightened by the technique of shooting one day a week over a year.
Closer’s films, whether they are documentaries or feature dramas, have another critical factor: they are global. They don’t feature stereotypical Australians doing Aussie things in the outback. They are Zeitgeist capturing in the case of 52 Tuesdays or, as with Bate’s docos, pop-culture-centric documentaries that comment on modern life, particularly technology.
The most critically successful local film of recent times is The Babadook, which was also a relative box office success, taking in $7 million globally from a $2 million budget. Directed by Jennifer Kent, her 2014 scare fest – the best reviewed horror film of the last decade according to critic aggregator Metacritic – was punctuated by a powerhouse performance from Essie Davis.
In a time where horror’s latest hits have been about making the audience squirm with torture-porn excess or rehashing found-footage clichés, The Babadook’s psychological horrors were shockingly relatable. Davis plays a widow, Amelia, whose strange young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), claims that he is being haunted by the character from the book Mister Babadook. As the film goes on, the truth is unclear, and the psychological torture of Davis’s character becomes deeply disturbing as she wonders if she’s descended into madness. Minus the gore, it was the aforementioned fears that made it a horror masterpiece. The simple but effective set design, grey-washed feel, chilling Mister Babadook pop-up book and monster gave it a grim modern fairytale edge.
The setting of The Babadook could have been any household in any Western city in the world. It doesn’t scream Australia like ’70s Australiana films or ’80s TV movies. Rather, the chills and thrills are relatable to a global audience due to the setting. Kent’s film is proof that the fear of the unknown – coupled with the questioning of one’s own sanity – is still the most chilling fear of all.
THERE IS, OF course, more to modern South Australian cinema than the three aforementioned films. Other innovative local films of late include Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man and Christopher Houghton’s Touch. Then there is Snowtown, which is about the most horrific chapter in South Australia’s recent history, the bodies-in-the-barrels murders. Directed by former Gawler lad Justin Kurzel, who is now an international filmmaker of note with his gritty Macbeth and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, which both star Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Snowtown made a powerful statement about turning a blind eye to communities in need rather than focusing on the details of the actual murders (the murders always haunt the background but the audience doesn’t see one committed until late in the piece). With the upcoming closure of the Elizabeth Holden plant and the unknown effects on the northern suburbs, the economic and social hardships explored in Snowtown are more pertinent than ever.
The Babadook, 52 Tuesdays and Girl Asleep represent a new wave of South Australian film not because they are stylistically similar or have a comparable tone, but due to an adventurous filmmaking spirit that is also seen in many other local films made lately. The films don’t subscribe to Australian film traps like outback clichés nor are they depressing inner-city crime and/or junkie indies. They are global modern films made for global modern audiences.
In a time where arts funding is in a precarious position, these three left-of-field examples are proof that when publically funded and incubated, local creatives can deliver unique films that escape South Australia to be internationally well-received on a critical level and, in The Babadook’s case, return a box-office profit.