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SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 1997 / CRITICAL VOICES

HUNTER CORDAIY comments on the Australian content of the 44th Sydney Film Festival, which closed June 20, 1997.

The 44th Sydney Film Festival was an important opportunity to showcase a number of new Australian films in respected international company. Whilst the Sydney Film Festival is not strictly a 'market' it does have a role in securing distribution deals for films before the subsequent Melbourne and Brisbane Festivals.

The Festival can also be a first critical outing for films slated for release in the next few months and good notices from the Sydney Festival are used as garlands by local distribution companies to attract audiences.

Sydney Film Festival audiences are extremely patriotic and it is often difficult for critics to swim against this tide without being accused of some form of national betrayal. Whilst this is a sign of an immature critical environment it is also true that the Festival atmosphere - grand art deco theatre, 2000 passionate film goers per session paying dearly for a seat - can encourage support for a film which later, in the clearer air of the distribution circuit, fails to live up to the first rush of support it might have enjoyed.

This last sentiment might well apply to the opening night film, Doing Time For Patsy Cline (Dir Chris Kennedy) and starring Matt Day as Ralph, Richard Roxburgh as Boyd and Miranda Otto as his companion, Patsy. This is a road film that despite a promising beginning, heads straight for jail in a small country town and stays there, frustrating the ambitions of Ralph who is headed for Nashville to launch his Country & Western career.

The comic elements of the film hinge around the naive country boy enmeshed in the life and possible crimes of two sophisticated city slickers driving across country. The romantic possibilities between Patsy and Ralph are entirely thwarted by the script and little use is made of the country and western festival supposedly taking place a few yards from the cell in which Ralph eventually finds himself.

Kiss or Kill (Dir. Bill Bennet) is the savage side of genre film-making that Patsy Cline did not dare to explore. With the same actor Matt day in the central role, plus Frances O'Conner, Bennet's film teases its audience in a mischievous often vicious way, especially in the opening sequences which have sudden oblique cuts pushing the story forward in the style of early Nicholas Roeg.

But the film quickly falls into a genre mould of two (attractive) criminals on the run across wide open country with plodding slightly comical cops in pursuit. There is, of course, a macguffin - in this case a videotape of a famous sporting personality in bed with a young boy, but this plot device is of little interest compared to the bigger story of identifying which of the central characters, Nikki and Al, is actually a sleep-walking killer. Nikki and Al live in the shadow of Bonnie and Clyde, trying to stick to small time crimes but are increasingly found with corpses in their tracks. The reference to Beatty and Dunaway is also carried through in the sexual tension between them, which is only fully realised near the end of the film when Nikki is handcuffed.

Kiss or Kill has a visual style which is speedy, mirroring the inner tension of the central characters. Bennet uses the outback landscape well, and the effect of jump cuts and sudden changes of perspective gives a manic sense to even the dullest small town service station or motel. If it wasn't for the presence of two established Australian actors in supporting roles - Barry Otto and Max Cullen - one could be forgiven for thinking that this was an American thriller made for television. And that suggestion might be a fair indication of where some of the brightest Australian talent might be heading.

By contrast, the Australian record in documentary fikm-making is exemplary and the Sydney Film Festival has always been a reliable platform for this important part of the local industry. Two films - Maverick on a Mobile (Dir Graham chase) and Exile in Sarajevo (Dir. Tahir Combis and Alma Sahbaz) make the point that documentary is truly the courageous side of the industry and no topic is too gruesome or politically sensitive to be avoided.

Graham Chase's film follows west Australian MP Graham Campbell in the two weeks running up to the last federal election. A perfect subject for a documentary, Graham Campbell is best described as a narrow-minded vulgar racist who happens to have the largest constituency in Federal politics (in terms of land area...six times the size of Japan) and the highest proportion of aboriginal voters of any electorate.

Maverick on a Mobile is a timely reflection on a significant moment of political change in Australia, when issues which it was assumed were accepted if not settled (multi-culturalism, our future in the Asia-pacific region, government expenditure priorities) were literally dismantled overnight.

The comic relief from the implications of this political reversal for Australia are provided by Mr Campbell who, like all small personalities thrust into the tungsten glow of media attention, doesn't realise when he is showing himself up as the rural buffoon he really is. For example his home base of Kalgoorlie has a sign in the main street which reads 'at this

spot in 1897 absolutely nothing of any significance happened' and Mr Campbell holds court with pronouncements on progressive issues such as immigration and multi-culturealism while drinking in Skimpies Bar, so named because the barmaids wear little else but G-strings. To pronounce on national political issues with any sense of being informed from such a Jurassic environment is ludicrous.

Mr Campbell was dismissed by the Labour Party because of his unacceptable political opinions on these contentious issues prior to the election, and subsequently won the seat as an independent as part of the political tide turning Australia back at least 100 years.

Maverick on a Mobile, along with last year's documentary Rats in the Ranks, will take its place as an important if very depressing record of the inadequacies and dangers of the current political climate.

Exile in Sarajevo is a report from the battlefield " at the end of the century in the heart of Europe". If ever there was the realisation of the 'wasteland' wrought by war and barbarous politics its the setting for this documentary, made more powerful for being shot on video.

The co-director and narrator, Tahir Cambis, take the audience on a journey which is often harrowing -there are rivers of blood in the streets - and yet the film never loses sight of the fact that the true story is about the lives of others who live in Sarajevo rather than visiting film-makers.

Amidst the shelled carcasses of city buildings there is some semblance of family life, occasionally a dance competition or aspiring fashion models posing. What these images reveal is the spirit of a people under siege and how easily the 'story' can switch from the political panorama to the intensely personal.

Exile from Sarajevo is a film from the heart and reflects the depth of commitment to quality film-making that has supported the growth of the local industry for many years.

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Doing Time for Patsy Cline - "a road film that despite a promising beginning, heads straight for jail in a small country town..."



Kiss or Kill - "the savage side of the genre"






Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2019