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Urban Cinefile’s Andrew L. Urban, as attending journalist and a participant, delivers not so much a comprehensive wrap of the milestone 5th Dungog Film Festival (May 26 – 30) as a stream of consciousness backward glance at it, exploring both its many strengths and its weak spots. 

The Dungog Film Festival’s fifth edition was both a celebratory milestone and the harbinger of a millstone around its proud neck. Celebrations are in order because from scratch, this festival in five years has built a recognisable brand built on the marketing message that it is the world’s largest showcase of Australian film.

It would be a churlish critic who took issue with the claim simply on the grounds that the great majority of the films screened at the festival are shorts, which bulked up the program. It would also be an uninformed critic, because short films are no less valid in screen culture than feature length films. Indeed, short films have become the breeding ground for Australian filmmakers, and thus of vital importance. This is where talent scouts should be cruising.

"11 world premieres"

Besides, among the feature length films in the program were 11 world premieres, which includes a handful of documentaries, as well as some NSW premieres; complemented by Aussie classics – The Man from Snowy River (presented by Sigrid Thornton) and The Club (presented by David Williamson who also gave a Masterclass) – and a sidebar of TV and digital productions.

The presence of industry guests of significant stature such as Williamson and Thornton, multi-awarded screen composer Lisa Gerrard, MC Rhys Muldoon, acting stalwart Michael Caton, and a number of less well known but equally valuable filmmakers on both sides of the camera, added to the Festival’s gravitas. 

Equally important was the Opening Night program, which began with the screening of the Oscar winning Aussie short, The Lost Thing, accompanied by a live band led by Michael Yezerski on clarinet, who composed the score. Although the idea originated at Urban Cinefile, it was thanks to APRA’s enthusiasm (notably that of Michelle O’Donnell) and financial support that this was realised. (APRA – Australian Performing Rights Association). The event became the driver of APRA’s deeper involvement with the Festival, and its sponsoring the two screen music masterclasses (Gerrard and Yezerski, both moderated by your reporter). This is a significant deepening of the festival’s engagement with the Australian filmmaking community and a commendable development. The audience loved the live music element – and the short.

After a short but heartfelt speech from NSW Arts Minister George Souris (happy to see the Festival in his own electorate) the exceptionally strong opening night feature, Oranges and Sunshine, set the bar high for the rest of the weekend.

"re-structuring of the opening night"

The re-structuring of the opening night included the shifting of the longer speeches (from the likeable Mayor Harold Johnston to Head of Programming Laura Macdonald and Festival Director Allanah Zitsermann) to the stylish and well catered sit down dinner in the transformed highs school hall, where 12 ornate, 1.5m high silver candelabras decorated the 10 long tables, each seating about 40- 42. Small ‘moon’ lights hung overhead. This turned out to be a far more user friendly way of delivering the all important speeches (including thanks to the crucial sponsors) – with guests seated at tables with drinks and nibbles to hand, rather than in the auditorium. Other festivals could take note.

The impetus of these successful elements of the opening night continued through the weekend in forming the mindset of festival guests and visitors.

The last time such a lavish opening night event was organised was when NSW Mining took the festival under its financial and supportive wing, delivering lots of cash but equally importantly, people on the ground to help with logistics. That three year deal is now finished, and this year, NSW Mining continued its support via a much more modest educational sponsorship.

"might be a good time to reflect on what strategies should carry the festival forward"

A new major sponsor is being sought, and this might be a good time to reflect on what strategies should carry the festival forward.

Born in 2007, the Dungog Film Festival had grown in one year from a baby fest with a dozen films and 1,400 visitors, into an adolescent of 80 films and an estimated 4,000 visitors in 2008. This year, visitor number came close to 10,000, and the hard pressed Dungog Visitors Bureau managed to find 6,000 bed nights for visitor who stayed over one or more nights. In a town with a 10 bed motel and a couple of country pubs (less than 50 tourist beds in all), this is a major achievement, but it came at a cost.

For one thing, the complexities of home billeting so many visitors frayed and stretched the town’s resources to breaking point. Invisible behind the façade of camaraderie and country hospitality, I might add. The question being raised privately in Dungog is whether the pursuit of continued growth in visitor numbers is the right strategy. With a population of just under 3,000, the infrastructure is just not there for a sprawling festival.

"make the festival more exclusive, not more crowded"

The better strategy may well be to work with the local administration to devise a practical maximum number and make the festival more exclusive, not more crowded. This approach has the added upside of a marketing bonus in promoting the festival. 

Portable accommodation (eg self contained trailers that can be parked on the large paddock previously used for the giant marquee to host functions, not far from the high school), is another option worth exploring.

This year the festival introduced a special package in conjunction with CountryLink, which gave visitors access to a day’s program; the early morning (7.15am) train from Sydney to Dungog, spending the day at screenings, returning on the 3 am train from Dungog. Clearly, this is a great idea, but perhaps CountryLink, which has benefited from its association with Dungog as much as vice versa, could consider adding a short ‘festival express’ returning from Dungog at a more practical time.

And CountryLink may even consider lending the festival a few sleeper carriages to park at Dungog (on the siding track) for the duration.

"While accommodation is a prime challenge, so is programming"

While accommodation is a prime challenge, so is programming. The main venue is the James theatre, Australia’s oldest continually running cinema (opened 1914). It belongs to the Shire, and is rented out to the local Hopson family to run, who operate it on weekends. (See below for the latest threat to its existence.) The venue normally seats about 250.

For the festival (using sponsorship money and human resources) its capacity is doubled, pushing back the screen to its original position. But the seating is on a level floor, not stadium sloping, which makes viewing in the long room a less than perfect experience. Yet it is the best venue to screen films; other venues brought into use as makeshift screening rooms include the RSL and a school hall. None of this would matter if the program weren’t so ambitious and extensive.

Some of the locals who have experienced several festivals feel – quite rightly in my view – that perhaps there are too many films scheduled. It would make sense for the festival’s A grade films - eg opening night, some of the world premieres, etc - to be re-screened perhaps twice, to enable more visitors to see it. Given that visitors in town on opening night far outnumber the capacity of the James; this would deliver a better use of the prints already in hand.

Finally, the festival relies heavily on good will, ranging from the volunteers who devote their time and effort to tasks ranging from menial to muscular to managerial, to a broad range of the community who offer their enthusiasm (eg the big Saturday parade, the many stalls, their homes for visitors, etc). This enthusiasm must be appreciated, nurtured and protected.

The James at risk:
Leased from Dungog Shire Council, the cinema business of the James is up for sale; the Hopson family has struggled to make it work on a weekend basis, but the future looks bleak. The biggest problem seems to be getting new releases in time to maximise their value. 

Locals will drive 70km to the nearest cinema complex rather than wait 8 - 10 weeks to see a film like The King’s Speech.

Many regional cinemas face the same problem, which is why the newly launched scheme to install high quality digital projectors is welcomed. This enables distributors to provide films in digital form instead of expensive 35 mm prints. The downside is the high cost of conversion to digital.

But with its historic standing and its use as a pivotal facility of the festival, plus the support of an active and enthusiastic Dungog Film Society, there are enough reasons and stakeholders to try and find a solution. It will certainly need the involvement and support of Screen NSW, which has a mandate to encourage regional screen culture initiatives.

Published June 2, 2011

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Oranges and Sunshine


The Lost Thing

The James Theatre

The Club

David Williamson

Michael Yezerski

Lisa Gerrard

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