Established in 2003 by the South Australian government, the bi-annual Adelaide Film Festival is the youngest and smallest — but no less ambitious — film event among the more established Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane festivals.
South Australia, which advertises itself proudly as the “Festival State” on its license plates, added yet another flower to a rich bouquet of prestigious international art festivals, which transform South Australia’s isolated and dormant capital Adelaide into an utmost joyful and vibrant city each February and March.
For the small Palace cinema, main festival theater, nestled among the crowded cafés and restaurants in the fancy East End, this event is certainly a blessing and a reward for the long quiet seasons over the rest of the year.
Cinema, and art-house films in particular, are certainly not among the prime attractions for the average Australian, and compared to the Fringe Theater Festival or the famous Womadelaide with the cream of international world-music artists (to say nothing of the amazing crowd with its beer-cans heading for the annual car race that overlaps the film festival, and which flooded the city like a tsunami), the Adelaide Film Festival looked more like a very sympathetic but rather private highlight for an elite of local film buffs and professionals, enhanced by a handful of international guests. However, the audience has already considerably increased since 2003, and as with other film festivals in Australia, it will just take some time to build a strong local following. Also, the organizers are still juggling the timeframe and number of films — this year’s edition was a couple of days shorter and featured fewer films than in 2003.
The carefully curated festival program, with its 150 fiction films, documentaries and shorts, gave the otherwise cinematographically deprived South Australian audience an unique opportunity to discover over eleven days not only a “best of” selection of the major international festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Toronto, but also nineteen world premieres, among them twelve Australian productions that had been directly supported by the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund.
This year’s edition also inaugurated two newly established feature-film competition sections with the FIPRESCI Award for best first or second film, and the 25 000 € Natuzzi International Award for Best Feature, the highest cash prize for a feature film at an Australian film festival, sponsored by a local furniture company whose history and merits were largely exposed during the closing ceremony. The award went to Zhang Ke Jia’s Still Life (Sanxia Haoren – Golden Lion, Venice 2006), leaving actually little chance to smaller local low-budget films.
In this particular context, the festival — run by an exclusively female team under its dynamic director Kathrina Sedgwick and strongly backed by South Australia’s PM — is trying to strategically carve out its own niche in order to boost national and international attention and recognition, to build a reputation overseas and to attract filmmakers through its partnership with the Australian International Documentary Conference, overlapping with the AFF, and its involvement with the digital realm in the Crossover Think-tank and the Broadcast Summit, and, even more important, through the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. As a matter of fact, the AFF is one of the few festivals in the world that directly commissions films.
Created in 2003, the Investment Fund, managed by Sedgwick, is open to all Australian Filmmakers (although most of the recipients are from South Australia), and the application process seems to be amazingly unbureaucratic and flexible. The only conditions for obtaining funding is that the world premiere must be at the Adelaide Film Festival (unless it is picked up by a major international festival, like Tony Ayres’ Home Song Stories, which premiered at the Berlinale this year), and some of the production costs must be spent in South Australia. For Sedgwick, the funding — which may cover between 10% to 100% of the total production costs — is more a curatorial model, encouraging and supporting interesting projects for the festival, and in particular South Australia’s vibrant and eclectic film scene.
The first slate in 2003 included Rolf de Heer’s internationally acclaimed Ten Canoes, and Look Both Ways by Sarah Watt. Certainly, most of this year’s slate of four feature films, three feature length documentaries and five shorts will also find their way into the international festival circuit.
Lucky Miles, a debut film by Michael James Rowland, follows a group of clandestine immigrants from Cambodia and Iraq, dumped on a deserted beach in remote West Australia. Left to fend for themselves, they wander through the endless, desolate outback, tracked by three border policemen, Politically highly relevant but treated as a subtle comedy, the film delivers an intriguing vision of Australia as the promised land.
Shot in Adelaide with a hand-held digital camera in a real time series of long takes and with a budget of $ 100,000 from the AFF Investment Fund, Kris Stender’s Boxing Day tells the story of an ex-prisoner’s struggle to bring his estranged family together. Played by professional and non-professional actors — including the poignant Richard Green, a former prison inmate, in the role of the father — the gripping black-and-white film was shot without rehearsal but in three versions, each time in one week. The final version is one of the most compelling films presented in this section.
Last but not least, Rolf de Heer, Australia’s most eclectic and boldest filmmaker, who lives in Adelaide, was back with the surprising Dr. Plonk — a delightful, most hilarious silent, black-and-white slapstick-comedy, shot with a hand-cranked camera in the pure tradition of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Set in 1907, scientist and inventor Dr. Plonk calculates that the world will end in 101 years, unless immediate action is taken; in order to be able to bring back proof from the future, Dr. Plonk invents a time machine.
Shot in Adelaide and starring SA’s PM Rann in the role of a present-day Prime Minister, Dr. Plonk, with its live music accompaniment, was the perfect choice for the closing ceremony.