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Queensland: award dilemmas

Danni Zuvela

Peri Campbell’s Eating Disorder Peri Campbell’s Eating Disorder
When the 2003 Queensland New Filmmakers Award screening night opened with Peri Campbell’s experimental short Eating Disorder, an imaginative video self-portrait cleverly effacing its 90s-feminist-sounding title, viewers might have expected the other shortlisted films to be similarly bold exercises in style and content. But with a couple of exceptions, most of the works selected—particularly the winners—from the many entries (QNFA won’t give exact figures) strove more for industry-mimetic technical proficiency than innovation.

Teenager Campbell received an award for her hyper-kinetic, absurdist piece—complete with alphabet-soup text—about her diasporic family history. Another successful film, Pens at Ten Paces (dir Tim Noonan), about 2 dueling letter writers, illustrated the potential for formal experimentation within the confines of the ‘odd couple’ narrative structure. Painting the Tomatoes (dir Elizabeth Murphy), with its ambiguous, dreamlike story about an elderly man’s recollections, and daring thematic use of colour and texture, was one of the few defiantly arthouse films seen at QNFA in recent years.

Nonetheless, the winner, Prep Rules (dir Luke Mayze), which received numerous awards, was a typical—some would say archetypal—QNFA winner. Technically faultless, with strong performances and a cautious, if irresolute melodramatic narrative about bullying in a boys’ school, its key creative talents have significant but unrecognised industry presence, like the professional animators of the much-rewarded Cane Toad (dir David Clayton). In both cases the awards confirmed the industry standards achieved by both works and their semi-professional makers.

Since its launch 16 years ago, QNFA has become Australia’s biggest industry-sponsored award event, which explains the judicial emphasis on technical perfection over formal innovation or risk-taking content. The inherent conservatism of the film industry hardly needs reiterating: the capital-intensive nature of film production usually results in filmmakers avoiding anything too adventurous that might limit a film’s profit potential in the market. Risky work has a necessarily small niche in the industry and QNFA explicitly recognises that by rewarding the films (and they are usually films, video is still considered the province of the novice, amateur or artist) that most closely reproduce the industry’s commercial criteria.

However, QNFA’s critics argue that adhering to the conformity-as-survival model obviates innovation and ignores other kinds of emerging talent. Some say few audaciously different films make it to the judging round: films that are very experimental, that are anti-plot or deliberately disjointed are the ones that miss out on selection. Whether or not QNFA’s initial selectors are bombarded with a panoply of adventurous, innovative audiovisual works remains shrouded in the famous mists of QNFA secrecy about the judging process.

However, along with the unambiguous commercial orientation within the field, there is discernible discontent about the selection process—judges are given a shortlist of about 5 films from which to select the winner. John Willsteed from Scope Sound Post Production, a QNFA Craft Industry judge for 6 years, says he “hates” the abbreviated selection he receives as “most people have cloth ears.” Other judges expressed similar concerns about the selection process, which they consider flawed because “ see films up for awards in other categories that are much better than 3 out of the 5 you were given in your category.” Willsteed, as famous for his witty and incisive speeches at QNFA as he is for mentoring young media makers, makes a convincing case for more expert involvement in the pre-selection process.

Other critics, particularly from the production sector, are more concerned at what they see as the Awards’ subtly coercive role. Sarah-Jane Woulahan of Square-eyed Films says there is an internalisation of the status quo among budding film talent in Queensland. At “...precisely the moment young media makers should be taking risks and pursuing their own unique ideas” they are encouraged to produce “what the QNFA wants”—inevitably something “safe and bland.” Woulahan says this sense of implicit compulsion, stemming from the Awards’ hefty industry backing, inures both makers and audiences to staid, prudent modes of practice. “[T]here are some great works that slip through the cracks because they’re not seen as ‘marketable’ forms. The issue here does the market know what it wants if it doesn’t even get a chance to choose?” When the financial security assured for work that fits commercial standards is set against the risks posed by experiment—the industry wins outright.

Others still argue for the importance of the awards given their function as a gateway to the industry. But how much do QNFA winners represent the greater production of emerging talent in Queensland? Independent producer Judd Tilyard says QNFA “is an awards ceremony with particular tastes and attracting limited submissions. No festival, market or awards ceremony could ever hope to represent the work of an entire state, or even an entire city for that matter...QNFA reflects the kind of filmmaking that people thought stood a good chance at winning QNFA.” This tallies with other voices from the production-sector that commend the awards’ unique nursery/laboratory role in bringing industry sponsors and aspiring filmmaking teams together.

Forcefully pragmatic considerations of ‘quality’ and ‘professionalism’ underlie QNFA’s commercial imperative. However, though the Australian industry undoubtedly needs commercial talent, it also needs equally bold attempts to re-invigorate old forms.

There is an argument for a greater balance between the QNFA’s role in perpetuating sanctioned modes of filmmaking and fostering the exploration of new forms and ideas. Perhaps, as Tilyard says, Queensland film and video artists could one day dare to dream of “a whole new awards ceremony, maybe sponsored by an arts body, where the emphasis is on creativity instead of commercialism.”

Warner Roadshow Studios 17th Queensland New Filmmakers Awards, Queensland Conservatorium of Music, April 30; public screenings, Hoyts Regent Cinemas, April 14

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 18

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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