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An Asian-centred Australian cinema

Mike Walsh

The inaugural Australian Film Festival was held in Beijing during April and May, screening 10 recent Australian feature films, including Two Hands (director Gregor Jordan, 1998), Black and White (Craig Lahiff, 2002) and Dirty Deeds (David Caesar, 2002). The festival was significant, not so much for the films, but rather as an indication of the way government institutions are trying to set up the conditions for wider co-operation between the film industries of Australia and China.

The week’s events, which included an educational symposium and a series of high-level meetings, were staged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), as part of a reciprocal arrangement that saw a package of 6 Chinese films tour Australia last year. China’s major government film bodies, China Film Group and China Film Bureau, were co-sponsors of the event.

Paul de Carvalho, director of the Sydney Asia-Pacific Film Festival and vice-president of the Australia-Asia Co-Production Association, hosted the festival opening. He claimed that: “It is extremely important to showcase Australian screen culture in Asia at the moment. It shows that Australia is serious about our 2 countries’ film industries and it continues the momentum created over the past few years to encourage direct co-production opportunities between Australia and China.”

Australian government agencies, led by Austrade, have recently been trying to create the conditions for increased connections with China. These include co-production opportunities, the import of Australian film and television programs (8 Australian films will screen in the Panorama section of the Shanghai Film Festival later this year), and the rising trade in film services which has been vital in sustaining sections of the Australian industry.

Both governments made a show of the importance they attach to this relationship. Madame Zhao Shi, Vice-Minister of State for the Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the peak film administration body in China, opened the film festival, along with Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone who startled everyone with the fruits of her recent Mandarin lessons.

The Australian film industry was represented by Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and a delegation from South Australia, led by SAFC’s new CEO Helen Leake (see p21), the State’s Minister for Trade and managers from production houses Kojo and Guava Visual Effects. Leake said that the South Australians were there to “better understand the current state of play in the changing Chinese film industry and to meet with the main players at both government and, where possible, private level, and understand the inter-relationship between the two.” She said she was looking at co-production joint venture options and the possibility of filmmaker exchanges. As an AFC Commissioner, she was also interested in the possibility of future negotiations for an official co-production treaty.

The involvement of prominent Chinese directors, including Tian Zhuangzhuang (Springtime in a Small Town, 2002), Li Yang (Blind Shaft, 2003) and Liu Bingjian (Cry Woman, 2002) demonstrated the seriousness with which the Chinese film community is looking at connections with Australia. In fact, if you want to talk to a Chinese filmmaker at the moment, the best place to look is Australia. Since the making of He Ping’s 1995 film Sun Valley, Australia has increasingly become China’s preferred location for post-production services, particularly in Dolby sound. In April Zhang Yimou was doing post-production in Australia on House of Flying Daggers, his follow-up to Hero (2002). Feng Xiaogang, one of the hottest commercial directors on the mainland, best known here for Big Shot’s Funeral (2001), has also been in Australia working on a new film. If Chinese filmmakers haven’t been working here, they have been working with Australians who have set up facilities in China. Zhu Wen’s film South of the Clouds, which recently won major awards at the Hong Kong Film Festival, boasts a soundtrack laid and mixed at Melbourne company Soundfirm’s new facilities in Beijing, established in a joint venture with China Film Assist.

The festival in Beijing was preceded by an Australian Film Studies Symposium, hosted by the Beijing Film Academy, the biggest film school in China and famous as the birthplace of the Fifth Generation movement. Representatives from 6 Australian universities, including South Australia’s Flinders University, the Victorian College of the Arts, and the University of Technology Sydney gave papers on aspects of contemporary Australian screen culture and showed work made by their students.

So what’s the significance of events like these? It’s no secret that people have been lining up to criticise the Australian film industry over the past year, creating a general consensus that the forces driving local feature film production have failed to produce much of interest in recent times. The “telling our stories” brand of cultural nationalism has served as the pretext for too many people in the Australian film industry maintaining a stultifying lack of engagement with the rich diversity of film cultures emerging in our region. The more far-sighted view is that taken by companies such as Soundfirm and encouraged by government programs such as this (even as I write this I am amazed at myself for saying something positive about Amanda Vanstone). The idea that you define a national film industry by the small number of feature films made within it has never really been of much value in this country. Let’s start to think of Australian cinema in terms of services and expertise in sound post-production, digital effects and education. Through these services we can also begin to engage with other peoples’ stories.

The efforts of DFAT and Austrade have opened an important dialogue between Australia and China’s film industries. Let’s hope that the AFC and other Australian film bodies have been listening and are prepared to encourage a widened re-definition of national cinema. I like to think of national film industries as reflections of nationally-based concerns, and right now it’s clear that a major concern for many Australians is the need to understand and engage imaginatively with the ferocious processes of change underway throughout Asia. The nature of this engagement may well become the central issue for Australian cinema in the near future.

Australian Film Festival, Star City Cinema, Beijing, China, April 29-May 8

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 16

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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