There is always a certain euphoria that dominates any end of year screenings of graduating films, a feeling that comes after a year of hard work, intense learning, and life-changing experiences. And perhaps this euphoria is spiced with a little nostalgia, for the bonds and communities that were formed over the course of this important threshold and that must ultimately pass. The experience of making films is always so intense and extreme – the pressure can be great but so can the thrill and the joy.
For the graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Film & Television School, a school that includes amongst its alumni Gillian Armstrong, Emma-Kate Croghan, Aleksi Vellis and Geoffrey Wright, the end of year screenings is a precious opportunity to have their work exhibited before an audience. And it is possible that this audience might include producers, casting agents and other industry representatives searching for talent. In fact, in the past, student filmmakers have signed deals with Hollywood studios on the basis of their graduating work. Like Australian feature filmmakers attempting their debut or second film, graduating students often face significant pressure to succeed. For the students, the films can function as a calling card, a ticket to a deal with a Hollywood studio. The problem with this kind of mentality is that there seems to be little emphasis on the graduating films as ‘exercises’. Judging by the posters that some students had printed for their films displayed in the foyer of the theatre – based on traditional marketing modes of film advertising – they were happy to see their films as fully-fledged art cinema achievements. Such hype and aggrandizement was a little disheartening. The VCA School of film and TV, along with other notable film courses around Australia, gives students the opportunity to be at the helm of filmmaking. Yet we all know that the life-career of a filmmaker is rarely a simple or easy one – the pressure, the challenges, the frustrations but also the opportunity for aesthetic expression, for voluptuous stories of human life and experience, can be great.
Though I did not manage to see all the graduating films, I certainly saw the majority. And I will reserve most of my comments for the fiction films. While there were a few films that impressed me there were many others that I felt were quite flawed and ineffectual.
Sitting through endless student films it became fully apparent to me just how difficult it is to create a ‘magical’ film – that is, to skilfully manipulate the techniques of camera, cutting, lighting, music, performance, story and theme in a way that allows for their combined alchemical transformation, for that moment or sequence of moments when the film seems ‘just right’, as natural, necessary and organically designed as an object of nature. Perhaps the challenge lies in mobilising and interrelating these techniques in such a way that allows the film to take on a life of its own, to develop its own beat or rhythm, a certain charged quality. That the majority of the fiction films I saw lacked this is obviously attributable to inexperience on the filmmakers’ behalf but that there were others that achieved such an aesthetic prize is highly commendable.
Taste by Lisa Dombroski was one of the highlights of the program. This was a jazzy, energetic short of considerable length (22 mins) in the vein of the romantic comedy genre. The twist to the familiar conventions was that the man whom the woman is attracted to – in the story, a chef at her work – was previously a woman herself. And so the obstacle to the couple’s union involves overcoming feelings related to accepting the idea of transsexuality and fluidity in sex and gender identity. But like the masters of the genre (Lubitsch, Hawks, Capra), Taste – and as a lot of local films have, for example, Love And Other Catastrophes – managed to create a real sense of suspense and tension in the narrative. This was mainly a result of the steady accumulation of moments of misunderstanding, missed connections, blindness on the character’s part that were all perfectly timed and placed, and the ultimate release of this tension and suspense in a moment of clarity and truth. Well-scripted and excellent performances made Taste a very enjoyable film. But perhaps what was most refreshing and uplifting was the style of the film – intimate, fluid, vibrant and kitsch. And its energy and liveliness seemed tied directly to the thrill and excitement of discovering love, the central theme animating the story. Also refreshing about the film was the dialogue, which seemed to both match the characters (their age, their personalities) while also allowing them to sound intelligent and quick thinking.
What I most enjoyed at these graduate screenings were the comedy films. Perhaps this is because the majority of the fiction films opted for serious drama and did so according to a very conventional and non-innovative approach. As a result, despite a few exceptions – Blood and Ash, Dancing in the Dust – many of these films were heavy-handed and rather lifeless. In stark contrast was the lightness and magic of the comedy films. Another comedy highlight of the program was Freeze Frame (12 mins) by Thomas Conyers. This was a wonderful short, which infused its narrative with a marvellous whimsical touch so that character attitudes and personalities were magically rendered into extremes. Freeze Frame is about a very conservatively run family, dominated and lead by the father who must come to terms with radical new elements that enter the family home like lesbianism, female sexuality and independence. Unlike other student films that were often hampered by overly serious tones, Freeze Frame came as a relief in its energetic, subversive and playful attitude and overall heightened, pastiche feel. But who says comedy is light-hearted fair: in fact this short, like Taste, approached quite ‘serious’ issues of gay relationships and female independence within a patriarchal, heterosexual world with comic tone that was no less telling and effective. Everything about it was relaxed and assured – the performances were excellent, the editing and camerawork were good and the film did not shy from excessive stylistic or lurid flourishes for comic, ironic effect. Overall, an effective, humorous and uplifting foray into themes of family values, generational conflict, identity crises and development that so dominate these student films.
Quite different in tone was Eleni Arbus’ Nameday (23 minutes), very much a mood-driven piece. Similar to Head On, this short explored the contemporary Greek-Australian family and the conflict between an older generation, in particular a patriarchal figure (who represents the past and tradition), and a younger generation, in this case, a young woman (who is more assimilated with the modern, Anglo world). Shot in a stark, grainy, dark-coloured range, Nameday is a very distinctive short film. Some kind of story was being told but it was in a non-linear, fragmentary kind of way. I was impressed by the film’s confidence and assuredness in its freewheeling structure and the way it weaved together fragments of symbolic imagery and sound so well, so that each image shed light on the previous and further uncovered the mysterious connection between the past and the present at the centre of the story. The suspense-driven narrative succeeded and culminated in a very emotional moment of genuine pathos – with the reconciliation between past and present, as embodied in the two generations of adult migrant and child non-migrant. In its themes of the past, war, family secrets and consequence, Nameday was quite a mythic, poignant film.
Mood-driven pieces were popular this year. Out of Darkness (14 mins) by David Rittey was a very tender film focusing on a family torn apart by a car accident. According to the program notes, the film is about a young girl, Alice, who “believes she caused an accident jeopardising her father’s eyesight”. This plot information was not so apparent in the film. Perhaps a clearer and more direct style would have ensured this; the film however seemed constrained by a narrative reticence and a reliance on recurring symbolic and suggestive imagery that seemed to be passed over as a form of ‘art cinema’. The film is sympathetic to the young girl’s point of view and is often concerned with sketching her inner, mental states – in particular, her yearning for a connection with the cosmos and her sense of dislocation from the family-world (the connection between these two is somewhat contrived and mechanical). Barely anything is said, as the film seems solely concerned with tracing a fragmentary, dislocated world of fighting parents, suffering and pain. But it is all too repetitive and the film tends to wallow far too long in this generalised state of suffering. Although such a mood-driven piece can be made to work for a short one wonders how this would translate into a feature-length version. Despite a very beautiful closing shot, the ending was rather conventional and perhaps too neat – the family was reunited and harmony restored.
Across many of the student films there became evident a prevalent need or desire to give expression to deeply felt emotions and inner states. For those wanting to make ‘personal’ cinema, it is such concepts that guide the filmmaker. However, and this is most obvious in inexperienced filmmaking, generalised states and emotions evoked through ‘mood’ and ‘ambience’ and an overall disdain for concrete plot details or clear conflict in character or narrative can provide for an unfulfilling and non-engaging viewing experience. And can overall appear indulgent and superficial. This is not to suggest that filmmakers should adopt a traditional narrative storytelling style – some of the most inventive filmmakers who get mainstream exposure today like Jim Jarmusch or Takeshi Kitano work within the constraints of narrative but know how to give them a new spin, how to work them inside out, or reference them only to subvert or redefine them. So the desire to express deep emotions or profound, inner states does not necessarily imply a shying away from narrative – the challenge is to give shape to such states through such concrete material as character, action and narrative.
Another essentially mood-driven piece that took the liberty to call itself ‘experimental’ was Soft Ground Under Concrete Skies by Verginia Maria Grando (14 mins). This was a highly pretentious, cold and ineffectual short film. Aiming for some lofty idea of womanness, love, physical and natural beauty, it lacked any depth or poignancy and could have easily been a commercial for women’s beauty products. Every sequence – a woman caressing herself in a train or staring, longingly and existentially, in the mirror – became tiresome and indulgent. There was nothing particularly experimental about this short; it did not even resemble abstract filmmaking. Experimental and abstract filmmaking arrive at some revelation, and they finely tune and control all film techniques (shot composition, lighting, pace, score, theme) to create and build toward this revelation. Instead this short relied on clichéd themes of mystique femininity, an ‘ambient’ score and a lofty poetic economy that feel flat and bland.
Watchdogs (15 mins) by Jarrod Boyle is a curious short film that mixed very different tones and genres, perhaps unsuccessfully. It began with men interrelating in traditional ways – asserting their toughness and masculine prowess. This was given an eerie resonance a little later by the film’s emerging storyline of the main character’s girlfriend who returns home physically abused and, as the men eventually discover, raped. Although it hinted at the socially malign and dangerous forms of male prowess, the film refrained from allowing the female character to occupy a decent position in the narrative. Rather, she was completely elided over; her only presence came when she recounted her version of the rape, a story that dramatically changes the tone of the film. Following this, the film gives way to a revenge narrative in which the men seek out the rapist. Overall, the film handled its themes in a very clumsy fashion.
Brutal Beauty (20 mins) by Siobhan Maiden was one of the better documentaries. Essentially populist, it is centred on the drama of a football ground, in this case Waverly Park, being forced to close down because of economic rationalism and the local residents who join forces to ensure this doesn’t happen. Like The Castle – in which the ‘little’ people must fight together against the big corporate, faceless multinationals – Brutal Beauty straddled the contradictory tension between mocking its bluntly suburban ‘daggy’ characters and rejoicing in their populist triumph. Another exemplary documentary, though one that took a distinctly more respectful stance toward its subject matter, was Taste (15 mins) by Catherine Chauchat. In fact, this was a generally well-made film, constructed on formal principles – uncluttered pacing and framing, clarity and focus in theme and character – that would have benefited a great many other of the films. Taste explored the theme of being an ‘artisan’ in the twenty-first century and the value of hand-made work in an era of mass production. This central theme – one that is highly current and valid for contemporary times – was handled respectfully and effectively.
Martin Four (21 mins) by Ben Hackworth was another mood-driven film. The score was quite inventive and textured, but once again it was all too ‘suggestive’ – a drunken, disillusioned mother, an introverted gay son, his fleeting sexual experiences, his sense of loss and confusion – and lacked clarity or focus. Again the desire to express and evoke tender, inner feelings was hampered by precise, clear action. In fact, these kinds of films need melodrama; they need action or events that externalise the emotions driving the story.
Dancing in the Dust directed by Jenny Kendall, clocking up 32 minutes, was a mini-epic. The time length however suited the story’s canvas – a drama sweeping generations of Aboriginal women and a tragedy of epic proportions. The story is based on the events of the stolen generation, a time in Australia’s history when young indigenous Australians were taken away from their family and placed in Anglo-Celtic environments, such as boarding schools or orphanages. Despite the blatant cruelty and injustice of such acts, the film never descends into a maudlin or simplistic sentimentality but rather remains at all times graceful, understated and controlled. Essentially a narrative driven film, Dancing in the Dust begins in the present-day and includes a sizeable flashback component in which is told the story of two generations of Aboriginal women whose children were taken away from them. The film’s superb moment of irony is when at one point in the flashback a white family discuss over lunch, served to them by one of the Aboriginal women characters, the horror of losing the war to the Japanese and the possibility of cultural displacement. The film is beautifully paced, has a wonderfully lucid formalism and weaves together the past and the present effectively. The ending offers a particularly haunting and poignant gesture – the reunion of a family torn apart on a purely phantasmic, spiritual cinematic plane. Most importantly, and perhaps what will guarantee this film’s wide-exposure, is that it gives expression to an important aspect of Australian history that has been hitherto overlooked and ignored.
Ride On (14 mins) by Christian Buxton is a well-made short that benefited greatly from excellent performances and successfully dramatised its central theme – failing to realise a dream. On the path of becoming a world champion surfer, a young man loses one time and after an argument with his father, descends into alcohol and drugs. The film struck a good balance between the outside, natural world of the sea and surf and interiors – echoing the conflict between physical action and personal, inner dilemmas. Ride On was a heartfelt and direct film – thankfully doing without the prevalent ‘suggestive’ mode of filmmaking – that used flashback in an interesting and moving way. It had a very real and raw feeling as though the story and performances had found their own rhythm without being imposed with a prescribed ‘mood’ or ‘sensibility’.
One of the most impressive and remarkable shorts of the program was The Death of Sensuous Particulars (10 mins) by Declan Loughran. This was one of the very few short films to take an innovative approach to storytelling. A richly layered anti-realist film, it showed a real courage and braveness to explore and experiment formally. Essentially a love story between a man and woman that could have been either real or imagined but that definitely ends with the tinge of lost love, The Death of Sensuous Particulars was exemplary in its experimentation with sound and image. It also succeeded in its mix of genres and balanced moments of humour and wit with sombre emotion. In short, this film illustrated a real control of the medium and a distinct vision.
Dead Life (9 mins) by Simon Imberger continued the anti-realist, experimental vein. This film however despite its impressive plunge into the psyche and tortured souls was very derivative of achievements already made by David Lynch (especially Lost Highway) and David Cronenberg, especially the latter’s explorations into the interrelation between the body and technology. Dead Life is about a man who documents homicide and becomes haunted by images of death until he ultimately sees himself as a victim of a car crash. Quite distinct from the other student films, it had a very distinct hallucinatory feel. A confronting and bold student film that relied on intuitive filmmaking and an anti-realist style to express more unconscious, liminal zones.
Rumoured as one of the program’s highlights was Emma Freeman’s Blood and Ash (25 mins) starring Maya Stange. This was a very assured film from the outset – shot composition, pacing, set design, sound and performances were measured and consistently accomplished. The story begins with the death of the central character’s mother and her subsequent journey toward a river she has only seen in a painting in which she hopes to dispense her mother’s remains. Along her journey through a thick wilderness she encounters an Aboriginal woman who provides some warmth and guidance and a host of sounds and fleeting images that seem to reflect her own vulnerable state. The story ends quite poignantly with the young girl finding the river and realising her mother’s ashes have poured from the bag throughout the journey – beautifully symbolising a connection between the girl’s personal journey and her mother’s presence throughout this journey. Overall, this short proceeded effortlessly and assuredly despite a very bare story and succeeded in balancing inner feelings with concrete plot details and events. It stood out among the shorts as an example of contemplative cinema, especially in its drawing of connections between the individual and the landscape.
Another tender film was Salty (15 mins) by Marion Lee. Its portrait of a young couple who are together only momentarily and fleetingly before vast distances separate them reminded me of Cate Shortland’s Flowergirl (1999). The beauty of this film was that it worked as an accumulation of very quiet, tender moments like everyday conversation, signs of affection, playfulness between young adults, spending a night out together. Although at times the conversations between these young adults – who sometimes appeared too young to be at nightclubs – was a bit contrived and heavy-handed, a quality which carried over into the dramatisation of the boy’s home life and his relationship with his mother. However, the final sequence was moving and beautiful – the boy despite the fact that he loves the girl can only leave without saying goodbye; perfectly illustrating the painful consequences of life’s complexities and an individual’s emotional worlds. As its title suggests this film was quite elemental at times, figuring the couple against a background of the eternal sky and sea as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. And it quite tenderly explored the idea of salt and permanence versus a shifting, constantly moving reality.
From what I saw at this year’s VCA graduating films there was some very accomplished student work. Let’s hope that such vision and skill continues to develop though without the aggrandizement and with a measured modesty.