Discover This: Down Under Berlin

Opening the festival: "Satellite Boy" by Catriona McKenzie, Copyright: Down Under Berlin

Starting tonight, expat Australian cinephile and festival director Frances Hill invites Berliners to discover her home country through film at Kreuzberg’s Moviemento. Frances, charming employee of the overall amazing crew of Moviemento, started the Down Under Australian Film Festival two years ago via crowd-funding and with the help of friends. This year, she has put together a diverse and exciting programme which includes documentaries, narrative films, and short films, as well as a couple of great events. I met Frances Hill and head of communication Berit Becker for an afternoon interview where we talked about transgender hairdressers, indigenous actors, and the new films from Australia’s film schools.

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Frances Hill (right) and Beret Becker (left), photograph by Mary Scherpe

Frances, does Berlin really need another film festival?

Frances Hill: Well, yes, they didn’t have film festivals for Australia or New Zealand until we came over. You would find some Australian films in the bigger film festivals, and now and then there is one in the cinemas but it’s simply not enough. There are important and interesting things happening down under that people should see.

What would that be? What is going on in Australia at the moment that you are showing us at the festival?

FH: I think generally Australia is a little bit left out of the big picture because in the Northern hemisphere there’s already so much going on. But we have the same issues and the same good things and bad things going on all the time. One thing that is unique to Australia and New Zealand is that we have indigenous communities. It’s interesting to see how they function if they work together with non-indigenous people – what kind of job, education, and health care issues are going on there. The film Queen of the Desert is a good example to show that it’s okay to be different and it’s okay to have pink hair. This documentary tells the story of a transgender drag queen, Starlady, and her mission to support the youth in the outback by dying hair, among other things. Due to the work of Starlady, the kids in this documentary get a different perspective in life. If she hadn’t come maybe they just wouldn’t have known what the other options were.

“Queen of the Desert”, Copyright: Down Under Berlin/ 360 degree films

The film quite clearly suggests that many of them commit suicide. There is a high suicide rate in Central Australia and especially among the indigenous communities, right?

FH: Yeah, in rural and country communities it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, there is often a high suicide rate because people are isolated and probably don’t have the right support networks when things go bad. Generally, mental health and drug abuse are issues which are often worse in those communities, especially for indigenous people. Then it becomes a trap because you can’t leave and go somewhere else and experience something new or get help to get off drugs and alcohol. Then there is no big hope for the future.

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Festival director Frances Hill, photograph by Mary Scherpe

Do you think that film is a good medium to start a dialogue on these issues and can it create a good forum for people to learn about these things?

FH: Talking about difficult issues in cinema has always been a positive thing for me because you don’t have to depict or film people in just one way. It doesn’t have to feel like a charity in the sense that the audience feels sorry for these people when something is going bad. Instead, you can show the audience that there’s diversity in everyone else’s life and it can be reflected in their lives. I think film for me has always been a good medium to show a range of emotions, political ideas, opinions, and stories.

Berit Becker: It seems like a lot of younger indigenous filmmakers now use film to preserve their culture. They feel that their culture is forgotten by the wider public and by making films, they can keep it alive and show it to others. In that way, they maybe even can have it understood by people who don’t live their lives and don’t really understand their culture.

FH: That’s a really good point because that’s what happened in the film Lurujarri Dreaming for me – I learned a lot. To be coming from a country with only 22 million inhabitants, it is great to learn something new about the people of the country I was born in through film, especially through films that are neither blockbusters nor huge productions.

You talked about Aborigine filmmakers – which films in the festival are actually directed by indigenous Australians?

FH: There is Mad Bastards by Brandan Fletcher for example. It’s a feature film about family, men, violence, and struggle and it has a very emotional story. The director chose non-professional actors to be in his film, which is a great idea because the actors don’t have to think it up and make up new personas. Instead, they can use things from their own lives and things they have experienced. On the other hand, this is very impressive because these are issues they deal with every day – maybe they have domestic violence in their family and now this is something they are depicting on screen. It’s a great idea to work with the community, to work with the people who are maybe a bit more authentic.

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“Mad Bastards”, Copyright: Down Under Berlin/ Still photography by Rod Hartvigsen/
Keith Saunders

You open the festival with Satellite Boy, a film that is set in the outskirts and that also features an abandoned cinema, directed by a woman, Catriona McKenzie.

FH: Yes, Satellite Boy was screened at the Berlinale and doesn’t have a theatrical release in Germany. It features David Gulpilil, who is probably the most famous indigenous actor in Australia, playing the grandfather in this film. He started his career with Walkabout in 1971 and has since been in more than 30 different films in Australia. In a way, he is the grandfather of indigenous cinema.

You also contacted different Australian film schools and asked them for entries. One section of the festival consists only of student films. Can you tell me how this came to be?

FH: Last year, one of our colleagues suggested we contact film schools to see what they are producing. This is actually a great thing for a festival in Europe because you get to see the freshest talent coming from Australia. This year, we have films from the Sydney Film School, The Victorian College of the Arts from Melbourne and University of South Australia film school from Adelaide in what I named “The New Talent’s Showcase.” These are all films by young filmmakers, mostly graduation projects.

Are all these films very diverse or can you make out clear trends coming from these film schools?

BB: All the films are very different. The ones from Melbourne for example seem very poetic and beautiful. The ones from Sydney have more of a cold touch to them I would say.

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Berit Becker, Head of Communication, photograph by Mary Scherpe

FH: There is a lot of darkness coming through in many of them, that’s true. The ones from South Australia on the other hand are a little bit crazier. They take an idea and go with it, like in My Pet Zombie, a film about a friendship with a zombie that is full of weird and wacky ideas. In the next years, we want to expand and find as many film schools as possible in Australia and New Zealand. One trend in all of these films is taking chances.

In addition to this pretty diverse programme you are very ambitiously offering special events for the first time this year…

FH/ BB: We have a live installation, Outback and Beyond, which mixes footages from the Australian outback and live sounds together and it’s going to be performed by two artists Mike Cooper and Grayson Cooke live onstage for the first time ever. We also have a comic workshop with Peter Auge Lorenz after the screening of Graphic Novels! Melbourne! Saturday afternoon where you can make your own tiny comic book and take it home. Finally there will be a live concert in the cinema by Anna Morley and her band.

When you look back at the way Australia has been portrayed in film in the last years, what would you say has changed?

BB: There’s been a debate over the last couple of years about the problem that Australian films don’t do so well in Australia box-office-wise. There has been an association that investigates why people don’t seem to be interested in Australian films that can’t compete with the American blockbusters. In Germany, many Australian films never get a release.

FH: Also, many Australian films are not shot in Australia anymore. Directors like Baz Luhrmann are now making big international co-productions and many actors left for Hollywood. But there is a trend to go back. Cate Blanchett and Toni Colette returned to make small films in Australia again, which is nice to see.

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Down Under Berlin Film Festival, September 12th-15th at Moviemento

Opening film tonight: Satellite Boy, AU 2012, 90 min.

For all details and infos check out the hompage: www.downunderberlin.de/

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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