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Australia descends on Toronto

Echoing its domestic box-office resurgence at home, Australian cinema has enjoyed its biggest showing at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) since 2009.

Australia’s return to prominence on the world stage shows no signs of letting up, with the world’s largest public film festival embracing Australian talent in epic fashion.

A bumper 13 Australian features and shorts screened at this year’s TIFF, six with world premieres: Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker, Matthew Saville’s A Month of Sundays, Stephen Page’s Spear, Tom and Sam McKeith’s Beast, Alice Englert’s The Boyfriend Game and Malina Maria Mackiewicz’s Deszcz.

Australian talent was also well-represented elsewhere in the program, with Wayne Blair marking his US feature debut (with DOP Warwick Thornton) with Septembers of Shiraz, and Sean Byrne returning with The Devil’s Candy in the Midnight Madness strand (six years after The Loved Ones’s premiere).

A-List talent included Cate Blanchett (Truth), Naomi Watts (Demolition), Nicole Kidman (The Family Fang), Toni Collette (Miss You Already), Rose Byrne (The Meddler), Emily Browning (Legend), Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver (Equals), Jai Courtney (Man Down) and Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind).

Toronto is the world’s largest public film festival and a key barometer for next year’s Oscars contenders. It is also the gateway to the North American market. Studios, buyers, agents and filmmakers all descend on the Canadian city during a frenzied, extended opening weekend to cut deals and talk shop. It is the most hectic unofficial film market on the planet.

For the first time, Australia had a formal physical presence, with a combined Screen Australia/Ausfilm hosted stand in the festival industry centre. Richard Harris, Head of Business and Audience at Screen Australia, said it was a “great central place for Australian producers, distributors and sales agents to engage with the marketplace”, that was “consistently busy” throughout the festival.

The knock-on effects of Australia’s festival success at Venice the week prior were also felt, with Simon Stone’s The Daughter and Sue Brooks’s Looking for Grace enjoying North American premieres at TIFF. Geoffrey Rush (The Daughter) was a notable presence throughout the festival, going beyond the call of duty in support of Stone’s well-received dramatic adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

Critical reviews out of Toronto were almost universally positive, with Screen Daily hailing The Dressmaker as a “handsome crowd-pleaser”, The Wrap declaring Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa as spotlighting “the real heroes” of Everest, and Variety praising Stephen Page’s feature debut as a “unique experience in urgent storytelling”.

The Australian selection at Toronto has been particularly eclectic this year, with established and emerging filmmakers standing side by side in the festival’s 40th edition. Female filmmakers have been well represented (Gillian Armstrong’s Women He’s Undressed also had its North American premiere at TIFF) as were indigenous storytellers (Dylan River’s Nulla Nulla also screened as part of the festival’s shorts).

A similarly expansive spread of Australian talent will also be showcased at next month’s BFI London Film Festival.

This remarkable festival run caps off a particularly buoyant year for Australian cinema. Homegrown films have enjoyed their biggest market share since 2001, which currently stands at 6.1% and is likely to rise. Box-office takings have already exceeded $50m, with several major releases (including The Dressmaker) yet to be released.

Commenting on a unique year for Australian film, Richard Harris hailed the diversity of films being made in Australia, and stressed the vital role that festivals such as Toronto and London play in ensuring this success endures – something that Screen Australia has consistently nurtured.

“Festivals such as Toronto continue to play an important role in gaining profile and international sales for our films,” he said. “The strong presence that Australian film has had this year is another great outcome. The quality and diversity of the slate is a big contributor to this festival success.”

He added: “It is also a result of a long-term relationship with festivals and their selectors that is constantly nurtured by Screen Australia. Not only do we regularly bring out selectors to watch films, but we get them to meet emerging and established creatives, making sure that they are able to get to know the talent that we have in this country. It’s wonderful to see the fruits of these labours paying off, and Australian talent being showcased on a world stage so brilliantly.”

Ed Gibbs is a senior journalist turned producer. He writes for publications including The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Empire and Rolling Stone. He has also produced the Crystal Bear-nominated Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, a rare documentary short about David Bowie in Australia, which premiered at the 65th Berlinale and will screen at the 59th BFI London Film Festival next month.