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Berlinale 2016: Into the great wide open

Embracing change, this year’s Berlinale provided the perfect platform for Australian creatives working far beyond their comfort zones.

As the first major festival on the European film calendar, Berlin has plenty on show for audiences and industry alike. This year, though, the festival seemed determined to defy expectation and throw caution to the wind. Among the out-of-box highlights at the 66th Berlinale: a new sidebar for the latest in landmark television series from around the world.

Such a renewed sense of purpose fits in well with the prevailing mood amongst our creative practitioners. Not only was the highly anticipated indigenous sci-fi series Cleverman – a unique co-production with US TV powerhouse AMC and the Sundance Channel – creating a buzz for its cast and crew (director Wayne Blair and actress Deborah Mailman, among them), teen comedy drama Girl Asleep was also enjoying a buoyant response for its stage-based team. A pair of emerging filmmakers, Bryn Chainey and Alice Englert, were also in Berlin to soak up the atmosphere first-hand. ‘Fearless’ best summed up the spirit of this year’s festival.

“I’ve always been fascinated and amused by the time period when you’re aware of adults and their behaviour, but it would be inappropriate to take part in that world,” Alice Englert says, of her quirky teen short The Boyfriend Game and its journey from script to screen.

Casting director Kirsty McGregor lent her support in sourcing two remarkable young leads, while mum Jane Campion provided a robust sounding board for ideas. Englert, already a successful jobbing actress, has also added singer-songwriter to her resumé, effectively displayed during the closing credits of her new short film.

Matthew Whittet, another accomplished actor turned writer, had even more reason to smile at Berlin: his big-screen debut, Girl Asleep, opened the Generation 14plus strand of the festival with a joyful bang. A cross between Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, the 1970s-styled coming-of-age yarn – developed with the Adelaide Film Festival’s Hive initiative, designed to assist creatives looking to branch out – was adapted from Whittet’s stage play of the same name. His director, Rosemary Myers, and much of their theatre team came along for the ride. The journey from stage to screen doesn’t appear to have fazed him one bit.

“It was a great process: when I’m writing plays, a lot of my influences come from film,” he says. “We’re used to working imaginatively on small budgets so when I started writing the screenplay, it was a real liberation. We had a year-and-a-half to interrogate the ideas we wanted to explore [on stage] and a chance to road test them in front of audiences, so we felt quite confident of what it is as a piece of storytelling. It then became a chance to just have fun with how we articulate those ideas in a different form.”

Girl Asleep is likely to enjoy a wide cinema release this year – and Whittet says the experience has inspired him and the team to try their hand at another stage-to-screen adaptation.

“We’ve very much got our eye on what’s next,” he says. “We’ve got a taste for making films now, and have material that we’ve already made as theatre shows, that we’re itching to transform into film as well.”

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, in Berlin to support Australia’s slate of projects in the festival and the market, says Berlinale is the one of the best opportunities for showcasing homegrown work, as well as connecting with co-production partners in Europe.

“There’s literally something for everybody,” he says. “We’ve got Australians in every corner of the festival. There’s a real buzz for what Australian talent has to offer here – and it’s increasingly going way beyond what people might expect. Cleverman and Girl Asleep are perfect examples of that – Australian stories that also appeal to the international market.”

Ed Gibbs is a senior journalist turned producer. He writes for a wide variety of outlets including BBC News, Empire, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald. 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 in 2015 and has since screened at key festivals in Australia and the UK, including the 59th BFI London Film Festival and the 2016 Glasgow Film Festival.