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Australian films wow at Venice

Australians made a serious splash at this year’s Venice Film Festival – the oldest film festival in the world.

Familiar and fresh faces alike dominated the 73rd edition this year. Mel Gibson was back behind the lens with Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial outing in 10 years, which drew widespread praise from critics and audiences, and featured an all-star Australian cast. Guy Pearce and Naomi Watts delivered strong performances in overseas films Brimstone and The Bleeder, respectively. Andrew Dominik’s One More Time With Feeling presented the making of Nick Cave’s new album with sensitivity and grace, while author M L Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans was adapted for the screen by US auteur Derek Cianfrance.

Hounds of Love

Among the biggest surprises, though, were two first-time feature directors, both cutting their teeth in features that not long ago would have been deemed as too high risk. Western Australia’s Ben Young, an acclaimed commercials and music video director, mined the suburban horror genre with Hounds of Love – a terrifying story, inspired by real-life cases, about a serial killer couple and their prey, set in Perth in 1987 and screening in the Venice Days sidebar. Talent agency CAA were on the phone before the first screening had finished.

“My mother is a crime writer – she used to give me the books she’d used for research,” Young explained, of his interest and foray into horror. “I grew up in the 1980s as well, it’s a time I’m familiar with. The couple in the film are really a metaphor of Perth becoming a real city – from the sleepy coastal place it once was. It’s about that loss of innocence, really.”

Hounds of Love is due to have its Asian premiere in Busan.

While a different type of genre film, Victorian filmmaker Nicholas Verso’s coming-of-age thriller Boys in the Trees, which screened in the festival’s Orrizonti sidebar (before it heads to Toronto and Busan), also suggests that audience tastes are continuing to shift. Verso had battled for years to get one of his teen-centric scripts off the ground. Buoyed by interest in the revived Mushroom Pictures, this inventive suburban psychological thriller blends elements of teen drama and horror, set to a stellar soundtrack of 1990s classics.

“We haven’t made a teen film in Australia since 2011’s Tomorrow When the War Began,” Verso says. “I think culturally it’s important that we engage with our young people and not judge them, not talk down to them, not condemn them. It’s important to celebrate growing up in Australia in suburbia. I wanted to make something that felt true for Australian teenagers, something that they can relate to.”

Boys in the Trees/Ian Routledge

After his whirlwind international festival tour, he’s looking forward to touring Australia with the film next month.

“As filmmakers, we have to be the face of our films – look at Genevieve Bailey or Jeremy Sims,” he says. “The new generation of filmmakers have to tour, kind of like a band. I’m really looking forward to the regional tour of Australia and engaging with those audiences. They don’t hold back with their opinions – as a filmmaker, that’s gold. You want an audience to get excited and give their view.”

The bright lights of the festival circuit won’t distract him too much, though. There are other projects he’s ready to pitch round – plus he’s directed episodes of Nowhere Boys with Matchbox for the ABC, which screen in November.

Having waited years to be at a major festival with his debut feature, following several well-received shorts, Verso admits he’s already getting restless to get back to work again, “I don’t want to be one of those filmmakers making a film every seven years,” he reasons. “I want to be shooting again next year – and hopefully again in Adelaide. We had a ball. There’s a lot of places there that haven’t been done to death – and a lot of talent there, as well. It’s an amazing place for filmmakers.”

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.