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Screen Australia in Sundance

Australian films have enjoyed a strong international presence already this year and no one knows that more than Screen Australia’s Richard Harris.

Producer Polly Staniford, director Cate Shortland, Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt and executive producer Angie Fielder.

On the day of our meeting, after a busy first weekend at Sundance, where some of the six Australian films were generating considerable heat, he was dealing with the announcement that Tanna had become the first Australian foreign film nominee at the Oscars.

“We knew Tanna was getting some attention, but the Oscar nomination was a real coup,” he says. “If you combine it with Lion and Hacksaw Ridge that’s a great trifecta.”

A major Australian Sundance premiere has been Berlin Syndrome and director Cate Shortland explains that the festival had been their first choice to launch the film, before it goes on to Berlin.

“I think Sundance focuses on genre and independent cinema and this film is a hybrid of the two,” she says.

Certainly the film about a German man keeping his new Australian lover captive fared well at the Festival with Variety noting how, “Shortland’s kinky confinement thriller reveals her affinity for genre-tinged material, at no cost to her distinctive formal style.”

Not that the well-respected filmmaker worries too much about reviews. “I just want to make good work and I want to make work that affects people,” she says. “I enjoy my life and I don’t want the anxiety around my work anymore, whereas when I made Somersault I was so worried about what people would think. Even today I read two reviews and they were positive and I said to myself, ‘Ok, I’m not going to read any more. That’s it’.”

The film’s producer Polly Staniford from Aquarius Films has long been a fan of Shortland’s work and approached her with Shaun Grant’s screenplay based on Melanie Joosten’s novel. “I was excited about approaching Cate for this film because I didn’t want it to be a straight down-the-line thriller,” Stanford says. “I wanted it to have that beauty and detail; to become that hybrid. It’s definitely got that arthouse genre crossover. I would say it’s good to have a bit of genre to help commercially, but I wouldn’t add (it in) just to try and make it more commercial.”

Staniford was surprised by how fast the production came together and greatly appreciated Screen Australia’s support. “Screen Australia supported the whole development process of this film through four drafts and obviously in obtaining the production funding as well.”

Interestingly Staniford is in Sundance with two other Australian rising female talents: director/producer Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) and director Alethea Jones (Fun Mom Dinner), who were all in the same class at Victorian College of the Arts.

Why are Australian women filmmakers firing so strongly?

“There’s a lot of talk about gender parity in the media at the moment and I think it’s our turn,” Staniford says. “We’ve been around for a long time working hard and kind of pushing through that glass ceiling and now we’re fighting harder than ever to get our stories on the screen. That’s really exciting.”

Writer/director Damien Power agrees with Staniford that thrillers are the way forward. His feature directing debut Killing Ground which follows a couple on a weekend getaway-gone-wrong—think Wolf Creek—enjoyed a wild, packed reception in the Midnight slot at the classic Egyptian Theatre, Sundance’s original venue.

“We had a waitlist, lines and people standing in a blizzard to get in. The film played really, really well. People get vocal in this film – they become really engaged and gasp and they really get into it.”

Having previously been picked up for China and the Middle East, Killing Ground scored a deal with US distributor IFC Midnight in Sundance.

Power is keen to continue in the thriller genre. “I think that a lot of drama has moved to the television space but there’s still an audience for thrillers in the cinema. So if you’re not doing children’s movies or comedy, then thrillers are a viable space for filmmakers to work in, particularly given the kind of budget levels we can do in Australia. You can make a film for a low cost with high stakes. I really wanted to make this a visceral experience for people. So far so good.”

Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos seems to be quite taken with our talented female filmmakers, picking up three prominent films before the festival. Netflix holds exclusive rights to Casting JonBenet and will stream Fun Mom Dinner (stars Toni Collette) and Berlin Syndrome after their theatrical release.

<em>Casting JonBenet</em> director Kitty Green/Azikiwe Aboagye Casting JonBenet director Kitty Green/Azikiwe Aboagye

Based on the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old pageant beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, Green’s innovative documentary allows people auditioning to play JonBenét and her family to discuss the murder while offering a wide array of conspiracy theories. Green, who won Sundance’s best documentary short prize two years ago for The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, concedes that the festival is the perfect place to premiere her new film.

“They really value documentary here and it’s just as valued as the narrative strand, by audiences as well,” she says. “Casting JonBenet is a documentary, but it has these narrative elements. So it’s nice to be at a festival where people are open to anything really.”

Shooting largely with an Australian crew helped with the outsider’s point of view in exploring such a well-known case she says. “The film is looking at American culture in a way that I don’t think Americans could and people have come up to me after screenings saying that. It’s not our world, but we’re fascinated by all the pageantry and all the things that we don’t have in Australia. We want to kind of pick them apart and examine them.”

The upbeat prequel to 2011’s Red Dog, RED DOG: True Blue also played to an appreciative crowd. “There are a lot of great films here and a lot of them are dark,” Harris says. “Red Dog was idiosyncratic and did extremely well in Australia. This prequel is more conventional, so I’m curious if it will sell better overseas.”

Also in Sundance in the International Shorts programme was Lucy Schroder’s short film Slapper, the story of a teenager struggling to pay for the morning-after pill. Schroder is yet another rising Australian talent.

“There’s a lot of interest in her—I’ve hardly seen her here in Sundance,” Harris chuckles. “She’s been like swallowed up by the machine!”

Then of course there’s Sundance’s biggest breakout star, yet another young talented Australian woman, Danielle Macdonald, whose performance as a New Jersey rapper in the US feature Patti Cake$ resulted in the festival’s second biggest deal—the film sold to Fox Searchlight for US$10.5 million. After missing out on the official breakout star award, Macdonald, who started her career in the US, told me at the awards ceremony how she would love to return to Australia to make a film.

“Danielle’s been in the US for a few years and she’s now just come on our radar,” Harris explains. “There’s definitely an Australian flavour in American films in Sundance, with Jacki Weaver (The Polka King), Emily Browning (Golden Exits) and Toni Collette (Fun Mom Dinner). Then with Alethea, Polly and Kitty there’s this coalescence of interesting female filmmakers, which is great.”

And of course the girls are having fun. “It’s lovely to hang out with them; we spend every night together,” Green explains. “There a lot of parties and events to go to, but it’s just nice to have your friends around you, to relax a little and feel like you’re supported.

“It’s a coincidence we’re all here. I have no idea what happened. But the three of us are driven by the love of film. I was in Sundance two years ago when no one else from VCA was here. But it’s lovely that the stars have aligned.”

Green is currently on a year-long fellowship with the Sundance Institute focusing on the art of non-fiction and challenging documentary form.

Even more experimental is Orbital Vanitas, a virtual reality work from video artist Shaun Gladwell (The Lacrima Chair, Storm Sequence) and collaborator Leo Faber, which screened in the New Frontier sidebar.

“We didn’t fund Orbital Vanitas,” Harris notes, “but we are funding their next project. It has the working title Storm Rider and is about a girl skateboarder and was funded by us as a documentary.”