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Stratton from Venice

Venice Film Festival jury member David Stratton speaks from Italy about Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, his reviewing career, his greatest achievements and his earliest movie memory.

Jury photocall 74th Venice Film FestivalJury photocall at the 74th Venice Film Festival / Getty Images

British-born David Stratton is an icon of Australian cinema but he is reluctant to admit it. Fresh from one of his cruises where he accompanied Margaret Pomeranz and some 60 to 100 Australian movie fans around the British Isles, he is now part of the competition jury at the Venice Film Festival and it’s the festival he has long considered his favourite.

“I like the Venice festival the best because first of all it usually has a very good selection and secondly it’s very compact,” Stratton says as we catch a quick moment around the hustle and bustle as the festival begins.

Stratton is on a jury led this year Annette Bening and I ask what his thoughts are of the acclaimed actress.

“I admire her a lot and I think she’s very intelligent.” As for his fellow jury members he notes, “I knew Edgar Wright many years ago. He was a good friend of my [British] niece before he was making films and I met Ildikó Enyedi a couple of times in Budapest when I used to go to Hungarian Film Week. I think I reviewed My Twentieth Century, her breakthrough film, for Variety.” This year of course the Hungarian filmmaker took out the Golden Bear in Berlin and won the Sydney Film Festival Official Competition for On Body and Soul. While Stratton adds that he had met Rebecca Hall briefly in the past, he had not met the remaining jury members: Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco, French actress Anna Mouglalis, Italian actress Jasmine Trinca and Taiwan-born filmmaker Yonfan. “It will be an interesting time.”

Interesting indeed as Warwick Thornton’s prime contender Sweet Country is part of the Official Competition and Stratton is naturally obliged not to give any preferential treatment to Australian films.

“... Margaret and I both gave it five stars."

“I’ve seen all of Warwick’s films and Samson and Delilah is a film I adore,” he remarks of the 2009 Cannes Camera d'Or winner for best first film. “I think Margaret and I both gave it five stars so that gives you some idea and I thought his 2013 film The Darkside was incredibly interesting as well.”

It’s not the first time that Stratton has been on a jury when an Australian film is competing. “It’s happened a couple of times, with Careful He Might Hear You in Venice in 1983 and in Berlin when The Killing of Angel Street was In Competition in 1982. Obviously you have to be objective. I think in those cases I would always sit back and listen to what the other members of the jury say before entering into the discussion.”

For many years Stratton was an esteemed critic for Variety and I was told by his Variety cohorts that when he retired from the post they had to replace him with several writers.

“Well I do write fast when I’m under pressure,” he says. “I often was given the opening night film at festivals because there was a very tough deadline. I actually think the best review I ever wrote in my life was under such circumstances. I was coming from Sydney to Venice and the opening film was Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry and the Variety office in Los Angeles had said they’d cover it. But when I arrived on the Lido and was checking into the Hotel Des Bains there was an urgent message saying they hadn't seen it and I’d have to do the review tonight. The press screening was going to begin in 45 minutes so I had to go into the room, shower, change and rush to get the accreditation badge, and I got into cinema just as the lights were going down.”

In 2017, instead of being the critic of a film, Stratton found himself the subject of one with Sally Aitken’s documentary David Stratton: A Cinematic Life. Was he happy with it?

“It was a very strange experience, it wasn't at all what I expected when I signed onto it,” he replies. “But I think Sally did an amazing job. I’ve been terribly gratified. I went around Australia with the cinema version and wherever I went there was a really enthusiastic response and big houses. It did quite well for Transmission given the small scale of the release. Then when the three-part version went on ABC television the ratings were terrific.”

Of course in The Movie Show on SBS and At The Movies on the ABC, Stratton played the straight-man – the buttoned-up Brit to Margaret’s dangling-earringed hipster. In David Stratton: A Cinematic Life we were able to see the man behind the movie image.

“I didn't expect there to be as much about me personally as there was,” he admits. “Sally coaxed me into showing things that I wouldn’t really have thought of telling, just personal things about my parents and that sort of stuff. I thought it would be more about me talking about films and filmmakers, but I thought it turned out really well. A lot of people have commented how they find it quite moving, quite touching.”

Was it touching for him and also his family to watch? “Yes. They all enjoyed it. The funniest thing was my younger brother Roger who plays the devil’s advocate a bit in the film. He lives in England and he doesn't like films at all. In fact he says in the film that he’d be happy if he never saw another film in his life. But he really loves this documentary and he’s been showing the DVD to all his friends. ‘Ha, ha, look I’m the star of Australian cinema and television!’”

Of course it’s the elder brother who is the star or icon. “I don't really feel comfortable with that description,” he says, drawing out his words. “There are far more iconic people in Australia.”

What does he consider his greatest achievements? “I think probably two things. I think getting the Sydney Film Festival on the international map, because it was a very small festival when I became director. It was really a Sydney University event before we moved it into the city to the State Theatre. But maybe more importantly were those years when I was presenting movies on SBS where I know so many people discovered international cinema from watching the movies of the week and cinema classics. In fact I won’t name names but there was one quite important film executive who told me earlier this year how he or she had discovered cinema through those screenings and I find that really gratifying. Lots of people have come to me saying they never knew about Jean Renoir until they saw the show.”

When talking to Stratton I never would have thought that one of his most interesting answers would come when I ask about his earliest movie memory.

“It was when I saw Bambi when I was three.” He can remember that? “I do remember. The scene where Bambi’s mother is killed I never forgot. It was just so awful. Maybe it was because my father was away and I didn't know him really and Bambi’s response when his mother is killed is to go to his father and I didn’t have a father to go to. It was also during the war so people were being killed.”

Understandably he found solace in the movies.

What keeps him going now? “The promise of new films every day, and a couple of glasses of wine and a good dinner in the evening.”

Stratton turns 78 on 10 September and a very happy birthday to him!

Find more about the Australian line-up at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, here