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Australian short wins in Cannes

Charles Williams takes on serious themes in his Palme d’Or winner All These Creatures, while Eryk Lenartowicz has a lot of fun with his absurdist comedy Dots.

Charles WilliamsAll These Creatures director Charles Williams at the Screen Australia stand in Cannes / Dominic Pencz

The big news for Australia out of Cannes is that the one Australian competition entry, Charles Williams’ short film All These Creatures, has run away with the top prize.

In accepting his Short Film Palme d’Or the 36-year-old Melbourne filmmaker spoke of the film’s compassion and with his hand on his heart said he “hopes that rubs off on us all”.

The following day he reflected, “The most exciting part of the night was being able to share the award with my collaborators and also hearing how deeply the jury thought about the film and how much they loved it and cared about it. It was overwhelming to hear.”

Williams took a disciplined approach to the festival, going to bed at 8.30pm and rising early to prepare for a day of meetings, mostly trying to get his first feature, a kind of broadened out version of All These Creatures, off the ground.

“I was never going to come to Cannes until I was invited,” he confides. “It would be too crushing to be here without some invitations and access and it would really suck going around door-to-door trying to get people’s attention. As it’s happened it's been a great way to open doors for my feature.”

His sense of organisation served him well as Williams was the only one of the eight filmmakers in the Official Short film competition to be interviewed on the Cannes website.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better premiere screening,” the writer-director admits. “They showed the films in the right order.”

Williams says his 13-minute film, which stems from personal experience, is about how we try to understand our parents. It’s told in a quiet voiceover by a teenage son who views an infestation of cicadas in the family backyard as reflecting his father’s troubled state of mind.  He cast charismatic newcomer Yared Scott, who is soon to turn 13. Yared came to Australia at age three from Ethiopia and lives in a loving Melbourne home with his adoptive parents. 

In the casting process Williams had no definite nationality or sex in mind for his character and after choosing Yared he brought on four Ethiopian advisors. “I needed a mix of innocence and maturity and someone you can sense a depth from.”

Mandela Mathia, who plays the father, came to Sydney a decade ago at age 14 with his family from South Sudan. He had to fly back to Sydney before the Cannes awards ceremony on Saturday night because he was graduating from NIDA’s exclusive acting course on Sunday. He’s recently appeared in a refugee-themed play Sami in Paradise at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre and has two more plays lined up. “I’d like to act in more movies in Australia because that’s where I’ll be staying,” he says. Yared, who has also has some stage experience, is likewise keen to do more film work.

Charles Williams, and actors Mandela Mathia and Yared Scott.

Williams, who has been directing professionally since the age of 20, after his three-minute short I Can’t Get Started (2002) won the best young director prize at Tropfest, notes there was no original funding for All These Creatures.

“Everyone worked for free, but there was support from the City of Greater Dandenong (where it was filmed) and companies including Savage Film Services, Panavision, Kodak and Soundfirm and from me pulling out my credit card occasionally.”

The film now has a bright future. “Before I left Australia I set up meetings with different sales agents and distributors for both the feature and All These Creatures and before it won in Cannes I signed on with Wouter Jansen at Some Shorts in the Netherlands. He distributed last year’s Palme d’Or winner and only selects eight films each year and specialises in shorts. I have three sales agents to choose from at the moment and one of them has asked me to give them 24 hours….” He's since signed with Premium Films for sales. Williams is definitely in the Cannes zone. 

Eryk Lenartowicz

Eryk Lenartowicz’s absurdist comedy Dots was selected as one of 17 films to screen in the Cannes Cinéfondation section, which draws from film schools around the globe. While Dots is an AFTRS project, Lenartowicz has also studied at Gdynia Film School in his native Poland where at age 19 he was the youngest student ever to be accepted. He even has some acting talent and casts himself in a cameo as a mysterious stranger who wreaks havoc when the local cop in a small country town becomes distracted.

“I thought I could speak in Latin but that would give him too much meaning. Then I thought I’d just go Polish,” Lenartowicz explains with a chuckle. “The film was for my Masters degree at AFTRS and the thesis I was writing was on the conscious rejection of meaning in cinema.”

Surviving on three hours sleep each night in Cannes, the 25 year old says the film has gone down well. “It’s the only comedy in Cinéfondation though there’s a bit of humour in the animated film.”

Dots, which will also screen at the Sydney Film Festival in June, was filmed a year ago in the Blue Mountains, Sydney, and in AFTRS studios for which Lenartowicz has high praise. “Most of the interiors were built from scratch. We could plan what we wanted from the storyboard which was amazing.”

He managed to attract a top-notch cast, most notably Alan Dukes (Beneath Hill 60, The Little Death) as the cop alongside Lucy Bell and Heather Mitchell. “I think it just comes down to me hustling. I was stubborn and got who I wanted.” It also helped that Mitchell is a family friend. “She’s known my parents, Jolanta Juszkiewicz and Jacek Lenartowicz, since they acted together in the television series Spellbinder.”

Like Williams, Lenartowicz has a feature on the boil though it will be vastly different from his short.

“It will definitely be a tragicomedy. With Dots I tested the illogical that consciously denies meaning and now I’d like to do something that consciously accepts meaning and is about something. After Cannes I plan to go to Poland and get funding for a short film and make it there while working on my feature debut and a TV series in Australia. It’s good to dive into another short just to keep in the zone.”

Dots director Eryk Lenartowicz / John Doggett-Williams