Love’s Brother

For Tait Brady, managing director of Palace Films, the question of whether there is something wrong with Australian films is clearly an incendiary one: ‘It’s just a disgraceful beat-up by journalists who should know better.’ A certain frustration is not surprising: Palace Films is notable for its commitment to movies, including Australian ones, that don’t fit the Hollywood blockbuster template, and its list is full of such critical and commercial successes as Chopper and Japanese Story.

We were discussing one of the latest Australian films distributed by Brady’s group, Love’s Brother, due for release in April. He was explaining the crucial role played by a distributor, not only in the screening of a film, but in getting it even made at all. To qualify for a subsidy from Film Finance Corporation Australia (FFC), Love’s Brother, when still a screenplay, had first to demonstrate a commitment from a distributor, a producer and an international sales agent. It has negotiated innumerable hurdles since then, and must soon face the final one: the critics who will largely determine its fate. If there is any justice it should do well. It is a well-crafted, curiously magical and romantic story of Italian settlement in Australia depicted with humour and restraint  A major coup for its screenwriter and director Jan Sardi (screenwriter for Shine) was the casting of Giovanni Ribisi who gives a brilliant performance as the tortured Angelo, the brother of the title. It has the potential to appeal to an audience which has enjoyed films such as Chocolat and yet one senses that any new Australian title has now to face a certain home-grown prejudice.

Brady concedes that over the last couple of years a few duds have landed on our screens, mainly lowbrow comedies like The Wannabes and Takeaway, courtesy of a joint finance project between the Macquarie Bank and Channel Nine and obligingly distributed through Hoyts. Some were good, some partly good and some bombed. Brady points out that ‘Most countries, Germany in particular, turn out many similar comedies solely for domestic consumption. They usually don’t travel well as they are built around locally popular TV personalities and comedians and depend on that familiarity for their drawing power’.

Not a hanging matter then, surely, if some of ours miss, considering the silliness and tedium of many of the American comedies that are released here year after year. But, says Brady, ‘Journalists went into a feeding frenzy and wrote a lot of bad news stories about the quality of Australian films. Unfortunately there were a few good movies during this time which undeservedly got lumped in with it’.

Getting Square and The Rage in Placid Lake were among those that missed out on the reviews and audiences they merited. A climate in which Australian movies struggled to get an audience or a fair hearing has naturally had a ripple effect through the whole industry—with confidence in, and commitment to, home-grown projects suffering a setback. It will take time to recover from being so ruthlessly talked down.

In the context of the recently signed Free Trade Agreement negotiations with America, a local press relentlessly bagging its own film industry takes on a more sinister aspect. At last year’s AFI awards, presenters and prize-winners alike were clearly alarmed at the effect that locking our government subsidies into a standstill to please the US would have on the future of screen culture in this country. They used the opportunity of the awards to say so. Alas, our best histrionic talent failed to soften some journos’ flinty hearts. A backlash led by pro-FTA columnists such as Fairfax’s Gerard Henderson and News Limited’s Terry McCrann in classic attack-dog style tended to confuse issues rather than genuinely discuss them. With the Gallipoli and Ned Kelly stories already made into respectable movies, the implication was that there was now little justification for any further subsidies for Australian filmmaking. Nicole Kidman and Rupert Murdoch were held up as the main examples of Australian stories worth the telling, even though they were now American tales with matching accents.

Why subsidies should be shameful is puzzling: even Henderson reminded us that some US film companies have been known to call themselves manufacturers in order to qualify for huge tax breaks.

Projects such as Love’s Brother make it to the screen because of the confidence demonstrated at every stage of development by writers, actors, producers and distributors, even investors, fascinated by Australian stories and authentic ways of telling them. We’re going to need them.

Lucille Hughes is a freelance writer and graphic artist.



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