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  • Cate Shortland (l) on set.

    Imagine you’re a young woman from Brisbane, and you decide to quit your job taking photos for a real estate website, and head overseas for the first time, to the cool city where all the other cool young people seem to be heading —ŒBerlin. There you meet a really nice guy, you go back to his, you have amazing sex. But fast forward to the morning after and you discover he’s locked you in his creepy apartment, and so begins Berlin Syndrome, a dark fairy-tale of a thriller from Australian director Cate Shortland.

    You might remember Cate’s first film, Somersault, which came out in 2004. That film probably rings a bell because you either loved it or hated it — it was dragged into a debate that raged at the time about how Australian cinema was in crisis. It was a particularly ill-informed, mostly useless exercise dominated by claims from the affirmative team that the films we were making in this country were depressing, niche, and didn’t attract an audience. Somersault was the film of the moment that copped a lot of the flak. The solution, apparently, was that we needed to make more populist genre films in this country, and, anachronistically, some pointed back to a so-called golden age of Australian genre filmmaking in the 1970s as an example we should emulate. You might remember a snappy documentary that helped the case — Not Quite Hollywood — with Quentin Tarantino gushing over how much he loved us. Ignore Tarantino, there’s actually scant evidence for this claim of a golden age — certainly Australia never made anywhere near the quality or quantity of hardboiled action movies and comedies churned out in places like Hong Kong or Italy in the 1970s, but that's by the by, mud was hurled, and Somersault, an accomplished, tender debut feature about a girl’s coming of age starring Abbie Cornish — got caught in the cross fire.

    So how is Cate Shortland travelling now, 13 years later, on just her third feature after her well received World War IIŒdrama Lore in 2012, about a German girl who takes her siblings on a cross country trek after the collapse of the Nazi regime.

    The answer is that she’s still following a line that began with her early shorts at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Shortland is an auteur and the imprint of her style is unmistakable. It’s a cinema that evokes the sensation of strong feeling. The camera seems to quiver, often hand held and coming in and out of focus. The lighting is wildly expressive and her actors — their faces streaked with tears and their clothes torn —Œdeliver performances of intensity, pain, and strength. The difference with Berlin Syndrome — based on the novel by Melanie Joosten and adapted for the screen by Jasper Jones and Snowtown screenwriter Shaun Grant — is that it’s the first time Shortland has dealt with source material that has a clear commercial appeal.

    The matchup between her ethereal style and the brutality of a kidnapping thriller isn’t always a happy one. The film can’t quite sustain the tension, nor can it follow through on some of the ideas it stops to signpost.

    Just what is it about? Like the central character Clare — a young woman who takes loving photos of crumbling East German architecture but almost visibly squirms with embarrassment at the mention of her home town of Brisbane — it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Is this a moral tale, then, about tourists who indulge in superficial fantasies about societies they don’t understand? Or is it a film about Max Reimelt’s angel faced psycho Andi — the son of a communist father and a mother who defected to the West — whose inability to reconcile with a fragmented past is a symbol for Germany itself?

    Shortland tries to make it about both, but ultimately settles for something simpler, a coming of age story told through a prism of escalating violence and manipulation, that lacks, however, the exterior journey through expansive landscapes featured in her previous films. Andi’s grey apartment — beautifully recreated on a Melbourne sound stage with shadowy nooks, crannies, and a secret room — is the main backdrop, and Shortland doesn’t quite transcend the location.

    The film’s mix of tragedy and farce — sometimes reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s Misery for the way both captor and captive invest in a make-believe version of their relationship — lacks nuance.

    Palmer, whose piercing blue eyes become ever more determined, does convince as a victim who turns the tables on her abuser. But the overriding impression of the film is of a gifted auteur who hasn’t quite managed to bend the material to her will.

    Listen to Jason Di Rosso's interview with Cate Shortland here.

  • Australia-China co-pro 'Guardians of the Tomb' (formerly 'Nest') stars Chinese mega-star Li Bingbing.Œ

    The official co-production treaty between China and Australia entered into force in 2008. Since then, despite growing interest in working with the burgeoning film power, only a handful of official co-productions have been made. They include The Dragon Pearl, 33 PostcardsŒand The Children of the Silk Road (made under a MOU prior to the signing of the treaty).Œ

    However in the past 18 months, things have started to shift. The biggest co-pro to date, Kimble Rendall’s Guardians of the Tomb (formerly Nest), shot on the Gold Coast early last year, and gangster film Dog Fight shot in Victoria last September. Both films are now in post.Œ

    Two other projects, Pauline Chan’s My Extraordinary Wedding and Nadia Tass and David Parker’s Tying the Knot,Œhave been issued provisional approval but are yet to enter production.

    This week, at a networking event in Beijing, the latest China-Australia co-pro was unveiled.

    A collaboration between China’s Monumental Films and Australia’s Rodman Films and Story Bridge Films, At LastŒfollows a couple from Beijing who become caught in a complex art heist while on holiday in Australia. The writer-director is Yiwei Liu and producers are Jackie Jiao, Todd Fellman, Charles Fan and Vanessa Wu.

    Casting is currently underway with production expected to kick off in Queensland in mid-July. Financing will be provided by Orient Image Entertainment, Gravity Films, Shineland Media, China Lion and Screen Queensland.

    Screen Australia’s head of business and audience Richard Harris said there has been increased interest in Australian-Chinese co-productions of late, with four announced since late 2015. Œ

    “This upswing in activity is the result of seven years of engagement with the Chinese screen industry and the sustained support of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in China,” he said.Œ

    “China is currently the world’s second-largest movie-going market and co-productions are an essential growth stream for the Australian industry. This is over and above the existing appetite for Chinese television and film productions being shot in Australia.”

    Screen Queensland CEO Tracey Vieria estimated At Last’s Queensland shoot would provide around 200 jobs and $10.8 million for the state’s economy.Œ

    “Queensland producers have been working extensively to build relationships with Chinese producers and it is fantastic to see another official co-production in our State,” she said.Œ

    At LastŒwas announced at a BeijingŒevent hosted in partnership with Ausfilm and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, designed to further Australian-Chinese working relationships and identify co-production opportunities.

    In attendance were Ausfilm members including Screen NSW, Film Victoria, Screen Queensland, Screenwest, City of Gold Coast, Soundfirm, Spectrum Films, Show Group, Stage & Screen and The Appointment Group.

    Standalone production companies were also present, including Sydney Films, which announced a slate of 14 films that will be developed to qualify as co-productions. Overall, the company plans to identify 20 existing or potential co-production films with an investment budget of $400 million.Œ

    Ausfilm has been actively working to build the Australia-China relationship, hosting the Australia China Film Industry Exchange in partnership with Screen Australia and the Australian Embassy in Beijing for the last seven years. More recently, it has brought delegations of Chinese filmmakers to Australia under its Familiarisation Program to scout locations and meet with Ausfilm member companies, line producers and HODs. Œ

    Heyi Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures Asia shot in Sydney for six weeks this year on Jackie Chan sci-fi Bleeding Steel as a direct result of these ongoing intiatives, says Ausfilm CEO Debra Richards. Œ

    While the official co-production treaty only covers features, many Aussie producers are also finding success producing TV with China. The first Chinese TV drama to shoot in Australia, Speed,Œrecently wrapped filming in South Australia with 57 Films handling local production.

    Upcoming project Butterflies Across the SeaŒwill be the biggest budget Chinese television series to have been filmed outside of China. It's set to shoot between May and October around Sydney and is a co-production between Horgos Buer Culture Media and Pauline Chan and Deidre Kitcher's Opal Films International.

    While China grants only a small number of foreign films a theatrical release each year, Aussie films have enjoyed some box office success in China of late. Hacksaw RidgeŒgrossed $80 million and was granted an extended theatrical release, a rare feat for a foreign film. Kimble Rendall'sŒBait 3DŒalso grossed some AUD$24.4 million back in 2012.Œ

    The Death and Life of Otto Bloom has also been shortlisted for the Tiantan Award at the 2017 Beijing International Film Festival.

    For more information on working with China, read IF’s field guide from our December-January issue (IF#174).Œ

  • Œ

    Tickets are now on sale for the world premiere of four short films directed by the recipients of the 2016 Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship. Anya Beyersdorf, Brooke Goldfinch, Alex Ryan and Alex Murawski will screen their films at Dendy Opera Quays on June 13 during this year’s Sydney Film Festival.ŒThe next crop of Fellows to receive $50,000 will be announced on the night.

    Œ

    IF checked in with Goldfinch earlier this year, as the filmmaker was editing her film, 'Outbreak Generation', about a woman who finds herself the sole carer of an eight-year-old boy in the middle of a global epidemic. Goldfinch previously directed short 'Red Rover' in the States while studying filmmaking at NYU, and completed a director’s attachment on the set of 'Alien: Covenant' with Ridley Scott last year.

    Œ

    Where did you shoot Outbreak Generation, and how many days did you have?

    Œ

    We did most of our exteriors in Kurnell, and we did some scenes at Royal North Shore Hospital. And at Lisa [Shaunessy] the producer’s house in Leichhardt. We shot for five days. We needed every minute. I didn’t realise Australians shoot for 10 hours and not 12, so that was a big learning curve. But it’s such a great opportunity, because filmmaking isn’t like painting. You can’t do it in your bedroom by yourself. Having the opportunity to hone your craft is so important. The Lexus program allows people to experiment and I think there’s not enough of that here. It’s so expensive to make films. And we wrote this film in the world of my feature, and it was really great to throw ideas up on the screen and see what works and what doesn’t.

    Was the script an excerpt from the feature?

    No I wrote a separate thing. Trying to condense a feature into a short is a bit of a fool’s errand. We tried to just have elements of the world and not so much the story of the feature, so it’s quite different. My feature’s a sci-fi, set in the not-too-distant future, so it’s good to look at it and see what the audience will buy.

    How do you audition?

    We had a casting agent, Marianne Jade, but I had someone in mind for the lead. I’d seen Gen Hegney in a couple of different things. She does a lot of comedy, she was in The Little Death. She’s got a really great comedic sensibility and the character in my film is very depressed and I needed somebody who had this really snide, sarcastic quality. Gen has this ability to inhabit a character and play things really dry. And not ham things up. Even though this film’s a drama, I really wanted somebody that could get in to the few comedic moments and really sell them to give the audience a bit of reprieve from the [grimness].

    And for her son?

    In the audition this little boy stormed up to us and said, I’ve only been doing this for three months and I’ve already booked three gigs. He had this incredible in-your-face attitude that I thought was perfect for the role. Often when kids have booked commercials and stuff, they’re very rehearsed and fakey. They’re just really big. Because he’s so fresh, Oscar didn’t have any of that overly rehearsed [quality]. He was really good but also really natural.

    Are you working with any collaborators from Red Rover?

    Yeah, we did all the post production here [in Australia]. Christine [Cheung] edited that as well. We’re doing our post again at Spectrum. But it’s mostly new people.

    Now you’re in the edit, is the film looking different to how you imagined?

    Yeah it is. I was really thrown by the fact we only shoot 10 hours a day. I’d signed off on a couple of days thinking they were 12 hours. So it’s taken a bit of work to reconfigure things. And I learnt a lot about light in Australia. It is so bright here. In the Northern Hemisphere, where I have most of my experience, the golden hours last much longer and you can shoot outdoors for much longer. Here at 9am, it’s like: the lights are on. It’s so harsh. And shooting in summer you only have so many daylight hours, so you don’t have the flexibility of shooting in the morning and the evening because that’s too long a day. Stuff like that was such a big learning curve for me.

    Trailers for all four Fellowship films are here.

  • Kiara Milera on the set of Warwick Thornton's 'Sweet Country' in 2016, with Michael Fairbairn, Dylan Rivers and Drew English. (Photo credit: Tanith Glynn-Maloney).

    The South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) has selected four indigenous filmmakers for a writing residency at Adelaide Studios’ new Pirrku Kuu Hub.Œ

    The Pirrku Kuu Hub, a dedicated story room for Aboriginal screen makers, is a key initiative of SAFC’s Aboriginal Screen Strategy.

    As well as access to the space, the fourŒ—ŒKiara Milera, Joel Brown and brothers Edoardo and Michael CrismaniŒ—Œwill participate in SAFC-led professional development opportunities throughout the year.



    Edoardo Crismani's documentary The Panther Within premiered on NITV in March, and his short drama 440 was selected for the SAFC’s Aboriginal Short Film funding initiative in 2016.Œ

    Œ

    Michael Crismani wrote, directed and produced short film I Kept the Beat, which aired last year on NITV and SBS On Demand, for the NITV/SAFC Microdocs Initiative.Œ

    Œ

    Joel Brown is a recent graduate from Flinders University and completed an attachment in the ADs department on the second series of Cleverman. He has also directed two micro-documentaries with NITV and has worked as an actor, choreographer and animator.

    Œ

    Kiara Milera is about to commence pre-production on her short film No Ears as part of the SAFC’s Aboriginal Short Film funding initiative. Milera recently completed a director’s attachment with Warwick Thornton on Sweet Country. She has also written for Black Comedy.Œ

    SAFC CEO Annabelle Sheehan said she looked forwarded to seeing the filmmakers develop their projects.

    “It’s great to have Aboriginal filmmakers based at the heart of the Adelaide Studios and working alongside the other screen practitioners here," she said. "This residency is an important commitment of SAFC, to build on the strengths of the Aboriginal screen sector which is having a worldwide impact."

    SAFC’s Aboriginal strategy executive Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin said: “The Aboriginal Screen Strategy is facilitating a number of exciting initiatives. Our local Aboriginal film makers are gaining vital industry knowledge and experience, while increasing a greater capacity to tell their stories while widening their access points to screen both here in Australia and internationally.”

  • Red Billabong.Œ

    Luke Sparke is following up his feature debutŒRed Billabong with sci-fi picŒOccupation.ŒThe film, about a small town that bands together after a devastating ground invasion, will shoot next month around the Gold Coast and northern NSW.

    Dan Ewing, who lead the cast ofŒRed Billabong, will also star inŒOccupationŒalongside New Zealand’s Temuera Morrison (The Osiris Child , Moana, Star Wars: Episode II and III).

    Other cast include Stephany Jacobsen (Battlestar Galactica), Rhiannon Fish (The 100), Charles Terrier (Neighbours), Bruce Spence (Mad Max 2), Felix Williamson (The Great Gatsby, Underbelly), Charles Mesure (Desperate Housewives), Zachary Garred (General Hospital), Izzy Stevens (Puberty Blues), Trystan Go (The Family Law) and AFI award winner Jacqueline McKenzie (The 4400).

    Occupation will be produced by SparkeFilms, with Red Billabong producer Carly Imrie returning. Œ

    “I’m very excited and proud to bring such a varied and talented ensemble cast to this Australian film,” Imrie said. “Occupation represents our second foray into the action genre after our monster film Red Billabong last year, and this is gearing up to be one hell of a ride.”Œ

    Clay Epstein’s Film Mode Entertainment is handling international sales for the film and will present first-look footage in Cannes. Pinnacle Films will distribute the film theatrically in ANZ.Œ

    The six-week shoot will commence on May 2.Œ