That's How the Light Gets In

by Adrian Martin

I no longer live in Australia so, while still maintaining all kinds of connections (sentimental and otherwise) to my birth country, I’m not ‘in the swim’ of daily film culture there. But one thing that I have often noticed and pondered is even clearer to me now than ever before.


From my spot in Europe, I scan many notices about film festivals, cinémathèques, special arts events, and so on. Australian cinema – particularly the types of Australian cinema I have always cared for, and championed as a critic – is almost always completely absent from all these notices. The lack is particularly keenly felt when it comes to the annual line-up announcements from the ‘big’ festival showcases of Cannes, Berlin, San Sebastian … as well as the more progressive centres of Locarno, Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, and all the rest. An occasional outstanding feature or short slip in, of course. But Australia seems very far from ever being likely to catch a ‘wave’ on the festival circuit, as has happened for Romania, Greece, the Philippines, and many other flaring hotspots of cinema in the 21st century.


"Greek weird wave" filmmakers happy at Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 2011.
No Australians in sight. (photo by Bill Mousoulis)


Australian cinema doesn’t exist on the world map – and a similar statement could be made about Australian art, Australian literature, Australian culture, period. I remember once being commissioned to write about a particular, great French filmmaker for a European catalogue. I began and concluded my contribution with references to the deep resonances this fine director had triggered in the Australian scene of experimental filmmakers and cinephile-critics. When I saw the finished product, all these “local”, Australian references had been cut by the editor. When I duly complained, I received the explanation: “None of that is of any interest to us here in Europe”. I have endured this type of belittling experience many times, over the past three or four decades. The big question is: how to change the situation?


For me, born Australian and resident there until my mid 50s, the summits of national cinema have long been: short films, experimental work (of all stripes), documentaries, animations, women’s cinema, indigenous cinema, multicultural cinema. It’s this kind of work that should be known and more-or-less constantly circulating along the global circuits.


Long ago, before the much-vaunted commercial/feature-narrative “renaissance” of Australian cinema, the pundit Phillip Adams advised the nation to forget about competing with Hollywood and its well-oiled market successes; as a small country, it should rather be focused on crafting an “art cinema”. I scoffed at the notion as a middle-class, snob reflex at the time, but now, taking it from a certain angle, I think he was right. Something else I have often supported – genre or “B” cinema in Australia – has somewhat taken, on the world stage, the ground (and the acclaim) that more mainstream feature production has long lost; horror movies are in the ascendant, and that has been an especially good development for women in this field. But there is so much more that still languishes without any kind of global recognition.


The age of the digital has not really improved this situation for Australian filmmakers; indeed, I think it has made it worse. In one of my last official dealings, in the mid 2000s, with what is currently Screen Australia, I was present at what I now interpret as a decisive and catastrophic turn: the moment that it was sensed that, if filmmakers could, all of a sudden, shoot and post-produce for almost zero dollars using digital equipment, why bother officially supporting it financially anymore? (Remember, even quite experimental films were once funded as 35 millimetre ‘calling cards’ for the festival circuit by the AFC.) Once the government agencies let go of that literal investment in small work, every other kind of investment – cultural, promotional, nationalistic, whatever – immediately went to hell, as well.


Breathing Under Water (Susan Dermody, 1992),
a fully funded Australian 35mm. experimental essay film.


More than ever, filmmakers and artists have to look after themselves, make their own contacts, and forge their own paths. No one can look to subsidies from governments or universities or any institution like that anymore. Things like Kickstarter (and its ilk), as a way of raising small amounts of money for projects, are regularly criticised as a sign of dreaded neo-liberalism taking over our lives – yet is there any decent alternative, today or tomorrow? We can’t wait for the 1970s or 1980s to return; they won’t.


Critics have a part to play – not only in their writing, but more within the (often invisible) circuits of consulting, advising, recommending and so on that feed into festival and other programming/curating processes. I don’t live full-time on the festival circuit as some critics do, but I’ve tried to do my bit, here and there, to suggest a retrospective, a thematic focus, a premiere … What’s needed, however, is a more collective effort to create a ground swell of interest. Online publications, for instance, have a big part to play in what one theorist calls the “national projection” of a cinema – the images and words notifying anybody on the lookout that something, indeed, is happening in Australia. We have to fight against our shroud of invisibility, tear it apart and let some light pass through – in both directions.


Adrian Martin is a film and arts critic who lives in Vilassar de Mar, Spain. His latest book is Mysteries of Cinema (Amsterdam University Press, June 2018).

Published March 27, 2018. © Adrian Martin, 5 February 2018