Signs of Life:
The 2010s

by Bill Mousoulis

The moribund state of Australian cinema pretty much continued in the decade of the 2010s, but there were some signs of life, especially towards the end of the decade, with a veritable J-curve of indie activity occurring.

It is the indie scene I am most familiar with, and, within the mainstream, the directors I find worthy always seem to be the indie/mainstream crossover ones. In the '70s, there was practically no difference between the nominally indie and mainstream directors (for example, Tim Burstall, Peter Weir, John Duigan all started as clear indie directors). In the '80s, money was rife and the mainstream industry was well and truly born, dominating Australian cinema ever since.

The fate of an "alternative Australian cinema" can clearly be traced by breaking down the history of Australian cinema (the history since the 1960s I mean) into "generations" of filmmakers: the 1st Gen (born primarily in the '40s/'50s) who started mainly in the '60s/'70s (and some are still active today!), the 2nd Gen (born primarily in the '60s/'70s) who started in the '80s/'90s, and the 3rd Gen (born primarily in the '80s/'90s) who started in the '00s/'10s, and this 3rd Gen includes our current "young filmmakers" (those in their 20s).

Martha Ansara
Chris Löfvén
Albie Thoms
Nigel Buesst

The 1st Gen of indie filmmakers, people like Nigel Buesst, Bert Deling, Chris Löfvén, and including experimental filmmakers like Albie Thoms and the Cantrills, had great visibility and impact in the '70s, alongside the burgeoning feature renaissance filmmakers like Weir, Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford and others. It was a fresh, "open" time, allowing for adventure and exploration, even by cinemas and distributors. And some of the more radical filmmakers, like David Perry and Martha Ansara for example, got to make fully-funded features (the type that would never get funded again).

The 2nd Gen of indie filmmakers started finding things a little more difficult. Those born early enough to be flourishing in the '80s (rather than the '90s) could still get somewhere, with funding and distribution Philip Brophy, Sue Brooks, Ray Argall. Those born a little later and trying to make their mark in the '90s started to struggle, giving birth to the "no-budget feature" Alkinos Tsilimidos, Emma-Kate Croghan, Stephen Amis. And those who were clearly more experimental, like Marcus Bergner or George Goularas or Tony Woods, faced almost no hope of being screened or recognised (apart from within specialised contexts), a far cry from the '70s with the Experimental Film Fund supporting over a hundred experimental filmmakers.

The 3rd Gen? With the advent of the digital age, the promise was that everyone could make a film and also get it shown, but this has just created a crowded (and still invisible) "background" to the mainstream filmmakers that are still spotlighted. 3rd Gen indie filmmakers solace themselves with festival appearances in minor festivals, but the reality is that the bigger festivals are closed off to them, and certainly 1st Gen (and even 2nd Gen directors like Leo Berkeley) could definitely crack major festivals, even internationally. For every so-called "indie" director (like David Michôd or Justin Kurzel) who have made a mark in the past 20 years in festivals, more genuinely "indie" directors (like Anna Kannava or Timothy Spanos) have not been recognised, when clearly they should have been. And that's why Australian cinema is considered conservative world-wide today. (How could it be seen as anything else, from the perspective of Europe or Asia or even America?)

There is some hope at the moment, though, in/with the younger of the 3rd Gen filmmakers, those still in their 20s. But more on this later.

Firstly, which filmmakers and which films do stand out in the decade we're just had, the 2010s? Which filmmakers are interesting and innovative and even powerful, and yet still recognised within the mainstream? (or at least the "lower mainstream" let's call it, of the major film festivals and the smaller distributors)

For me, Amiel Courtin-Wilson and Warwick Thornton clearly stand out as the most intriguing and noteworthy filmmakers of those feted in the 2010s. You just have to look at their faces, and poses, and clothes, to understand this.

Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Warwick Thornton

They are both a little punky, and both have been nurtured (as young men) and then recognised in a major way (when older and flowering), and both have pushed things as far as they can, structurally and artistically, especially Courtin-Wilson (being the more radical of the two). Thornton has the incredible family background of his mother being an Aboriginal pioneer, and of course the luck of the era (funding being favoured to indigenous artists), but combined with the talent he possesses, this has produced an incredible filmmaker. Courtin-Wilson was encouraged at an early stage of his film career by his artist parents and MIFF director James Hewison, and then guided by legendary indie director Richard Lowenstein, but what stands out regarding him is his unusual working methods (an intimate connection with his actors/subjects) and his visionary, clearly artistic, talent.

Both filmmakers have made various shorts and docos, but they will clearly be remembered for creating a narrative feature each that is an Australian masterpiece Courtin-Wilson with Hail (2011) and Thornton with Samson and Delilah (2009). The future for both of them will be interesting to follow. For Thornton, considering his 2nd feature Sweet Country (2017) is a lesser and safer film than Samson and Delilah, he may be heading more for the mainstream, and a dissolution of his work. Let's hope not. Courtin-Wilson, however, is not a bender. He continues to make an assortment of different kinds of films, and an epic feature, The Empyrean, is due for release in 2020. He remains a filmmaker who makes films his own way, not the mainstream way.

Both Courtin-Wilson and Thornton have been a great inspiration to many of the younger 3rd Gen indie directors, in the 2010s. And thank God these two directors exist, as Australia sorely needs examples like this.

To go along with these punks, we have also had our own "riot grrls" infiltrating the mainstream in the past couple of years the sister team of Soda_Jerk.


After 15 years of underground activity, Soda_Jerk were suddenly thrust into the spotlight in 2018 with their controversial (initially) and much-loved (ultimately) mash-up critique of Australia and Australian mainstream cinema, Terror Nullius (2018). Like Godard with his essay films using movie images, Soda_Jerk boldly take what they want from classic Australian films without permission, and re-edit, re-shape, and re-constitute (let's say) the images and ideologies into a hilarious but very sharp "revenge fable". That's their words. It's more like a "terrorist act", as befitting two good riot grrls.

You don't believe me? Consider this: for all its alignment with progressive, PC left-wing, politics, Terror Nullius was considered "un-Australian" by the very organisation that funded it, when they first saw the film. The funders realised, of course, that they'd actually supported a film by two underground artists who were anarchist in their politics.

To see these filmmakers on the festival circuit in 2018, with their gracious and generous personalities, presenting their film and meeting people before and after the screenings, was a thing of beauty. Like I said, two "good" riot grrls. They have been one of the very few good things (along with Courtin-Wilson and Thornton, mentioned above) to happen to mainstream Australian cinema in recent years.

Some older, 2nd Gen, but also 1st Gen, filmmakers were still around in the 2010s, also making some great cinema themselves.

Rolf de Heer
Sue Brooks
John Hughes
Gillian Leahy
Margot Nash

Rolf de Heer and Sue Brooks are mainstream-crossover directors of course, but they are true indie directors, playing with individual and unique themes and forms, and they were both in top form in the 2010s. De Heer is now practically a national treasure, able to make all kinds of films, from noble ones to quirky ones, and he remains prolific. The incisive and touching Charlie's Country (2013) is a great addition to his work with David Gulpilil. Brooks is the opposite of prolific, but her Looking for Grace (2015) was an utter delight, probably her best film, her touch a humane and intelligent one.

John Hughes, Gillian Leahy and Margot Nash are three of Australia's legendary political-activist documentary filmmakers, and they are still very much active. Hughes made some short films in the 2010s, but is working on another major feature currently, whilst Leahy and Nash chipped in with two of their finest films this decade, Baxter and Me (2016) and The Silences (2015) respectively, two moving personal (yet still political) works.

But the striking thing about the 2010s overall for Australian cinema has been, as mentioned at the head of this piece, the emergence of the 3rd Gen, younger indie filmmakers, with a marked rush of activity in the past two or three years in particular.

For me, the two standout filmmakers here are Matthew Victor Pastor and Saidin Salkic. They both began making films a little prior to 2010, but they have both had a purple patch over the period 2017 to 2019, with an extraordinarily prolific production of works. In this three-year period, Pastor released 5 features, and Salkic 7 shorts/mini-features.

Matthew Victor Pastor
Saidin Salkic

Pastor is, as I've said many times before, a "phenomenon". A vibrant and imaginative filmmaker, with a committed team around him, he is currently making his films quickly, and constantly trying his hand at new styles and themes. A Filipino-Australian, he is very much like an Asian filmmaker, like a Wong or Tsai or Sono or his fellow countryman, Lav Diaz. Art cinema, formalist exploration, genre work and even spoof genre work his range is impressive, even if the results fall flat at times. At his best, his work is daring and dazzling, as in the quasi-musical MELODRAMA/RANDOM/MELBOURNE! (2018) or the giallo spoof alternating with auto-biographical portrait MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man (2018). And one of his new films (several more features have been shot already of course), In Heaven They Sing Karaoke, is possibly his best film yet, and should be released in 2020 sometime. Australian festivals and distributors are taking their time to warm to him, but they are slowly starting to come round.

Salkic is also a "different" kind of filmmaker, in his case a clear migrant, from Bosnia (a refugee from the genocide there, a war which marks his work deeply). He is actually an extraordinarily talented multi-artist, in poetry, painting, and music, but cinema is his main means of artistic expression. His work is somewhere between self-portraiture and experimental cinema. In the recent flurry of films, the 7 works between 2017 and 2019, he has honed his style down to very particular and intense elements: rough camerawork, unmediated acting, extreme soundscaping. He alternates between light and dark modes, sometimes within the same film: the light of his regeneration in Australia (including the birth of his daughter), and the dark of the war back in Bosnia (his father's murder, his own near-murder). The "light" films like Waiting for Sevdah (2017) and The Arrival of a Phoenix (2018) have their fans, but people struggle with his "dark" films like Silence's Crescendo (2018) or The Shocking (2019). He is not recognised much in Australia, and this isn't helped by his notoriously high opinion of himself ("I am the artist of this Century", quoted from here).

Pastor and Salkic are part of a group of filmmakers I have categorised as the "Australian New Wave". I have formulated this group to help promote the work of these 14 names, as they are filmmakers who (this is my criteria) are both neglected by the major festivals in this country and are also radical (to different degrees) formally in their work. (Otherwise, there are many more indie filmmakers out there, 3rd Gen ones, who make more conventional features, or who are already accepted by festivals such as MIFF or Sydney Film Festival, etc.)

The filmmakers in this "New Wave" grouping of mine are all worthy, in different kinds of ways, but I'd just like to highlight the ones who are the youngest, still in their mid-20s. It is these younger ones that we hope can push further into the Australian cinema landscape in the next years, to make it a more exciting place: Allison Chhorn, Bryce Reimann, Luke Sullivan, Georgia Temple. All four of them have already made at least one feature (or mini-feature) each, films that are some of the best films of this past decade.

Allison Chhorn
Bryce Reimann
Luke Sullivan
Georgia Temple

Of course, sometimes, the major festivals in this country do get it right, and actually select some interesting, formally radical films for their programs. So, whilst a festival like the Melbourne International Film Festival is problematic because of its lack of support for many interesting filmmakers (like the ones I promote) over the past 15 years or so, they have shown in recent years that they can be gutsy and put some fine films on: Strange Colours (2017) by Alena Lodkina, Under the Cover of Cloud (2018) by Ted Wilson, Cerulean Blue (2019) by Adrian Ortega, and films by the Karrabing Collective (which I haven't been able to see as of yet). At least the Adelaide and Perth Film Festivals regularly take a chance or two on more daring work.

Which brings me to my Top 10 Australian films of the past decade. These films (across any genre or budget, and either long or short, and there are several shorts in this list) are the ones that gave me either a sense of magic and awe, or enlivened me with their punky spirit (and in some cases did both within the one film!)

Top 10 Australian films of the 2010s

1. Waiting for Sevdah (Saidin Salkic, 2017)

A man (Salkic, dressed in dandy black) waits in his suburban home for "Sevdah" to arrive. Sevdah is his daughter, and she arrives and the man is overjoyed. A 40-minute minimalist film, Waiting for Sevdah straddles the forms of the silent film, the surrealist film, and the experimental film, and from its simple narrative framework it creates such deep agony and joy that the viewer is dumbstruck with awe and an unexpected transcendental effect is produced. It is an astoundingly "pure" cinema on display here, a cinema of sublimity, where time seems to stop, and it's all created in a rough style, with no budget to speak of.


2. Hail (Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2011)

Courtin-Wilson is probably the one true artist-auteur that Australia possesses (who has been recognised, that is). His work is always interesting, but with Hail, his first dramatic feature, he grasped the moment and produced an extraordinary film: incisive realism in the first half, existential horror in the second half, and all tied together with these curious little surreal/abstract moments. His use of music is particularly brilliant, but the performances are one out of the box here, from real-life people. The content is also strong, and not for the faint-hearted. The best Australian feature since Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes in 2006.


(Matthew Victor Pastor, 2018)

The emblematic film of the current crop of young filmmakers in Australia, pushing the boundaries of cinema. If you want to know what the "alternative" to mainstream cinema is in Australia at the moment, look at this film. Cinema-savvy (Wong meets Godard), bursting with style (different screens, words on the screen karaoke style, wild performances), incisive social critiquing (millenials, racism, the city out of control), MELODRAMA/RANDOM/MELBOURNE! is a rush of neon and music that is unbelievably breathless. And, yes, it is the "Breathless" of the current Australian New Wave.


4. Terror Nullius (Soda_Jerk, 2018)

Of course, it starts with the national anthem. But a party version of the tune, with no words, and it sets the tone Terror Nullius is one of the most inspired films you will ever see, these twisted sisters (Dan and Dominique Angeloro) indeed having a wild party, re-arranging Australia's myths and images, to create a "revenge fable". It's a mash-up, a jam, call it what you will, and by the end, all your images from your favourite Australian films will have been transformed into something you never would have imagined. Unsee that! An anarchist-leftist bomb, even the film's funders called it "un-Australian" when they saw the end result.


5. Reflections in the Dust
(Luke Sullivan, 2018)

AFTRS graduate Luke Sullivan is outspoken in interviews (calling for a more daring Australian cinema), and this 2nd feature of his (at only 25) is an astonishing work for any Australian to produce. Toxic masculinity. Tick. Female abuse. Tick. Disability awareness. Tick. Doing all this in a grotesque, ultra-expressionistic East-European style fuckin' Triple Tick! The performers are sublime, and all other elements excellent, in this strong black brew of a film. Sullivan is definitely a daring filmmaker witness the seemingly out-of-place documentary interview sections in the film.


6. Where Am I? (Matthew Rooke, 2015)

Exquisite short film made in South Korea, as the director Matthew Rooke spends some months there, and documents his observations and his time as a language student. He attaches a Go-Pro to his bicycle and rides through the neighborhoods, and he is in full exploration and connection mode. With a voice-over by Rooke in Korean, the film has inventive editing and joyful music, creating a sense of tenderness and respect, between himself and the Korean people. It's a pity that Rooke has spent more time in the film industry as a worker, rather than making more of his own distinctive films.


7. Eden (James Howard, 2012)

Playwright and actor James Howard started making his own "amateur films" in his 60s, and this is the best one. On the surface, it's a satire around the media, consumerism and the gardening industry, but the secondary layer shows Howard's knowledge of literature and a cunning punning at work in the writing. It's slapstick at times, it's surreal at other times, and just plain damn funny continuously, as an assortment of characters wander through the "Garden of Eden" setting. All the amateur (some professional) actors are stunning throughout, as Howard's script propels them forward with its wackiness and sense of adventure.


8. The Plastic House (Allison Chhorn, 2019)

Chhorn is a digital artist in her mid 20s, living and working in Adelaide, and The Plastic House is her longest film, at 45 minutes. Ostensibly an impressionistic documentary (i.e. no voice-over) about the family greenhouse farm, and a daughter's attempts to keep it going following the death of her parents, the film is really about anxiety and solitude, and begins to feel like an art film à la Haneke or Weerasethakul. Chhorn's touch is majestic light but deep, and realistic but poetic. It's almost an unclassifiable film (everything we see could be made up, or totally real), in a style that very few Australian filmmakers attempt.


9. Under the Cover of Cloud
(Ted Wilson, 2018)

Self-portraiture in indie cinema has taken off like a rocket in recent years (see also entries for Saidin Salkic, Matthew Rooke and Allison Chhorn above), and Ted Wilson's take is truly beautiful. We see Ted arrive back home in Tasmania, and we share in his interactions with his family and friends. Some self-consciousness aside, the interactions captured are fresh and lovely, and full of Bressonian "grace". As we watch, the line between documentary and fiction totally dissolves, and we truly don't care what "category" of film it is we are watching. A gentle and uniquely Australian film.


10. BEAN::QUEEN (Paul Winkler, 2017)

From one of the legends of Australian structuralist-materialist experimental film, comes a totally unexpected work. This is actually Winkler's first digital work, after 40 years of working with film, and with its wacky filming of little dolls it elicited gasps of disbelief from many viewers at its MIFF screening a couple of years back. In his introduction to that screening, Winkler extolled the virtues of digital filmmaking, like a new convert. This is a great example of radical, underground cinema: at the age of 78, Winkler becomes a punk, playing with a new medium, and battering the Queen's head. God save the Queen, for surely Paul Winkler won't!


I've focused only on the films themselves in this piece, but a quick word now on the overall film culture around these type of films.

For most of this past decade, screening opportunities for more alternative works were limited. Even Amiel Courtin-Wilson struggled to get his follow-up film to Hail, called Ruin (2013), into cinemas. As for lesser-known filmmakers, they had to make do with what they could: meaning the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, or the Sydney UFF, or possibly Revelation Perth Film Festival. Or straight to Video on (little) Demand (i.e. YouTube).

But in the last couple of years, a number of different things have sprung up, especially for the more underground scene. Venues such as Long Play, Loop, Flowers, Arena are hosting various screenings, organised by various people such as myself and Chris Luscri (Unknown Pleasures), Artist Film Workshop, the Dogmilk team, Charlie Freedman. I also organise the Australian New Wave screenings, which have happened at Long Play, but also at Adelaide Film Festival and Thornbury Picture House (who are great supporters of indie cinema). Groups like Filmonik and West Side Shorts also screen indie short films, throughout the year. And individuals like David King and Dick Dale also put on their yearly mini-festivals, of avant-garde and trash films respectively.

The Adelaide Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and Revelation Perth Film Festival, also screen some great indie works occasionally, as do Melbourne Underground Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and MonsterFest. Kudos to Nicholas Godfrey in Adelaide for pushing a couple of alternative works into Adelaide's OzAsia Festival this year. And some of the distributors, like Backlot Films, are taking on some of the more adventurous films being made.

Media-wise, Metro Magazine has been terrific this past decade, with reviews of lesser-known indie films, with recent issues having a welcome focus on some of the filmmakers I mention above Matthew Victor Pastor, Luke Sullivan, Georgia Temple. RealTime magazine has terminated its life as a print magazine, but the website now has recent content. Senses of Cinema does what it can, always, and this very website here, Pure Shit: Australian Cinema, came about in early 2018, with a distinct focus on lesser-known Australian work. Other websites have appeared too, with a focus on indie cinema, Cinema Australia and The Curb especially. And FilmInk has some good stories occasionally, with resident indie writer Anthony Frajman. There are some great critics in the media who are supporters of indie work, like Adrian Martin, David Heslin, Jake Wilson, John Flaus, Philippa Hawker, Fiona Villella, and Peter Krausz (with his show, Movie Metropolis), and a special mention to my fellow Adelaidean Mike Retter, a great indie film advocate throughout the 2010s, who runs the Meat Bone Express podcast and the Cinema Now zine, and is a prolific writer for this website here.

These are heartening signs, regarding media coverage, and all the screenings that are happening. It is hoped that this type of activity continues in the years ahead, and actually increases.

Finally, speaking of the future, I leave you with 25 portraits, of younger filmmakers, most of them in their 20s, some in their 30s, all of them building to make some work and make a mark. There's a variety of people here, different genres, different roles (writers and producers well as directors). Some have already shot their first features.

I wish them all the best!

click on image to get an even better look at these fine faces

Top row:
Llewellyn Michael Bates, Iain Bonner, Ivana Brehas, Hanna Chetwin, Chris Cochrane-Friedrich

2nd row: Robert Douglas, Giles Fielke, Anthony Frajman, Jordan Giusti, Paddy Hay

3rd row: Lucas Haynes, John Hewison, Sam Hewison, Nicholas Ingerson, Laura Kennedy

4th row: Angus Kirby, Audrey Lam, Chris Luscri, Madeleine Martiniello, Gianna Mazzeo

5th row: Emma Northey, Biddy O'Loughlin, Fraser Fitzy Pemberton, Guy Tyzack, James Vaughan


Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker, a programmer of Australian indie films, and an occasional writer on film.

Published December 30, 2019. © Bill Mousoulis, 2019