The ones to watch at the London Australian Film Festival

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There’s a dearth of women on screen at this year’s London Australian Film Festival, but there are still plenty of excellent films to look forward to at the event’s fifteenth outing

The Aussie bloke is alive but hardly thriving, judging from the 15th London Australian Film Festival: he’s still angry, drunk, lonely and trying, emotionally speaking, to fix his ute without a toolbox. Often, he’s a good man in a tough situation; sometimes, though, he’s as sour as milk left out in the sunshine. As for the Sheilas, they’re still very much in long shot. Which is probably as representative as the rolling horizons and bare, red-tinged roads that unfurl through these films.

The LAAF opens with ‘Not Quite Hollywood’, a documentary on the country’s rich cinematic past, and there are several old favourites, from ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ to ‘The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ to accompany it. Although Gillian Armstrong’s 1978 breakthrough ‘My Brilliant Career’ feels ineptly titled compared to her latest, the Houdini pic ‘Death Defying Acts’.Still, there’s plenty that is brilliant, from the wry stop-motion animation ‘$9.99’, a meaning-of-life tale which boasts a fag-ash angel voiced by Geoffrey Rush, to the nasty night out with the marines that is ‘Three Blind Mice’.

There are sobering documentaries, including ‘In My Father’s Country’, about an Aboriginal boy being initiated into adulthood in a world different from the one the ceremony is supposed to prepare him for; and ‘Donkey in Lahore’, a lengthy but affecting tracking of the jolting relationship between Brian, a 27-year-old part-time goth from Brisbane with borderline personality disorder, and Amber, a 17-year-old Pakistani girl. Brian’s efforts to communicate with Amber’s family and join her religion take us from amazement at his naivety through scepticism over the couple’s future to, finally, affection. The gender politics are still depressing: Amber, despite a strong personality and loving family, is a chattel Brian can purchase, not a woman able to forge her own future. But she is young, and she’s now in Australia, so that may change.

Not that this part of the world is much more enlightened than Amber’s: check out the guys in ‘Men’s Group’, sitting round once a week, under duress, trying to thresh out their problems by the novel means of discussing them. Michael Joy’s film is unsubtle – do we need plaintive music over the fat guy doing press-ups? In fact, do we need to leave the men’s group for their home lives at all?

The LAAF wouldn’t be complete without a road trip or two, and closing gala ‘Cactus’ is a bonzer one: there’s not much original meat on the story’s bones (bloke needs money so kidnaps other bloke; the two bond as the fates and authorities combine to bugger up the mission) but Travis McMahon and David Lyons are watchable, the script crackles – and the only disappointment in Bryan Brown’s trigger-happy copper is the paucity of his screentime. He’s back, though, in Baz Luhrman’s campfest ‘Australia’, the only film that gets tricksy with the camera – most of these entries distrust frills as much as the men in them do. But then, there’s nothing frilly about their lives – just check out ‘Ten Empty’, my favourite, a moving melodrama that beautifully portrays the horror that mental illness can bring to a small-town folk. And the fact that lead Daniel Frederiksen looks like Pierce Brosnan circa ‘Remington Steele’ doesn’t hurt, either. Hey – it’s not just the blokes who can be sexist, you know.

The London Australian Film Festival is at the Barbican from March 12-22. www.barbican.org.uk/australianfilm

Author: Nina Caplan



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