Warwick Thornton Starts Sydney Film Festival on Emotional High: ‘I’ve Never Felt a Room Like You’

“In all my career, I’ve never felt a room like you,” said Warwick Thornton, the First Nations Australian director, after the screening of his film “The New Boy,” a story of spirituality and survival set in 1940s, that was the opening night title of the Sydney Film Festival. “The energy you give back to these children…,” he said before tailing off.

It was a churning, heartfelt moment that contrasted with Thornton’s bouncy earlier appearance on stage, when he joshed about having told the eight untrained school-age kids in his cast never to look directly at the camera while on set. And how he had to reverse that advice for when they, along with producer Kath Shelper, dominated the red carpet at Sydney’s grand State Theatre. Smile and wave for the paparazzi.

The film had premiered last month in competition at Cannes and was overlooked for major awards. But the opening ceremony for the SFF’s 70th edition was the film’s more natural home. And the packed house was told how festival director Nashen Moodley had fought particularly hard to secure its showpiece status ahead of its commercial release a couple of weeks from now.

The Sydney festival is celebrating not only its 70th edition, but also the well-entrenched pro-diversity and social justice policies that have nurtured a First Nations filmmaker such as Thornton into the skillful and globally recognized talent that he has become.

One of the first elements of the Wednesday night proceedings was a message lasting several minutes from producer-director Rachel Perkins urging a “yes” vote in an upcoming referendum. The federal government is seeking support for a change to the constitution “to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” The overt political messaging would have been unthinkable at festivals in most countries. In Sydney, it was warmly applauded.

“A film festival is a gathering of diverse perspectives that offers a collective snapshot of the global zeitgeist, allowing us to delve deeper into our present reality,” said Moodley in notes before the event. “For 70 years, Sydney Film Festival has been privileged to capture and embody these moments, presenting a rich tapestry of stories that reflect our shared desire to understand the world we live in.”

Diversity is in evidence throughout the festival’s program strands, with the Australian selection particularly wide-ranging. It encompasses: Colin and Cameron Cairnes’ horror pic “Late Night With the Devil”; “The Dark Emu,” a documentary probe into a defunct publishing phenomenon; “The Big Dog,” a drama about domination fetishism; Sarah Snook in Sundance-selected “Run Rabbit Run”; and sold-out queer coming of age story “Sunflower.” “The Australian selection this year is particularly strong on emerging, new voices,” Moodley told Variety on the sidelines.

Sydney is also hosting a major showcase of the works of Sydney-based New Zealand director Jane Campion. Saturday will see her interviewed on stage by David Stratton.

The festival kicks off at a time when the mood in the Australian film industry is cautiously growing more optimistic. That reflects a decent post-COVID recovery at the box office and the sense that, even though Australian cinemas are dominated by Hollywood fare, audiences will turn out for the strongest local titles. Currently on-release title “John Farnham: Finding the Voice” is the best performing Australian documentary feature of all time with a $3.01 million haul after three weeks.

“It is still very difficult to fund feature films. And there is a section of the audience that has not returned to cinemas (post-COVID),” said Kate Croser, CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation. “But it is still possible to get things made. People need to be clear whether they are making something cultural or commercial. So, there is a sense of optimism.”

There is a renewed sense of possibility too. The Labour government appointed 13 months ago, has thrown its weight behind the arts with: funding for a new Music Australia body that will be the equivalent of film and TV support body Screen Australia; a five-year budget cycle for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS; and the renewal (and slight expansion) of Australia’s generous location production rebate system. Multiple international films and series have already committed to filming in Australia since the revised measures were announced last month.

“The support for the more widely-defined arts is understandable. Music, theatre and live performances were brought to a standstill under COVID,” said Graeme Mason, the outgoing head of Screen Australia.

In comparison, film and TV came through the pandemic reasonably strongly, with emergency funding and viable disease protocols quickly put into place. The enduring, high level of production activity in Australia means that the country has an ongoing shortage of shooting studios, a deficit that both public and private sector initiatives are currently trying to fill.

Previous Australian governments have stood up to global tech giants forcing companies including Google and Facebook to pay for local news and threatening further regulation of algorithms. The current Albanese-led government, however, is taking its time over a decision how to implement local content spending requirements, expected to be introduced from mid-2024 for streaming companies such as Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+. One consideration is whether there should be different standards for Stan, a streamer owned by local broadcaster Nine Entertainment, or Foxtel, the Australian pay-TV leader that is now busily reinventing itself as a streaming platform.

Parts of the industry have called for a mandatory 20% of local revenue to be invested in Australian content, but sources at the Australian Directors Guild suggest that the government is dragging its feet and could choose a lower figure or even delay the regulation.

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