The Sydney Film Festival opened tonight with the premiere of the Australian film, Mystery Road. But before we could get to the first flicker of the opening titles we had to sit through the usual 4 to 5 speeches. I understand that the cost of a film festival warrants the promise of a speech on opening night to the major sponsors, but sometimes this can backfire. A audience held hostage is not the most receptive. Ask the major corporate sponsor of this event. However, the speeches and comments that were received well by the typically rambunctious Sydney crowd was the fantastic Welcome to Country and the introductory remarks to the film.
Ivan Sen is the writer, director, editor and composer of Mystery Road, his seventh movie. It centres on Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) who returns to his outback hometown to investigate the murder of a teenage girl found in a drain under the highway. So far so typical of a murder mystery movie plot. But this movie is also about race. Australian audiences will recognise the name of the star of the movie, Aaron Pedersen, a well-known and talented Aussie actor who is Aboriginal. The teenage girl found dead is an Aboriginal girl and the lack of response from mainly white police force run by the local Sargent (Tony Barry) and Johnno (Hugo Weaving) the narcotics detective underpins the whole movie.
Sen uses the conventions of a modern western and slow burn thriller to delve into the world of an outback town in Central Queensland, He uses silence, ambiguity and stillness to great effect as he tracks the interweaving roads of the white part of town, the black part of town and the surrounding bushland. He is supported by a fantastic cast populated by talented Australian actors including Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton, Damien Walshe-Howling, David Field, and Robert Mammone. Some who are just there for one or two scenes but bring so much to the fabric of the movie.
It is great to see an Australian independent movie open the Sydney Film Festival. The film showcases the wonderful talent this country has to offer both in front of and behind the camera. What also came through in the introductory comments of the filmmakers is that the film was made with a very small budget and with the money of both the producer and director. The film does not look like it was made with very little money but the obvious reduced rates and free services that went into the making of the film was noted, However, the film did received funding from both state and federal governments, but this does not seem enough to keep the industry afloat. This is a reflection of the hard times that the Australian film industry finds itself in. I am not sure how they are going to solve it with such a small market. I am sure the industry is looking at how European and Asian countries are funding their film industries through co-productions and government assistance for inspiration.
What did strike home was the words in the Welcome to Country about the importance of storytelling and sharing cultures. About recognising diversity. Art is the way to educate, and movies such as Mystery Road start conversations in a country that segregates any discussion it has about race and the gap between white Australians and black Australians. And that is without even opening up the conversation to include the 200 cultures represented in a city like Sydney.
This movie is a great choice to start the festival, I look forward to the next 12 days where we can choose from 160 films and documentaries from a range of countries, and hopefully we can celebrate our diversity through art and storytelling.