An Independent Success Story
Earlier this year, two Australian films were released at approximately the same time. One was a mainstream film touted as the Great White Hope of Australian cinema, given national release by a major distributor with full publicity and media support.The other was a small arthouse film, given limited release by its producer and left to fend for itself in the publicity stakes.
When the reviews came in, the mainstream film was praised for attempting something different for an Australian film. But, the critics added, the film didn’t quite pull off what it attempted.
The small film received unanimously glowing reviews from critics, including Evan Williams of the Weekend Australian Review section and Adrian Martin of The Age. The mainstream film was The Illustrated Family Doctor by Kriv Stenders. The small film was Dreams for Life by Anna Kannava. The Illustrated Family Doctor received so much publicity in so many media outlets, it is unlikely that anyone would need to be told what it was about. But for those who missed the reviews of Dreams for Life, this lyrical 75-minute depiction of love and isolation follows Ellen, a 39-year-old recluse (played by Maria Mercedes) who lives in Melbourne with her dreams and memories. Her dreams eventually lead her back to her old neighborhood where she meets the younger brother of a long lost love.
As well as receiving glowing reviews in the Weekend Australian, The Age, and by Bert Newton on Channel 10’s Good Morning Australia, Dreams for Life was hailed by the Greek media as a wonderful film. Filmink’s Julian Shaw wrote in an online review: ‘Dreams for Life could fairly be described as a mosaic – unraveling in jagged pieces with tender little centres, it has the formal subtlety of poetry. Dreams has also a clear desire to appeal to the subconscious levels that stands it apart from other low budget Australian features.’ (www.filmink.com.au) Positive reviews were also heard on 3CR’s The Film Show and the Radio National arts program. It was further reported by Paul Kalina (also of The Age) that when Maria Mercedes sneaked into the Sun Theatre in the Melbourne suburb of Yarraville where Dreams for Life was screening, she found the cinema packed, and was subsequently besieged by audience members demanding her autograph.
At the time of writing, the film had just left Melbourne for Sydney, where it was to screen at the Greek Festival. ‘We just heard The Sydney Morning Herald had a huge photo from Dreams in an article about the Greek Festival there and the festival has the film as a highlight’, enthused director Anna Kannava. ‘A huge photo of Maria Mercedes was the only photo in the article.’
If more mainstream Australian films received the kind of critical and public acclaim Dreams for Life has received, we might be less worried about the state of our industry. Yet, this is the same film that SBS’s The Movie Show declined to review – for a variety of reasons allegedly including that ‘it’s not a good film’. It was also overlooked by Inside Film magazine which, incidentally, gave significant coverage to The Illustrated Family Doctor. No one is suggesting that television programs and film magazines do not have the right to choose which films they review. If they don’t wish to review a film, they don’t have to. As Inside Film editor Rachael Turk put it:
It is true that there’s a lot of activity amongst the low-budget sector that cannot be accommodated in the monthly editorial of a magazine. Nor necessarily should it be. Inside Film has dedicated columns to emerging filmmakers – for example, Radar, and low-budget stories within the monthly Industry Focus – but IF’s commitment is to the Australian film industry at large, which covers Australian/New Zealand films, filmmakers and issues across the gamut of production scale and budget.
But overlooking an obviously successful independent film like Dreams for Life would suggest a bias (conscious or otherwise) against independent product given limited release without the backing of a mainstream distributor, when such a film’s release strategy may be the very thing that makes it successful. As producer Aanya Whitehead said:
I chose this [limited release] path because all of the film distributors said the film was ‘too artistic’ and would have a miniscule audience. I … wanted to find this audience, albeit small, and give them an opportunity to see the film. So I came up with a ‘limited release’ strategy of only one cinema at a time. I don’t believe this film could have coped or been successful in a standard release strategy (i.e., six prints with consecutive seasons in each city).
This one needs hands-on care and a lot of attention to get information to the people I know would be interested in seeing it. I think this has worked especially well in Melbourne and I am thrilled with its reviews and the critical response recognizing it as a work of art.
Perhaps if we stopped demanding that our films be ‘commercial’ and compete against the US juggernaut in cineplexes, and instead made more small, artistic, low budget independent films which could find their audiences in niche cinemas, we would be more comfortable with ourselves as a filmmaking nation. The success of Dreams for Life suggests that low budget independent films and filmmakers can connect with audiences in spite of a comparative lack of resources or the support of mainstream distributors. While it could be said that the Australian Film Commission has recognized this reality with its Indivision program, Aanya Whitehead believes the funding sector may be well stifling audience-winning creativity – paradoxically by its very attempt to get audiences interested in Australian films.
Certainly within the funding structures there is great concern that the industry is getting a worse and worse reputation and so they come up with more ‘initiatives’ and structures to mend the industry. Well, in a way filmmakers actually require more freedom.
I believe in the artistic integrity of filmmakers – I believe we know what we are doing, but now you can’t get a few thousand dollars without attending some script workshop or using an ‘approved’ script editor (many of whom haven’t made or written films themselves) that will completely re-mould and suck the life out of a script.
It’s not that I don’t believe a script editor is useful … I think they are fantastic if you can work with them like in the old days where they brought out the visionary and original elements in the script. Now they seem to be the script police and unless they go tick, you don’t have a legitimate script and it doesn’t get funded.
Her feelings are shared by other independent film- and video-makers who continue to make films outside the industry. For them, Dreams for Life shines like a beacon of hope, proving you don’t necessarily need the marketing clout of a mainstream distributor to be successful with audiences and critics.