On Tuesday 31 January 2012 the first Samsung Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) award ceremony was broadcast on Channel 9 from the Sydney Opera House. The AACTA Awards have replaced the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards in an admirable attempt by the AFI to increase interest in and enhance the perception of the local film and television industry. The unfair and false perception of all Australian films being only bleak and worthy dramas – and the childish reaction against films that are – is something I’ve written about before for Overland and on my blog, Cinema Autopsy. The AACTA awards are an attempt to rise above the negativity and celebrate our local achievements. However, by focusing so much on mainstream appeal, celebrity and glamour, the ceremony and the broadcast may have lost its original audience – the people who are actually passionate about Australian film and television.
When cinematographer Don McAlpine (‘Breaker’ Morant, Patriot Games, Moulin Rouge!) accepted his deserved Raymond Longford Award, he described the film industry as ‘fashion driven, facile and egocentric’. It was presumably meant to be a joke about Hollywood, but sadly it seemed to perfectly sum up the awards and its dumbed-down coverage. There was a disproportionate focus on what people were wearing, a model presenting an award, ads for Hollywood blockbusters, advertorials for upcoming films written into some of the presentations and actors being credited for their Hollywood films rather than their Australian films (‘Twilight’s Xavier Samuel!’).
I guess I should have seen it coming when switching on Channel 9 I caught the end of Two and a Half Men and then saw an advertisement for a reality show, in which footage of a guy running into a tree was replayed three times. The coverage itself began with vacuous red-carpet interviews by Julia Morris and Richard Wilkins, who by focusing on celebrity and fashion rather than the cinematic craftsmanship of the Australian film industry made sure that the awards came across as light entertainment.
During the actual ceremony the most painful element was every nominated best film being presented as a ‘comedy’ song, regardless of the content of the film. The fun and irreverent Red Dog got a fun and irreverent ditty, but so did The Hunter and The Eye of the Storm (take that, films adapted from literary novels, now you’re cut down to size!), and so did Oranges and Sunshine and Snowtown, films about traumatic events. If the songs had provided witty and clever observations about the films they may have worked, but instead they were just rhyming recaps of the plots. Curiously, Mad Bastards, a film about troubled Indigenous Australian men, did not get the same treatment. Instead we saw a song from the Mad Bastards soundtrack performed live, which was a welcome highlight of the ceremony. But it did leave me wondering who decided Mad Bastards was off-limits for a comedy song while Oranges and Sunshine (a film about forced child migration) and Snowtown (a film about the ‘bodies in the barrels’ serial killings) were not.
It wasn’t all bad. Pretty much everything Geoffrey Rush said was wonderful, and awarding filmmaker Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, Toomelah) with the Byron Kennedy Award for his contribution to contemporary Australian cinema was an excellent move. I personally would have preferred to see Mad Bastards and Oranges and Sunshine clean up, as they are both well-crafted films, moving dramas with a sense of hope, with subject matter that went beyond the confines of the cinema. However, it was still great to see Snowtown do so well: it’s the kind of brave, bold and purposeful film that Australia should be proud of, and the complete antithesis of the manufactured glitzy side of the industry the awards were perpetuating. Plus, Richard Wilkins hated it.
I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that Red Dog won the Samsung AACTA Award for Best Film and the AFI Members’ Choice Award as I thought it was the least deserving of all films nominated. I certainly don’t begrudge Red Dog for being popular or for being made in the first place, despite my not particularly enjoying it. I’m glad such films continue to be made in Australia, as they contribute to film diversity. Unlike some commentators, who think the industry is in crisis every time they see a film they don’t respond well to, I think there would be something wrong if I loved every Australian film.
Still, I wish a film that aspired to more than Red Dog got the top gong. Its win did sum up the overall attitude of the ceremony and Channel 9’s coverage, and that was to devalue films that aspired to be more than light entertainment. I prefer to ignore the ill-informed and knee-jerk response that Australian cinema is all doom and gloom, and I think the attempt by AACTA to actively debunk the myth is necessary and impressive. I just wish they didn’t swing the pendulum so hard to replace one set of misrepresentations with another.
Thomas Caldwell is a Killings columnist, and a writer/broadcaster specialising in film criticism.