Adelaide funds challenging films

ADELAIDE, Australia — Five years after it was founded and after just three outings, the biennial Adelaide Film Festival has staked its claim as Australia’s only must-attend fest.

Held in Oz’s smallest mainland state capital in alternate years with the Adelaide Festival of Arts, the fest doesn’t vie for titles from obvious fest names; rather, it programs a mix of challenging titles finished during the previous year, sourced from around the world, with no particular emphasis.

“It was a kick-arse program, very rigorous,” says James Hewison, member of the AFF jury and director of the Melbourne Film Fest until 2006.

This year’s program was punctuated with eight new Aussie features and docs.

“Lucky Miles,” a comedy about asylum seekers lost in the desert, from tyro Michael James Rowland, screened opening night, Feb. 23; Rolf de Heer’s black-and-white silent Chaplinesque comedy “Dr. Plonk” shuttered the event 10 days later.

It’s one of the few fests worldwide with an investment trove, spending A$1 million ($700,000) partly funding a slate of pics, which then preem at the event.

As well as “Plonk” and “Miles,” some other fest co-funded titles were “The Home Song Stories,” which world preemed at Berlin, microbudget drama “Boxing Day” and doc “Forbidden Lie$.”

“AFF is building a reputation for being bold, experimental, and it’s starting to appear on the radar of festival programmers worldwide,” says Noah Cowan, jury prexy and co-director of the Toronto Film Fest.

“To some (the investment fund) is heresy,” Cowan adds. “The separation of church and state has been important, but the festival’s enormous success is changing people’s minds.”

This year’s fest posted about 50,000 admissions to a total 150 films, and artistic director Katrina Sedgwick expected a B.O. uptick of about 20%.

It also attracted the top names of the Aussie film industry eager for sneak peeks at the new Aussie pics up to six months ahead of their skedded releases.

Previous AFF-funded pics won the Australian Film Institute’s best film kudos the past two years, “Look Both Ways” and “Ten Canoes.”

For the filmmakers screening their work to public Australian auds for the first time, Adelaide is a nail-biting event.

“Clubland,” a new Oz drama toplining Brenda Blethyn as a comic, had its world premiere at Sundance but producer Rosemary Blight, says that “we were really nervous” about the film’s Australian premiere in Adelaide.

“In Sundance, nobody knows you and you can get up and sneak out the door,” she says.

For “Clubland’s” Adelaide outing, many of the local film industry’s key decisionmakers were in the full cinema, but Blight needn’t have worried, the audience response was positive.

“In every sense (AFF) was terrific for the Australian films,” Hewison says.

None of them collected prizes, however.

The $19,000 jury kudo went to Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life,” with a special mention for “Syndromes and a Century” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Aud poll was won by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others,” and “Air Guitar Nation” won doc category. Fipresci’s best first or second feature award winner was Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Daratt.”

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