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West Australia’s CinefestOZ Highlights the Joy of Small Festivals

“H is for Happiness” was a popular winner on the first Saturday of September at the CinefestOZ festival in Western Australia. Not only is the picture uplifting — a 12-year-old girl who is inspired by an unusual new boy at her school and challenges herself to mend her broken family – “Happiness” was made locally, just a few miles from where the prizes were handed out at the Orana Cinema in Bussleton.

There was always a good chance that a local film was always going to come out on top. Among the five films in competition others had West Australian connection or included festival returnees.

The West Australian focus is no accident, though it is not where the 12-year-old festival started.

In its early days, CinefestOZ had sought a niche as festival focusing on Australian and French films and cultural connections between the two countries. That was a calculated attempt to capitalize on the historical connections between the Geographe Bay area, which includes Busselton and Bunbury, and this part of Australia’s early French settlers. Spanish immigrants are credited with planting the first vines locally, but the French may have helped foster the growth and styles of the excellent wineries in the nearby Margaret River area.

“Unfortunately, we could not hold on to many long-term French sponsors,” says Helen Shervington, the festival’s hard-working chair. And though Australia and France are busy co-production partners, French talent was mostly unwilling to make the trip. The French film contingent this year was down to three features and five shorts.

But turning adversity into a strength is a typically Australian response. The festival has instead called on a clutch of the state’s cultural funding agencies (led by the WA government, ScreenWest, LotteryWest, and Royalties for Regions) and giant mining corporations (Rio Tinto and Newmont Goldcorp) to fill in where ticket revenues stop.

West Australia boasts about its isolation — locals will tell you that Perth is the one of the most far-flung state capitals in the world — and wears its differences like badges of pride. But its commitment to expanding film-making seems a serious one. Sure, there is currently and election in the offing, but more than once officials were heard claiming credit for CinefestOZ’s A$100,000 prize (US$68,000) – which is one of the world’s most lucrative festival awards.

With that support, Shervington is able to present the festival as the “champion of local cinema” and as a showcase for an “outstanding year of homegrown cinema” — Australian and especially West Australian. The officials, were happy to assert some A$3 million ($2 million) of annual economic benefits from keeping the festival going.

The most identifiably local film was opening title “Go,” about a fatherless teen seeking a new lease of life through karting. Busselton’s nearby dirt track provided a suitably gritty setting. And before the movie premiere, a thrillingly noisy and smelly pack of skeletal cars tore round a street circuit linking the Orana three-plex and the council offices, which double up as festival headquarters and its key hub venue.

Other local films playing out of competition included comedy drama “The Naked Wanderer,” and “Whale Super Highway” a documentary. Both feature travel along the West Australian coastline and stops in the Geographe Bay area. While “Naked” is a silly tale of a romantically-challenged man in a loincloth, the latter highlights whale migration and how fully-clothed humans are endangering it. It was presented in a dome theater, that used eight 4k projectors to achieve a seamless and easy to watch presentation.

While “Go” did not pick up the wealthy top prize, it did a lot for the festival. Owen Trevor, who is best known for directing four years of the BBC’s iconic “Top Gear” car show, breezed in from London – a new Qantas service flies non-stop to Perth in just over 16 hours – to share anecdotes about his debut feature.

One of the joys of a small, well-organized festival is accessibility. Trevor was on stage for opening night, then did a set piece interview the following day at Eagle Bay Brewing in front of a paid lunch crowd. He surfaced again the next day for a session with a wider public. And he was also spotted at parties at the hub and the pop-up bars that each evening extended the party activity deep into the night.

Similarly, the festival’s competition jury was not kept behind a velvet rope. They shared screenings with the press and ticket-holding public, lunched with festival-goers, and mingled at parties.

Jury chief, Rachel Ward was called on for an on-stage interview, co-hosted by the Australian Directors Guild. The organization’s CEO Kingston Anderson scarcely needed to grill Ward. The actress-turned-director, who recently released “Palm Beach,” was quickly heated up over the position of women in the Australian industry, especially the inequality of opportunity.

Another juror, President of Innovation Studios, Sony Entertainment & Technology, Glenn Gainor turned out less angry, but no less committed to bending the ear. Giving the impression of a wide-eyed kid, who still can’t believe his luck at actually making a career in Hollywood, Gainor mixed family anecdotes, technology tips and a smattering of futurology at a keynote address and other follow up sessions.

The festival’s industry program, running three days, was useful and wide-ranging. It comprised a mixture of technical how-to sessions, updates on national and regional finance schemes, and briefings on current screenwriting trends, and women in film.

Presenting Aboriginal film content and activities on the sidelines of the main film festival, IndigifestOZ showcased Indigenous features, through short films and free of charge community screenings. The “CineSnaps” school program sought similar effect at the kids level through school incursions and excursions.

With just a single competitive prize to give out – Ward said the judging process was a “pretty much unanimous” result – the closing ceremony was long, but rarely tedious. Veteran indigenous actor Kelton Pell (TV’s “The Heights”) earned a standing ovation as he picked up the screen legends award, and appeared momentarily overawed.

But it was left to David Templeman, a member of parliament from up the coast in Mandurah, and West Australia minister for the arts and culture, to provide the evening’s comic relief. Templeman was so utterly smitten by the festival that he was presented with one of the volunteer’s berets, which he then used as a prop for his impressions of 1970s British comedians Benny Hill and Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer character.

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