Travelling 10,000 miles – from Australia to Morocco – may sound like a long trek just to receive a tribute, but that was the distance travelled by most of the members of Australia’s 22-person delegation of actors, directors and producers to attend the Marrakech Film Festival’s country tribute.
Notwithstanding the radical differences between Morocco and Australia, both countries share something in common, which has captured the imagination of filmmakers since the birth of the medium – the desert.
For this year’s festival poster the Marrakech Film Festival Foundation pondered depicting the two deserts of Morocco and Australia side by side, but ultimately opted for a simple warm orange glow.
Australia has been a structuring element of the fest’s 18th edition – Australian actor Naomi Watts officially opened the festival and British actor Tilda Swinton, this year’s jury president, has a direct family link to the country, since her mother was born in New South Wales.
The country tribute offered an opportunity to take stock of Australia’s success story – in building an artistically and commercially vibrant industry from the mid 1970s onwards, which was erected from the ashes, since the Australian film industry had virtually disappeared after the advent of sound cinema.
The atmosphere on stage, as the 22 Aussie filmmakers received a standing ovation, was good spirited and jocular, but there was also a pervading sense of pride and achievement.
On the red carpet, actor Simon Baker was asked why Australian cinema has developed so strongly over recent years: “We have a great history and storytelling culture,” he replied. “We have a 60,000 years old indigenous culture, with a completely oral history. I think that’s reflected in our storytelling culture. We’re all here because coming to a festival like Marrakech opens a window onto our world and allows us to share our stories. It’s powerful.”
Actor Ben Mendelsohn added: “We made the world’s first feature film. If you’re an Australian, you make sure you do things first. It’s a wonderful thing to be here with this lovely distinguished group of people. I’m very proud to be part of it.”
When asked ‘What makes a good Australian?’ Mendelsohn quipped: “Vegemite, love of sport. Healthy disrespect for authority and love of surfing.”
Swinton introduced the delegation with a short, but passionate speech. She began by referring to Nic Roeg’s “Walkabout” (1971), which in addition to Jenny Agutter, and Luc Roeg included “David Gulpilil – the first Aboriginal Australian that I ever saw, who tipped us into the dreamscape of his ancestors once and for all.”
She continued: “We have the blessed opportunity in Marrakech this week to celebrate the particular contribution to our world of cinema of our compadres from pretty much the furthest reach we could span. A formidable and a magnificent band of filmmakers from Australia has rolled into town, bearing a generous sampling of their bounty.”
She concluded: “Every one of these exceptional artists tells us precisely how self-determining the culture of Australian cinema is. As all living cinema has always been. How energetic, how fluent, how passionate, how sharp-eyed, whip-tongued and fearlessly uningratiating, supremely dedicated to its unique intoxicating geography and frequently undeniably, fully, rock and roll. Long live the great ship of Australian cinema and all who sail in her.”
After a medley of shots from classic Australian films, two didgeridoo players heralded the arrival of the delegation, which received a standing ovation.
Director Gillian Armstrong spoke on behalf of her colleagues, thanking the festival foundation and then added jokingly “If you give them a free ticket, they’ll go anywhere.”
She highlighted the achievement of building an Australian film industry over the last 50 years.
“In the 1970s a group of passionate film culture lovers lobbied the government about the need to tell our own stories, to hear our own voices – yes those rather ugly, whiny Australian voices, but they’re ours. This successful lobbying helped set up an Australian film industry.”
She listed key talents in Australian film industry, including women filmmakers, an increasing central force in the industry.
She said that the country’s cinema is important because it’s about “our identity as Australians. It is what makes us unique, our often oblique language – ‘You’re terrible, Muriel,’ ‘You gotta be dreaming,’ ‘You’re dropped,’ our idioms, our character, our diversity, our rather special humor and our outlook on life – having a go, a fair go. Our sounds.
“The chills that only we feel at the romantic summer cacophony of cicadas, blowflies and lawnmowers. Our sausage sizzles and kebabs. Not pancakes and maple syrup. Not the high-school problem or Thanksgiving. Our own history, our heroes, our dark side and coming-of-age stories and our own underdogs. We love home, we love our losers and best of all we love to laugh at ourselves.”
The delegation then received a trophy before exiting stage. The roaring sounds and images of George Miller’s “Mad Max” then filled the auditorium.