With No Masks or Distancing, Adelaide Film Festival Provides Pre-Pandemic Experience for Audiences

High Ground
Madman Entertainment

In this year of disruptions, cancellations and virtual events, it’s hard to fathom that the prestigious 11-day Adelaide Film Festival, held biennially in October in South Australia, has proceeded as in pre-pandemic times: no masks, actual red carpets, in-person interviews on stage with filmmakers and talent, afterparties (where social distancing is more a suggestion than a mandate) and free-flowing drinks and shared party plates.

“Party like it’s 2020,” the festival’s newly minted CEO and creative director, the effervescent Mat Kesting, announced to the champagne-swigging opening night crowd of around 850 people gathered at the trendy east end of Adelaide. But at this festival, it’s like being in a frothy bubble of freedom amid the fear and lockdowns that most of the rest of the world is currently enduring.

While the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals held earlier in the year were forced to take their events online amid city-wide lockdowns, Adelaide is reveling in its easing of restrictions and lifting of national border closures (it remains closed to Victorians who are still in lockdown, recovering from Australia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak) to play host to the country’s first major in-person film festival in the city of 1.3 million.

With the last community transmission of COVID-19 recorded on March 23, local businesses are now thriving again with cinemas, restaurants, theaters, bars, art galleries, music and sporting events returning, albeit with limited seating capacities. Residents walk mask-free on streets and crowd without concern on the city’s network of buses and free trams. The state has recorded 482 cases in total since the pandemic began and only four deaths, with testing and tracing regimes remaining vigilant.

The festival was a largely domestic affair save for one U.S. producer, who did the mandatory hotel quarantine of two weeks for the event. Australia still has its borders closed to all international travellers except for Australian citizens or residents, or those exempted for work reasons. A strict two-week hotel quarantine is in place for all returning travellers.

“Whilst we are taking precautions, the entire community feels it’s safe to go out and socialize and go back to cinemas,” says Kesting who has added theater venues across the city and over 20 extra screenings to satisfy the overwhelming audience demand. The festival is now on target to be as successful, if not more so, than the last edition held in 2018.

Organizers have curated a slimmer roster of programming this year, with 54 feature films from 40 different countries (including 22 world premieres), ranging from Greek director Christos Nikou’s surreal black comedy “Apples” to the celebrated San Sebastian Film Festival winner “Beginning” by emerging Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili.

It also maintained a strong local focus with new Australian films and documentaries, including the searing “High Ground” (pictured above), starring Aussie acting legend Jack Thompson and “The Mentalist’s” Simon Baker in a film directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson, about an insurgent “wild mob” of embittered indigenous resistance fighters battling a brutal white colonial rule in outback Australia in 1931; and opening night film “2067,” which was shot in Adelaide and starred X-Men’s Kodi Smit-McPhee in a time-traveling sci-fi set in the aftermath of a world devastated by climate change. Australian documentaries screened included AFF Feature Documentary winner “Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra,” a loving tribute to the Bangarra Dance Theatre, one of Australia’s most renowned Indigenous contemporary dance companies.

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No masks were required and social distancing was only a suggestion at the Adelaide Film Festival. Tracey Mair

A range of features and short films, supported through the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund (AFFIF), builds the cornerstone of the event. Funded by the state government, it provides a cap of AUD$1 million ($712,000) over two years to provide equity investment in Australian screen production. The festival board selects projects, based on recommendations from the festival director, and the resulting slate of pictures eventually premieres at the event.

By actively contributing to new work, it has provided a necessary boost to local film production. Since its inception in 2003 the AFFIF has helped lens over 110 projects — many of which have gone on to achieve Australian box office success as well as global recognition — including Anthony Maras’ “Hotel Mumbai,” Warwick Thornton’s “Samson and Delilah” and “Sweet Country”, Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” and more recently the Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic “I Am Woman,” starring Adelaide-born Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who attended the festival.

“The fund has been incredibly important in both defining our festival and also enabling a lot of work that may otherwise not have been made,” says Kesting. “It’s often that first bit of money that gets a project going, or the last bit of money to finish it off.”

The Academy Award-nominated director and screenwriter of “Shine”, Scott Hicks, who received kickstart funding from the fest for his 2015 feature documentary “Highly Strung,” says the fund can be the vital glue that holds the project together. “The really difficult thing for budget is often that first 10% or that last 10%, which can make or break whether you get the whole production together,” Hicks said. “The Adelaide Film Festival gives a film vital momentum that the filmmakers can build on.”

This year’s slate of AFFIF-funded films includes the world premiere of the COVID-19 response film “Shopaapaa” by local filmmakers Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer, and the compelling “When Pomegranates Howl” by Iranian Australian film maker Granaz Moussavi (“My Tehran For Sale”), based on a ripped-from-the-headlines incident of a young boy’s death in the midst of the Afghan War. Moussavi, who began the project in 2013, spent years filming in Afghanistan using non actors, said the Adelaide Festival. The funding has been vital, particularly in a time when the festival circuit around the world has been decimated.

“Its crucial. It’s a good example of how film festivals and state bodies need to fund independent film. Otherwise, we can’t survive,” said Moussavi.

With a view to encouraging the next generation of talent, a major announcement was made at the festival’s short film showcase ‘Made in SA,’ where Minister for Innovation and Skills David Pisoni unveiled ‘Film Lab: New Voices,’ a new initiative from the Adelaide Film Festival in collaboration with the South Australian Film Corporation and media resource centre Mercury CX to foster a new generation of South Australian filmmakers by offering a mentoring program with a view to developing a low-budget feature film script that will be selected to go into production and premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival.

Kate Croser, CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation, said: “Feature film credits are highly regarded in the screen marketplace, as is a festival premiere, and this initiative underpins the growth and sustainability of the South Australian screen sector and will offer the opportunity for the next generation of creative talent to demonstrate their potential in the global market.”