HE MADE SURE THE KING’S SPEECH waltzed off with four Oscars last year, then went one better this year with THE ARTIST. Long before all that, he had been a leading light in his own country’s cinematic renaissance, back in the late 1980s, with the indie powerhouse brand Miramax. Now, film chief Harvey Weinstein has taken a shine to Australia.
Weinstein has gleefully snapped up THE SAPPHIRES – Australia’s officially selected entry at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which premiered late Saturday night – for US and overseas distribution. In doing so, he has added to the significant buzz Australia is enjoying at the world’s most prestigious film festival.
The success at Cannes of the fact-based musical biopic – about an indigenous, all-girl singing troupe from an Aboriginal mission in Victoria, groomed to sing for troops in Vietnam in 1968 – follows a sea of chatter that’s gathering steam for returning star Nicole Kidman. She is back starring in both Lee ‘PRECIOUS’ Daniels’ THE PAPERBOY (as a white trash lover of an inmate on death row) and Philip Kaufman’s HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (as the latter, a war journalist).
Another Kidman vehicle – Rowan Joffe’s upcoming BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP – is also being shopped to buyers in the marketplace, while the likes of Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Noah Taylor feature in John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS. Even Kylie Minogue is here (in Leos Carax’s offbeat HOLY MOTORS). This year at Cannes, Aussies are everywhere.
One Australian making a more modest comeback is Isla Fischer (aka Mrs Sacha Baron Cohen). After almost five years away, spent raising a family, the former HOME AND AWAY star spoke candidly to Unwind from inside the seaside locale’s uber-swish Carlton Hotel, while down below her husband stepped out one last time to help keep THE DICTATOR in the headlines.
“I don’t give interviews unless I really have to,” she said. “I like to keep myself to myself. I’m sure [Cohen] is Tweeting right now, from the back of a camel! But I’m very private.”
Fisher’s low-key presence here – to help publicise an upcoming animated Dreamworks picture, THE RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (which also features the voice of Hugh Jackman) – reflects an underlying feeling shared by many stars on the Croisette this year. Notably, the festival’s good-natured opener, Wes Anderson’s kooky fantasy romp MOONRISE KINGDOM, features the likes of Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton. They both confessed to Unwind about feeling non-plussed by the “red carpet” duties they perform. Cannes, they insisted, is all about the works of directors, particularly those who command an ensemble cast of world-class pedigree.
For Australia, this year’s Weinstein-backed entry, THE SAPPHIRES (which will also open this year’s Melbourne Film Festival, in August), promises to make stars of both the film’s director, Wayne Blair, and of his leading ladies Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman (who also stars in the upcoming telemovie MABO, about the historic 1992 land rights decision for Australia’s indigenous people). Mailman admits to feeling cautiously excited about the fuss and bother a global event like Cannes creates, even if the hoopla ultimately cools over time. The message the film brings, she says, remains vital.
“I feel there is a responsibility we are taking with this film,” she says. “We’re putting Aboriginal culture on the world stage. People who don’t know about Aboriginal culture will be asking us questions. We will be telling people who we are as a culture, what our stories are about, what our films are about. It’s a big responsibility – people will get to know who we are.”
Mailman, like her director (who starred in the original 2004 stage play), is all-too aware of the potential after-shocks such a breakout film can create. Blair’s Sundancecounterpart, Kieran Darcy-Smith, scored a co-production deal with the US after his debut WISH YOU WERE HERE premiered at a major international film festival. Blair may be relatively cautious (it’s also his debut feature), but Mailman – these days a happily married mother of two – is happy to actively pursue whatever may come as a result.
“My head is spinning at the moment,” she said, ahead of the premiere of The Sapphires. “I cannot comprehend the magnitude of this – and I know how big it is. I’m mixed between really being scared shitless and crazy out of mind excited about being at Cannes. I’ve been happy working [in Australia]. But this is starting to open my mind up to the possibility [of working overseas].”
Prior to the world premiere of The Sapphires, the Croisette – the main drag of Cannes – has been typically swamped with journalists and industry types devouring daily servings of established names alongside young, rookie directors. Britain’s Ken Loach, Austria’s Michael Haneke and a slew of American directors, led by MOONRISE KINGDOM’s Wes Anderson, have all resonated with critics in this, the festival’s 65th year. Upcoming films by Australia’s John Hillcoat (LAWLESS) and New Zealand-born Dominik Cooper (KILLING THEM SOFTLY, starring Brad Pitt) leads a surprisingly high-profile selection at the tail of proceedings. And while a slew of other features from the region are being spruiked to buyers – including another musical, the upcoming GODDESS, and the WWII drama, EMPEROR, starring Tommy Lee Jones and LOST’s Matthew Fox – THE SAPPHIRES has, it seemed, hit an undeniable nerve.
“It was 1968 in Australia,” producer Rosemary Blight explains of the film. “It was a period of the indigenous right to vote. The girls didn’t know how significant it was. The amount of Australian artists who went to Vietnam – there were hundreds of musicians and artists, both Australian and American. The stories are wild: bands would hire a car and go into war zones, people got killed on stage. Yet it was a part of people’s lives that they had wanted to keep private.”
Given the 4000-odd journalists back to cover Cannes – and the scores of locals crowded around the festival’s Palais headquarters, for brief glimpses of its stars – that secret has now been laid wide open. With Harvey Weinstein now its most vocal champion, its future internationally seems assured.
THANKS TO SAMSON AND DELILAH’s award-winning turn at Cannes in 2009, Australian – and indigenous – stories have been back on the world’s radar, in a way they hadn’t been since the 1970s (when the so-called New Wave of Australian cinema culminated with the screening of the notorious JOURNEY AMONG WOMEN, back in 1977). Jane Campion’s career was also famously launched here. And, with over a dozen Australian features screening to industry this year at Cannes – among the highest since those halcyon New Wave days – with insiders predicting this trend to continue.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival runs May 16-27.
First published in The Sun-Herald.
WATCH the team behind THE SAPPHIRES discuss their film at Cannes HERE