It’s hard to imagine that there could be much cinematic territory left unexplored – but there is.
When filmmaker Frank Howson began curating the program for the inaugural Oz International Film Festival, he quickly found hundreds of remarkable films passed over by established festivals. Howson doesn’t intend to compete with behemoths like the Melbourne International Film Festival, but rather to find films that have fallen outside of traditional festival theming.
“I wanted to create an outlet for filmmakers that the current film festivals in this town don’t cater to,” Howson says. “You may have some very good films that fall through the cracks because they don’t fit into a certain genre or style or subject matter.”
Breaking into filmmaking was difficult for Howson, and his relationship with Hollywood has sometimes been contentious. He’s often received pushback for his creative decisions – such as giving a central role in his 1990 film Heaven Tonight to a little-known soap actor named Guy Pearce.
“The industry, when I got into it, was basically a closed shop,” Howson explains. “You had a lot of fat-cat producers who were doing very well for themselves, and they didn’t want any new blood in the industry… We’re paying for that now. I often wonder how many young filmmakers who had a dream and the talent to back it up just gave up in frustration and walked away.
Headlining the festival’s opening night is Landfall, an indie disaster thriller starring Kristen Condon, Quigley Down Under’s Tony Bonner and Vernon Wells, whom cinephiles will recognise as the mohawked barbarian from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Landfall follows a young couple trapped in a Far North Queensland beach house with a trio of dangerous fugitives as a tropical cyclone approaches.
“It’s a treat for the eyes and a treat for the mind,” Howson says. “It has suspense, and it makes a statement about the human condition.”
While curating the Oz International Film Festival program, Howson says he chose not to let his own ego intrude. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Howson has an affinity for the stories of outsiders and innovators who, like him, have experienced an uneasy relationship with institutions. Bill Evans, Time Remembered – a documentary about the iconic jazz pianist – has won acclaim in the United States and Europe, but has previously gone overlooked in Australia.
“I like the people who chart their own course through the forest, regardless of what the experts told them when they started out, and, with Bill Evans, you have that,” Howson says. “As Coppola once said, if you’re going to be original, you’re going to be eulogised and praised after your death, but it’s going to make your life quite a hard struggle.”
Other films on the program include Operation Wedding, a documentary about a group of Soviet Jews who, denied exit visas, attempted to escape the Soviet Union by hijacking a plane. Operation Wedding has produced positive word-of-mouth internationally, including in Russia, where films on the Soviet past easily run afoul of censors. More polarising is Leaf, an Australian-produced documentary on medical marijuana.
A live Q&A with Don Percy, director of the acclaimed short film Makeup, and a talk by Howson outlining the challenges of breaking into the film industry, should make the festival instructive as well as entertaining, says Howson.
At a festival that accepts effects-laden disaster movies as readily as sober documentaries, the only real requirements for inclusion are that films be both high-quality and under-exposed.
“I want this to be a festival without an agenda,” says Howson. “I don’t care if a film is very left-ring, very right-wing or very whatever. My only criterion is quality and whether your film is about something.”