The iconic film critic talked to The CEO Magazine about selecting ten films for the festival's retrospective.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on April 10, 2019

The process of finalising his selected films for the ‘Essential Australian Women Directors – 10 Trailblazers’ program, was difficult, Stratton says, especially given the abundance of talented women directors working in Australia.

“I’m pretty happy with the selection,” he considers. “Though I’m conscious that there were other films I would have loved to have shown as well.”

David Stratton: a life in film

A household name after his years of affectionate bantering with Margaret Pomeranz on The Movie Show, Stratton continues to be a prolific teacher, writer, critic and curator of film. His knowledge of cinema remains positively encyclopaedic.

Asked if he had ever seen The Cheaters, a classic silent film from 1930 that he has programmed, with a live musical accompaniment, he instantly recalls being at such a screening at a previous instalment of the Sydney Film Festival. Said screening took place in 1975.

Newly restored by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, The Cheaters is a film of immense historical importance. Australia had a small but thriving film scene that even predated feature films from Hollywood in the early twentieth century, though many of the treasures from this era have been lost, Stratton says.

“Film wasn’t taken very seriously in those days and once their cinema release was finished they weren’t considered to have much value,” he explains. “But they were flammable, so they were often used to stoke fires.”

The Cheaters

Above: A still from The Cheaters (1930). The unfinished Sydney Harbour Bridge can be seen in the background

In the decade after The Cheaters, the Australian film industry become largely “moribund” as Stratton tells it and remained mostly in the doldrums for years until government funding revitalised it in the late 1970s.

The release of My Brilliant Career in 1979 introduced a major new directing talent in Gillian Armstrong and marked the first Australian feature film directed by a woman in decades.

Since then, Stratton says, Australia has seen many, many talented women enter the world of filmmaking. “It’s not a 50/50 situation as yet but I think it will be in time,” he says of gender representation in the industry. “We’ve always had a reasonable number of women directors working in this country, though not enough”.

Some of the most notable films to have come from this influx of women directors include the quirky, still fresh Malcolm, an idisosyncratic caper film of sorts. “It’s just such a likeable film,” Stratton reflects. “Anybody who ever saw it will never forget the scene where the getaway car splits into two.”

Memories of Jane Campion’s arthouse classic Sweetie making an inauspicious Cannes debut

Sweetie, directed by Jane Campion, is another of Stratton’s curated choices for his retrospective. Legendary critic Roger Ebert wrote that he didn’t know what to make of the film on first viewing but he became entranced by it on subsequent screenings. Stratton, quick as a flash, recalls he was at that same Cannes festival screening as Ebert and suggests the Chicago Sun-Times scribe was not alone in being initially baffled.

“I sort of knew what to expect because I’d seen Jane’s work before, like the beautiful movie she made for the ABC, 2 Friends. But it was an unclassifiable sort of film when you first saw it. A lot of people in Cannes didn’t like it.

“There was a terrible thing at Cannes, when somebody gets up out of their seat to leave, it goes ‘bang!’ So you heard ‘bang!’ ‘bang!’ ‘bang!’ all through that screening.”

Those who stayed championed the film, however, and it is now widely considered one of the most interesting art films of its time.

Above: A still from Sweetie, d. Jane Campion, 1989

The retrospective also includes Tracey Moffatt’s only feature length work, Bedevil, Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate, which features sublime performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Rachel Griffiths, and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a mightily effective piece of horror and psychodrama that floored critics on release.

In an age where the convenience of streaming has meant many films are now viewed at home on a laptop or tablet rather than with an audience and on the big screen, Stratton remains an advocate for the magic of the cinema-going experience.

“I’m old fashioned,” he laughs. “But people always say to me it’s like watching a whole new film when you haven’t seen it at the cinema and I say: ‘Yes! of course it is’.”

Essential Australian Women Directors: 10 Trailblazers Selected by David Stratton is part of the Sydney Film Festival, which runs from 5 to 16 June.

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