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AACTA Film Fest | Adventures in Genre Down Under

Article by editor of the film and media periodical Metro and editor-in-chief of sexuality and gender magazine Archer, Adolfo Aranjuez.

Genre is often maligned in cinema circles. Of course, it can be said that every film has a genre (the amorphous labels ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’, say, encompass such a sprawling array of product as to give no real indication of what we can expect beyond a base affective response). But when a film wears its genre on its sleeve — shadowy corners and a chase sequence (thriller); shrieking violins, sharp knives and drips of blood (horror); futuristic weaponry and technology beyond the imagination (sci-fi) — it’s not uncommon for it to be dismissed as formulaic, playing it safe, telling the same old story that’s been told before.

This isn’t entirely untrue. At the heart of genre are set conventions that must be adhered to lest the audience feel let down; over time, we’ve become ‘trained’ in what to expect of works in a particular genre. Yet there is a skill to doing a genre film well — one does not simply slap together some swords, magic spells and an epic quest, and call something ‘fantasy’. Familiarity may be key on this path to viewer satisfaction, but it must be tempered with an original twist — something that bears even weightier significance in a cinematic market like Australia, where cultural cringe seemingly fuels a reluctance to engage with local product.

Indeed, in recent history alone, we’ve seen MAD MAX: FURY ROAD — the latest instalment in George Miller’s beloved sci-fi franchise — rise the Australian financial ranks. Within three years, this refreshing take on a world ravaged by civilisational collapse, incorporating critiques of capitalism and masculinity along with it, occupied the tenth-highest spot in Australia’s all-time list of box-office behemoths. Genre is a powerful vehicle for evidencing filmmaking chops outside the homeland, too. One of the best works of horror to have come out of Australia in the last decade, Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK, has become a global sensation, garnering critical praise, securing distribution on Netflix, and its central monster even ascending to queer meme status.

Among the films in competition for this year's AACTA Awards, there’s a wealth of comparable forays into genre: crime (GRINGO, 1%), sci-fi (OCCUPATION, UPGRADE, PULSE, CARGO), thriller (THE SECOND), horror (WINCHESTER, RABBIT). And several of these have followed similar trajectories to audiences: Bikie crime film 1% premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, before proceeding to screen at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and the BFI London Film Festival, then at the festivals in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. WINCHESTER, GRINGO and UPGRADE likewise made waves in various territories across the world before landing on local shores. CARGO was snapped up by Netflix after its appearances at the Adelaide, London and Tribeca festivals, while THE SECOND enjoyed an effectively simultaneous release in cinemas and on Stan.

Of course, genre definitions are slippery — where does the line between thriller end and horror begin, and when does a dark comedy involving a murder (BROTHERS’ NEST) verge into the territory of pure crime? Certainly, some of these titles can prove difficult to categorise on clear-cut genre terms — umbrella label aside, CARGO is perhaps best described as a ‘post-apocalyptic zombie film’ — but they nevertheless adhere to conventions familiar to us, and feature tropes and motifs that we’ve come to know and love. More importantly, though, several standout works in competition this year take genre and turn it on its head. PULSE collides the sci-fi body-swap trope with explorations of queerness and disability. SWEET COUNTRY Warwick Thornton’s masterful latest work, which screened everywhere from Venice, Toronto and Thessaloniki, to Busan, Dubai and Jerusalem — transposes the western to outback Australia.

Through genre, filmmakers dabble in creativity within constraint, and perhaps any deprecating remarks about it rest on the idea that rule-adherence is quick and easy. But it isn’t simply a cookie-cutter job. There’s a tricky balance between tapping into the audience’s recognition and boring them with repetition — something many of the films at this year's AACTA Film Fest achieve with skill.

 

The feature films in competition were screened in cinema in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during September 2018 as part of AACTA Film Fest. The films will be available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 11 October 2018.

For your complete guide to the feature films competing for a nomination for the 2018 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Film Fest Guide here (6MB).

 

Follow Adolfo on Twitter.

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