Sarah Snook, David Wenham and Hugo Weaving in front of Busselton Jetty

Postcards from CinéfestOZ, Western Australia, 2018

White sand, white surf: at midnight under the bright full moon of late August I stood alone on a West Australia beach, watching the pale water lap the even paler shore, my shadow a sharply-outlined black silhouette slanting towards land. It was the penultimate night of my week at CinéfestOZ, a film-festival which since 2008 has taken place towards the end of each not-very-cold antipodean winter.  With its HQ and the majority of its screenings in the long, narrow seaside resort of Busselton, the festival uses various locations in the Margaret River region which stretches from Augusta in the north to Bunbury around ninety miles south. Sweet country.

The year just under two-thirds over, CinéfestOZ was my nineteenth film-festival of 2018. I was thus on target to set a new “personal best” and finally crack the arbitrary but somehow magic-sounding annual total of 30: XXX, to be a touch more Vin Diesel about things. Up until August my sixteen festivals had all been in Europe: four at “home” in Austria (Vienna is my main base), three in the neighbouring Czech Republic, two apiece in Serbia and Norway, one in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and the U.K. An invitation to take part in the Critics’ Campus at the Melbourne International Film Festival in early August opened up a promising, unexplored horizon. But it seemed rather a long way to go for just a fortnight, and I decided to aim for the whole month.

Then I heard about CinéfestOZ, from where I could feasibly head to Perth and then fly back to Europe, and an itinerary fell logically into place: Melbourne, then a couple of nights in Hobart, Tasmania, then five in Sydney, then the vast, untenanted west. The second largest sub-national entity in the world behind the Siberian republic of Sakha, W.A. (as all locals routinely call it) is the size of Argentina but has only half the population of Serbia. Beyond the metropolis of Perth (pop. 2 million) towns of any size are very few and very far between.

Most WA districts are dominated by agriculture in one form or another; Margaret River, an affluent part of this affluent nation, and which has for many centuries been the home of the Noongar and Wardandi tribes of Aboriginal people, is among those which also places considerable emphasis on tourism. CinéfestOZ was founded in 2008 when a group of local councillors visited Saint-Tropez and were so impressed by the film-festival there, and its success as a visitor-attraction, that they returned home and set up their own small-scale equivalent—hence that cute acute accent in CinéfestOZ’s name.

The Gallic connection is anything but a new one for this part of the world. Back in 1800, a French expedition (operating with the personal approval of Napoléon Bonaparte, no less) set out from Le Havre with the intention of mapping the coastline of the island continent then known as ‘New Holland.’ Under the command of Nicolas Baudin, the Géographe and the Naturaliste reached the Margaret River coastline—rounding what is now Cape Naturaliste to enter what’s now Géographe Bay—in May 1801. While exploring the area tribe crewmember Timothée Vasse drowned; his moniker survives in numerous geographical and business names around these parts. These include Vasse Virgin in Wilyabrup, a deluxe emporium offering olive oil, soaps, moisturisers, massage-oils which entices gourmets and skin-care devotees from far afield. It’s one of literally dozens of enterprises which dot the countryside of the Margaret River region, a byword across Australia for high-quality libations and gastronomic excellence.

Margaret River doesn’t really do “cheap and cheerful” as a general rule, and CinéfestOZ deliberately positions itself as a “destination” event for discerning cinemagoers with plentiful disposable income. A ticket to one of the big evening galas cost $70 AUD (£38), the opening night $110 ($60) and the closing night $160 (£87), though all of these include invitations to the post-screening party with plentiful top-drawer food and drink provided. Most of the regular screenings are a rather more manageable $20 (£10), and most of the community-based programmes were shown gratis.

The sliding scale clearly appeals to a range of local audiences: admissions have gone from 1,800 to 18,000 over the decade of its existence. During this period CinéfestOZ has established itself not only as a highly significant cultural event in local terms, but also in the calendar of Australian cinema. It helps that the festival features one of the most well-endowed film prizes in the entire world. This is the somewhat bluntly-named CinéfestOZ Film Prize, worth $100,000 AUD (just over £54,000), for which only a small handful of Australian productions annually compete.

There were four contenders in 2018, the most high-profile of which was the world-premiere of Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford’s long-gestating period comedy-drama Ladies In Black. Despite the select nature of the competition, dozens of filmmakers and other professionals from the industry hubs in the distant east of the country can be spotted in and around Busselton during the five days of CinéfestOZ. It’s not unusual to see internationally renowned figures such as Bryan Brown, Gillian Armstrong, Joel Edgerton, Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson on the red carpet here and at the festival’s legendary social events (some of which are open to public attendance upon payment of a three-figure fee).

This year CinéfestOZ treated its delegates and guests to an 11am wine-tasting (or rather wine-swallowing) at Forester Estate Winery in the bucolic, ochre-earthed surroundings of Yallingup Siding. The owners’ rough-coated, three-legged 10-year-old Labrador Max enlivened proceedings considerably; larger-than-life Aussie TV star Eddie Baroo was induced to slice the top off a bottle of ice-cold champagne using a giant machete (it only took him three goes). ‘Rústico At Hay Shed Hill’ in Wilyabrup was, meanwhile, the location for a Michelin-class lunch celebrating Ladies In Black, with scriptwriter/producer Sue Milliken and producer Allanah Zitserman recounting the long and complex process by which Booker nominee Madeline St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black reached the big screen.

Guests present at the lunch included David Wenham—who broke through internationally twenty years ago with his remarkable performance as a softly-spoken psychopath in Rowan Woods’ The Boys before becoming recognisable to international audiences as Faramir in The Lord of the Rings. A regular at CinéfestOZ, Wenham is still best known at home for his role as ‘Diver Dan’ in the TV series SeaChange (1998-2000), starring opposite Sigrid Thornton, present at Margaret River this year as the president of the Film Prize jury and also as recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. The latter comes with a Hollywood-style star on the Walk Of Fame outside CinéfestOZ’s main downtown Busselton venue, the Orana multiplex; Wenham had earlier received a more offbeat tribute when a large portrait of the actor painted by Perth-based Tessa McOnie was unveiled in the lobby of the city council during opening-night.

The actor bookended CinéfestOZ, popping up as the main villain of In Like Flynn, which screened on the closing night, out of competition. An old-fashioned crowdpleaser chronicling legendary Hobart-born roister-doisterer Errol Flynn’s pre-Hollywood exploits up and down the coast of Queensland and in the forests of Papua New Guinea circa 1930, In Like Flynn—which premiered in June at the ‘Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival’ in Queensland in June—is the first proper theatrical project in more than a decade from Melbourne’s Russell Mulcahy.

Pretty much responsible for inventing the pop video as we know it in the late seventies and early eighties (his myriad seminal credits in that sphere include ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by Buggles. ‘Vienna’ by Ultravox and ‘The Wild Boys’ by Duran Duran), Mulcahy then transitioned smoothly to the big screen and scored a cult success with his debut Razorback (1984) followed by a worldwide smash with the cheesy but surprisingly enduring Highlander (1986). His career since then can charitably be described as “chequered,” but In Like Flynn—arriving some 11 years after Resident Evil: Extinction—is a comeback as rousing as it is unexpected. Featuring a quite stupendous supporting turn from British actor Clive Standen as a Robert-Shaw-esque sea-dog who becomes part of Flynn’s treasure-hunting crew and gradually reveals a tragic back-story, the film top-lines rising Aussie pin-up Thomas Cocquerel as Flynn.

Somewhat optimistically tipped in certain quarters “the next Chris Hemsworth,” the genial Cocquerel was present at CinéfestOZ, and over glasses of rosé during one of the lunches we briefly discussed matters Flynn-related. Only a couple of weeks before I’d visited his birthplace and childhood haunts in the genteel, picturesque Hobart suburb of Battery Point, where in an antique shop I picked up a second-hand ten-dollar paperback copy of Flynn’s notorious and never-out-of-print autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Cocquerel will likely also tread the Hollywood path sooner rather than later and, in a quirk of cinematic history, could in theory at least actually share the screen with Flynn’s sweetheart from his first American staring vehicle Captain Blood (1935)—the filming of which features briefly in the closing moments of In Like Flynn—Olivia de Havilland being still very much with us at 102.

In Like Flynn was by some way the pick of the half-dozen or so features I saw at CinéfestOZ, but pound for pound the most accomplished film on view was Andrew Goldsmith and Bradley Slabe’s eight-minute animation Lost & Found. This screened to minimal fanfare in a programme of Australian shorts as part of the awards night—during which the big money went to the lowest-budgeted of the four contenders, Benjamin Gilmour’s Afghan episodic picaresque Jirga.  Lost & Found was probably even cheaper, a wordless, delightful and stealthily moving tale of two stuffed animals—a dinosaur and a fox—whose love proves strong enough to transcend bodily disintegration. But while I was happy to catch Lost & Found and In Like Flynn, both of which I’d rank among my favourite new films of 2018, my week at CinéfestOZ certainly wasn’t just about sitting in the dark of the cinema.

Indeed, part of my guiding ethos in my nomadic festival-hopping schedule, one which I’ve been lucky enough to follow since 2011, is to get far away from the cinema and see as much of the surrounding area as I can while doing justice to my duties as journalist/juror/programmer. Busselton itself offers plenty of distractions, not least the ruggedly alluring and unspoilt seaside. This is very much surf area, and the spectacle of the hardy locals riding the breakers at places like Prevelly Point near Gnarabup Beach (keeping one eye out for the sharks who haunt these waters) trumps any equivalent vista in California.

The most famous landmark in Busselton, meanwhile, outstrips any equivalent in the Golden State and, indeed, anywhere else in the world. Busselton Jetty is the planet’s longest wooden pier, jutting out some 1 1/7 miles into the Indian Ocean, which makes it more than twice as long as California’s record-holder, Santa Cruz Wharf. Built between 1853 and 1865, Busselton Jetty was used as an unloading facility for industrial vessels until 1971, survived major damage from Cyclone Alby in 1978 and is now one of W.A.’s most popular historic tourist attractions, with more than half a million visitors a year. Many of these ride a dinky miniature railway to the end of the pier where lifts take them down to an underwater observatory affording close-up views of the structure’s seaweed-and-shell-encrusted struts and the colourful fish who feed around it.

The Ocean isn’t actually very deep even at the end of the pier, perhaps only 20 feet or so. Those wishing to go further down should head half an hour’s drive away to Ngilgi Cave northeast of Yallerup, close to the peninsula’s western shore, a place of great mythological significance to local Aboriginal tribes and a major visitor-draw for more than a century. Ngilgi (pronounced “Neelgee”) has been the site of guided visits since 1900, and nowadays an elaborate and well-lit series of wooden walkways take the intrepid down some 128 feet among fantastical geological formations, many of them darkly orange and waxen in appearance. H P Lovcraft’s “Old Ones” and H R Giger’s organic/man-made monstrosities come to mind when wandering these galleries and caverns; afterwards their impact is best absorbed over a cup of tea—or maybe something stronger—at the nearby Caves House Hotel, its present ornate but rambling structure dating back to 1937. Many of the public areas exude a genteel Agatha Christie air, with fixtures and fittings redolent of Australia’s colonial grandeur, and there are so many fancy little rooms one half-expects to find the still-warm cadaver of some ill-fated schoolmaster or cleric slumped across a sofa.

A sports-oriented boozer, The Long Bar, provides a more blokey taste of the country’s more recent moods, with Aussie Rules footy on the TV and tipping-contest updates on the walls. Vintage 1960s surf-team photos proudly displayed alongside calendars for current competitions (“Margaret River Pro, March 28 to April 8”). The clack of pool-balls is audible from the semi-open games area beyond; patrons sink into well-padded brown leather chairs; white-painted cane furniture adds a touch of brightness to the Yallingup Room; chrome runners gleam on the immaculate carpets.

Somebody here is evidently a film fan, and one section of this labyrinthine joint is lined with framed posters and stills: Jack Lord in the long-forgotten Counterfeit Killer; Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak and Mary Astor leading the cast of Desert Fury… “in blazing Technicolor!” I search in vain for Errol Flynn. No dice; the Caves House management seems to much prefer Jimmy Stewart. But his time will surely come again. Tide goes out; tide comes in.