AACTAs 2012: the true test of Australia's cultural mettle

Last year's AACTA Awards passed me by in a blur: I was relatively certain (and, it turned out, correctly so in most cases) that Snowtown would come away with armfuls of gongs, and as it was one of my favourite films of the year, I knew I could rest easy. 

However, my actual favourite film of the year, Jonathan Teplitzky's Burning Man, was shunted forward into consideration for 2012's awards as it was released so late in 2011. 

Here's what I said of the film in my year-end roundup: "Teplitzky's bracing exploration of grief was alternately devastating and life-affirming, a cathartic masterwork that boasted some of the year's best performances, particularly Matthew Goode as a chef in mourning and Kate Beahan as a compassionate sex worker. It also had, in its shambolic school concert, the best, most determinedly "Australian" spin on the Hollywood ending of the year - a scene the makers of Crazy, Stupid, Love should be forced to watch on repeat."

Having been holding my breath all year, I was relieved today to find that Burning Man has picked up ten AACTA nominations, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. 

(It should be noted that I consider the lack of either a Lead or Supporting Actress nomination for neither Beahan or the exquisite Bojana Novakovic is nothing short of a travesty.)

However, pipping Burning Man to the "most nominations" post was Wayne Blair's The Sapphires with 12 nominations. 

This means that 2012's AACTA Awards will end up - because the rest of the field doesn't stand much of a chance against two films with so many nominations - being a battle between feel-good and actually-good. 

I certainly don't think The Sapphires was bad (though it wasn't far from it at times). More importantly, it's terrific that a film packed full of good roles for Indigenous actors did well at the box office (even if its publicity trail was populated almost exclusively by its white male star, Chris O'Dowd). 

But if we are to assess our film industry's output in a way that implies we are willing to compete on a global scale - something that the renaming of the AFI Awards to the AACTAs, along with accompanying "the Australian Oscars"-type PR, suggests is desired - surely we need to get away from the notion that our best work is also our least challenging? 

And, yes, I am aware of the fact that sometimes major film awards go to duds, but it's rare for international awards ceremonies to bestow glories upon films that represent the most culturally lukewarm of that particular country's output. 

(Perhaps in order to avoid this, the BAFTAs have mystifyingly and increasingly nominated and awarded films with tenuous-to-no connection to the British film industry.)

Let me remind you that last year, the cute but limp Red Dog was inexplicably named Best Film, in a year that included (and all were nominated for the same award) The Hunter, Snowtown, The Eye Of The Storm and Mad Bastards. Did the voters think that Koko (aka the eponymous dog) would be sad if the film didn't take home the gold? 

Red Dog also took out the AFI Members' Choice award: fine. That's the sort of award a film like Red Dog deserves; give it a People's Choice, let it top the readers' polls in The Women's Weekly or Who Magazine, or bestow upon it a Dr Harry's Top Woofing Movie statuette (one of these awards may not actually exist).

Going into 2012's awards, The Sapphires occupies a similar position as last year's Best Film winner: a nice film, with some good moments, but a shonky script and lacklustre direction. Just because your nanna liked it, doesn't mean it was the best film this country has produced this year.

Burning Man is a film that could - and should - compete on the world stage, just as Snowtown has gone on to do (albeit with the unwieldy and less mysterious title, The Snowtown Murders); it is artistically ambitious and challenging. The Sapphires is a film that gave competing on a world stage a red hot go but in the end felt a little like an am-dram version of a big screen musical; it is, more or less, artistically risk free. 

Do we hand out awards for excellence, or for trying?  

I know I've rolled out this quote a number of times, but Peter Craven's words from last year (when the MEAA arced up about overseas actors taking roles in the Australian film/TV and theatre industries) feel relevant once more: "“Our true terror is not cultural imperialism but cultural excellence. We need the best actors and directors working on our screens and stages. Why are we so scared that we won't measure up?”

We made a lot of good films this year, and the two set to duke it out both feature imported lead actors (The Sapphires had O'Dowd and Burning Man the sublime Matthew Goode), but come AACTA night, I hope it's the truly excellent one that is awarded. 

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