As a proud Aussie stuck here in Canada, it’s frustrating not being able to go home, hang out with my family and meet up with friends in the film industry over these past 15 months of Covid travel bans. But I always have my eye on what’s happening in the Down Under film and television industries and unashamedly admit to being obsessed with Indigenous superstar Aaron Pedersen (pictured below, left) whose performance as Det. Jay Swan in the film Goldstone is nothing short of Oscar-worthy! It just so happens Goldstone was filmed in the outback town of Winton, in the state of Queensland, as was his award-winning tv series, Mystery Road, based on his character Jay Swan, first introduced to us back in 2013 in the original film, Mystery Road, written and directed by Ivan Sen.Winton is also home to the newly opened Australian Age of Dinosaurs, a massive outdoor exhibition of the bones and fossils of extinct creatures that once roamed the country…imagine Jurassic Park without the scary man-eating beasts! It’s also the birthplace of the world’s leading int’l airline, QANTAS and where the song Waltzing Matilda was first performed some 100 years ago. But it’s the unique cultural experience of watching movies under the stars – and boy those southern hemisphere starry skies are fantastic – that will be drawing me back home next year to join film lovers, filmmakers and film media to the VISION SPLENDID OUTBACK FILM FESTIVAL.The opening feature film this year (June 25th) is the much-anticipated documentary about Australia’s legendary leading Indigenous actor, David Gulpilil (below – photo by Miles Rowland), who is now battling cancer yet has kept working as much as his health allows. Other films include June Again, starring award-winning actress of screen, tv and stage Noni Hazelhurst, and Rams starring another favourite actor of mine (and great wine maker, too) Sam Neill. The full festival programme, tickets and related events available online at: www.visionsplendidfilmfest.com
I had the opportunity to chat online with Festival Director, Mark Melrose, who told me all about the Festival’s history, the stars who have attended and all the exciting Festival related activities…and of course, how to get there.
Congratulations on the upcoming Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival – please tell me a little about the genesis or inspiration for the festival, who was Butch Lenton, how long it’s been running and why Winton for a film festival location considering, in colloquial terms, it’s back o’ Burke, beyond the black stump and up Woop-Woop (i.e. the middle of nowhere!) Vision Splendid was the brainchild of Clive Kitchen, a local businessman. He started discussions in 2013 with the then Mayor of Winton, Butch Lenton, following the success of the film, Mystery Road. In June 2014, the inaugural Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival took place, and it has grown ever since.Lenton was the major driving force behind Winton being what it is today. He had the vision to push for films to be made here on location and the drive to make it happen – sadly he is no longer with us to see how the Festival has grown – it’s a testament to his hard work in creating a film-friendly town that will ultimately create a new industry for Outback Queensland. There are several reasons Winton is the home of the Festival, but mainly it’s due to the fact several feature films and TV series have been shot there in recent times, including The Proposition, Mystery Road, Goldstone and Total Control. Its unique landscapes and vast open spaces cannot be replicated in a studio.
How has COVID-19 impacted the festival and what precautions are you taking to ensure audience safety this year? Of course, COVID-19 has meant more precautions and risk mitigation elements have come into the festival. The 2020 Festival was postponed, thankfully not cancelled, until September as we found a window to push on with the event. Thankfully we did, as the event resulted in the best of the Festival’s short history with a 36% increase in crowds from 2019. The COVID safety plan included reduced capacities in the theatre and Town Hall, cleaning of the venues between each screening, all tickets being pre-purchased and not available at the door, contact tracing via ticketing and QR codes, and social distancing markers on the ground for queues. These elements will be in place again this year.
Since the Festival’s inception, which attending filmmakers or celebrities have caused major excitement with media and audiences alike? There have been several filmmakers and celebrities that have caused a ‘stir’ in the media and audiences, including Ivan Sen (director/writer) and actor Aaron Pederson for Goldstone, Michael Caton and Mark Coles Smith for Last Cab to Darwin, Gyton Grantly for Beneath Hill 60, Margaret Pomeranz for David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, Roy Billing as the Festival Patron, Steve Le Marquand for Locusts, and Nicholas Hope for Book Week.Dr. Greg Dolgopolov is the Festival Curator and Creative Director and he kindly answered a question for me: How do you choose which films to showcase and what forgotten cinematic treasures to celebrate? As the Creative Director, I am tasked with selecting and curating around 50 films each year –documentaries, shorts and feature films. These are mainly new films but every year we feature some classics – either silent films that are brought back to life with live musical accompaniment or films celebrating a significant anniversary. The guiding principle for the festival is that the films have to be Australian and sometimes that could include a film that has an Australian involvement, such as a film directed by an Australian but produced elsewhere or a foreign film that stars an Australian actor. Majority of the films are made in Australia and the Festival features a selection of the best available films made recently. The other guiding principle is that the films need to engage a mainstream audience. That means that we are looking for great crowd-pleasing films. I tend to program a few ‘testing’ or art house films as one thing that I have learnt over more than 15 years of curating is that you can never predict what audiences will like and that there are clearly different audiences for different films.
I try to curate in a representative manner capturing different communities and different ideas. The Festival tries to be democratic but not in some crazy quota system but just the best films possible across genres, themes and ideas and I do tend to lean towards outback stories featuring the Australian landscape as part of the drama largely because of where the Festival is located. The origins of the Festival were in presenting Mystery Road in 2013 in the town where most of the filming took place, so the Festival is very connected to the films that have been shot in the Winton area and regional Queensland more broadly. The Festival is intensely committed to drawing new productions to the region and in developing new and emerging filmmakers. Every year about eight new short films are made during the festival by the next generation of filmmakers, and we are confident that when they start helming major productions and need a rugged outback location or a remote rural community, they will come straight to Winton.Curating Australian ‘cinematic treasures’ is an art form in itself – sometimes it’s a films’ significant anniversary that justifies its inclusion in the program. Sometimes it because we are featuring a digital remastering of a classic or because one of the Festival guests is bringing their new film and we want to highlight their body of work in the program, so audiences can get a taste for what they have done in the past. Getting a sense that the selection was right by judging the mood in the room is incredibly satisfying as a curator, as well as bringing people together to discuss what they have seen in more robust ways than they would at a standard cinema experience. That is the great thing about Winton – there is that time and opportunity to have a yarn with others about your experiences and we have a strong group of regulars who are not afraid to voice their opinions and that is just great for the dynamics of having a little festival in the middle of nowhere, but that continuously draws such huge crowds every year.
Back to Mark….The festival also actively involves film students from Griffith University Film School (GUFS) and the University of NSW (UNSW). How do they participate and why do you think it’s important for them to get hands-on experience at the festival level? Having students involved is immensely important for a number of reasons: they request to travel to Winton for a two-week Outback Filmmaking Bootcamp where they create a short film in two weeks in an extremely remote region. This allows the students to experience the highs and lows of filmmaking – what it means to make a film without all the creature comforts available in the big cities; the highs of creating something seen by an audience in a short period of time; and getting used to working in groups of people across disciplines. From an economic point-of-view for Winton, there are 60+ future filmmakers in town who now know about the locations and what Winton has to offer and potentially will make a feature film there in the future. The town opens its doors to the students, filming in houses, workplaces and the main streets. They are immersed with Indigenous Culture working closely with the Koa Aboriginal Corporation on the importance of the land and historical significance. The students are also volunteers for the festival and get some experience as to what it takes to put a festival together….and the need of volunteers to make it all happen.The town of Winton has been the location of some of the most exciting films and TV shows, including one of my favourite films, Goldstone (directed by Ivan Sen and starring the great Aaron Pedersen) – what does Winton offer incoming productions apart from long days of great natural light and friendly people? There are exciting things in the pipeline for Winton that, should they fall into place, will offer more incentives to shoot in this unique location. It already has the spectacular outback vistas, the town setting, the friendly people, but in 6 months time, we hope it will have two or three more major developments to bring in more filmmakers and cement the industry here in the Hollywood of the Outback.How difficult is it to reach Winton from, say, Sydney or Brisbane? And what sort of guest accommodations can be found for overseas festival visitors? It’s not that difficult to reach Winton, it just takes time. There is only one flight a day from Brisbane into the town of Longreach and from there Winton is a 2 hour drive (177km). There is a bus that departs Brisbane daily and a train that departs Brisbane for Longreach twice a week. There are several hotels and motels including the North Gregory Hotel (where Waltzing Matilda was performed in public for the very first time over 100 years ago), and the Outback Motel to name two. There are also four caravan parks if that is how you are traveling.Good luck for this year’s Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival – is there anything else you’d like to share with international film fans? Thank you. We are excited to be able to operate during these bizarre times, however, we do miss our international friends. We can’t wait to open the borders and welcome you back for (hopefully) next year’s Festival. If you’re a filmmaker looking for somewhere different to make a film, check out Winton. We don’t call it the Hollywood of the Outback for nothing!Thanks to photographers Alan Mathieson and Maree Azzopardi for the amazing shots of previous Festivals. I’m sending my best wishes to Mark, Greg and all the wonderful volunteers and folks of Winton. I can’t wait until I head Down Under next year. There are so many activities for all the family including a daily kids club, “breakfast with the stars” each morning, local Indigenous storytellers and there are even silent movies being shown, too. Let’s not forget there’s great food and drinks as well as shopping – you gotta take home some great Aussie outback souvenirs! If you can’t make it to Winton this year, I’ll see you there in June of 2022!