Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008 AFI Voting

I was asked by the AFI to contribute a small piece about how I judge one film from another, in the context of voting for the AFI Awards. I'm more than a little chuffed that they included me along with a number of reviewers and critics, and you'll find the full article on their website. I'd like to say I'm the only non-professional writer there, though technically that's not correct, as I have been paid for writing one article in The Big Issue (issue #299, on Paranoid Park).

The article starts out with:
It’s time to think about voting

As an AFI member it’s your right, and your privilege, to decide who the winners will be at this year’s AFI Awards.

Technically, voting has never been simpler: visit the AFI homepage, click on the voting button, make your preferences and hit ‘send.’ It should take less than five minutes.

But arriving at those decisions has been the work of many weekends sitting in the dark, watching and evaluating this year’s crop of Australian films – as many of them as you can manage. But how to judge them? How to compare a lavish international co-production with a grimy no-budget drama? Or a frenetically fun documentary with a seriously disturbing one? What makes a film worthy of a gong?

These are the questions that professional film critics must answer on a regular basis, as they compare, contrast, praise and damn the films that pass across our screens. Loved and loathed, perhaps in equal measure, the film critic performs the function of stimulating debate and offering informed judgement. So here we asked some experienced film reviewers to offer hints and tips; some things to keep in mind when you the voter, are playing your role as the ultimate critic in the Australian film industry.

My article is at the bottom of the page:
“A sense of humanity.”

Cinema is for me the most fantastic experience, the most important and complete art form, the opportunity to enter into another world and experience emotions that otherwise I wouldn't. To rate one film against another is easy, even if it's a case of comparing apples and oranges. Ultimately, the main criterion is "how did this film move me?” If I've nodded off during the last two hours, that's not a good sign. If I sat enthralled, that's a good start.

So, how to differentiate one film from another, in the context of the AFI Awards, such as best film? My rough criteria – and it is rough, because there are so many variables – are: to what degree does the film engage me, to what degree does it move me? I don't mind who the actors are, but could I believe in the characters and their performances?

Does the film take risks? I'd prefer a film that aims high and doesn't completely succeed than one that aims low and hits its mark. Sub-consciously, the risk-taker always wins bonus points. Similarly, I'll give bonus points to film that challenges an audience. Perhaps it opens us up to a different perspective, or in some way allows us to view the world differently. It's rare, but I’m looking for something transformational, something that leaves the viewer with a slightly broader or changed view.

When I look at the types of films I am most consistently drawn to, I see that what a director invests of him or herself is absolutely critical. The ability to construct a story that not only engages, but conveys a sense of humanity, of sharing some aspect of the human condition – in all of its glory AND wretchedness – with compassion, subtlety, intelligence, humour, complexity and without being preachy; this is perhaps of most importance to me.

The technical aspects then assume secondary layers of appreciation. The lighting, settings, camera movements and cinematography, music and sound production, editing and so on all enhance the cinema experience. But they're all for naught if there is not a good underlying story. I don't have an aversion to big budget films, but I find these most often disappoint. There is nothing so frustrating as a film that looks good but the story sucks. Unfortunately, very many big budget films make populist compromises that alienate me.

In any field of major endeavour, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of those who have given their blood, sweat and tears to getting projects off the ground and into the cinema. Each year we get the opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months of Australian films and have a say in who gets the gongs. This is democracy in action and every film-goer should take the opportunity.
I'm always fascinated to hear what significance cinema has for others, and how one values one film over another. Anyone care to offer their 2 bobs' worth?

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