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Wrapping Up the Dungog Film Festival 2009

 

Having just celebrated its third year, the Dungog Film Festival looks set to be a regular and important addition to the Australian film calendar. Sydney journalist, film-lover and photographer Lyndal Irons attended this year. Here she gives us a personal take on what’s so unique about Dungog.


Upon arrival in Dungog, it’s easy to think you’ve turned up to a film set instead of a film festival. This is one photogenic place, historically preserved and fertile for human stories.

 

To get there, you may have to contend with cowherds exerting their right of way and a one-lane bridge that guards a river, or a train line. You’ll probably pass an old farmhouse fenced in by cactus, an empty car-yard with a string of blue and white flags flapping above, a grand federation pub with a wide lattice terrace, and a butcher shop with a sign that says “home kills welcome”. Then you know you’ve left the city and arrived in the northern Hunter region, just beneath the World Heritage Listed Barrington Tops.

 

This is pretty much a one road town, and it’s not hard to locate the James Theatre, the oldest continually operating cinema in Australia and central venue for screenings at the Dungog Film Festival, held this year from May 26-31. Having just completed its third year, Dungog is still a new kid on the block compared to stalwarts of the cinematic circuit like the Sydney Film Festival, which follows soon after. But it intentionally offers something distinct from its older, larger, siblings. Apart from one or two New Zealand contributions, Dungog is all-Australian. It’s non-competitive. And it’s growing.

 

A national festival with a local feel, Dungog 2009 showcased features, classics, shorts, live script readings and workshops that cater for almost anyone who makes or loves Australian films. It also doubles as a group retreat and team building exercise for many members of the Australian film industry.

 

“It’s a good opportunity for all sorts of different aspects of the industry to get together to discuss the state we’re in,” says Aden Young, a lead actor in Kriv Stender’s Lucky Country, which made its New South Wales premiere at Dungog this year. “It’s great to see emerging filmmakers. To see what’s being done, who’s doing it, how they’re doing it and who’s funding it.”

 

Founder and director Allanah Zitserman admits you have to be a little crazy to attempt to create a reputable festival in a small town.“The hardest part is convincing people to go to Dungog,” she says. “In the first year I’d ring people and say, ‘Hey, we’re putting on a film festival in Dungog’. They’d say, ‘Dun-what?’” A catchy slogan splashed over shirts and bags helps spell it out for the dummies: Done Sundance, Done Cannes, Dungog.

 

Zitserman intentionally placed the festival amidst such prestigious company. She’s spent time at these festivals, and they inspired her ambition to create something similar here.

“I’ve really enjoyed film festivals outside of cities where people just spent time together,” she says. “You can make connections that you couldn’t quite make in a hustle and bustle city environment. I felt there was something very special about that. I wondered to myself why we didn’t have a film festival like that in Australia. I just saw an opportunity to do something quite different.” And it appears to be working.

 

Approximately 6,000 people turned up in 2009, almost double the attendance from 2008 – and double the usual population of the small town. For four days after the “Festival Express” rolls in from Sydney, cafes and bars are filled to capacity with filmmakers, actors, casting agents, critics and fans of Australian cinema. Down Dowling Street it’s rare to find a shop window from which the festival cow artwork doesn’t return your stare, and the majority of businesses have dressed their displays according to their favourite Australian film.

 

Generally very welcoming, locals can be overheard playing spot-the-celebrity, eyeing newcomers with interest (“You’re a pretty little bugger, aren’t you?”) or suspicion (“There’s a lot of bullshit that goes on with your people. But you’re ok.”). A part-time resident herself, Zitserman respects concerns that the festival could change the nature of the town. She’s not the first member of the industry to be drawn to its magic. While it is most commonly known as the birthplace of cricketer Doug Walters, Dungog’s modern residents now include Hugo Weaving, who has a house in the surrounding area and serves on the festival’s advisory panel alongside Margaret Pomeranz and Jane Campion.

 

Zitserman lists greater community involvement and the establishment of the “Friends of Dungog Film Festival” society as some of the highlights of the year. Dungog High School students were responsible for Dead Dog Dreamin’, one of the 105 short films screened over the weekend, and local volunteers are a significant force propelling the festival.

 

If the ride feels a little jerky at times, it’s worth remembering the town’s infrastructure is rural, and it’s difficult to predict and prepare for the annual influx of film buffs. It’s not, however, an event totally without city comforts or pretensions.

 

After the sun goes down and the scenery fades, there are opening nights, closing nights and parties in between to occupy the urban attention span. On Saturday night the local showground was taken up by a billowing tent fronted by gas flames. Inside Matthew Newtown ran through wedding standards with Australian Idol Wes Carr and people drank, danced, laughed and later stumbled into buses and cars through a blanket of heavy rain.

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New South Wales Mining were principal presenting sponsor at Dungog this year, a partnership that is seen as contentious by some local groups who also used the event to have their voices heard on environmental issues. Speaking generally, Zitserman says sponsorship support is unavoidable and welcome. “A festival of this kind takes a huge amount of generosity from different types of organisations. It’s just not possible to do it on your own.”

 

With 2009 still wrapping up, her vision for the future is one where the importance of the festival grows while the numbers stay intimate. She hopes that one day Dungog will be the must-go event for anyone who is interested in dealing with the Australian film industry. “We’re excited about the growth, but it’s important that we retain a sense of intimacy for the festival. That’s a big part of its charm.”

 

Lyndal Irons

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