Since 2001, the AFC's Big Screen has been on the road showing movies all over the country, exploring new territories, forging partnerships and inspiring local filmmaking competitions and festivals. In short, Big Screen has been fulfilling the AFC's aim of making Australian films available to all Australians. In 2006, Big Screen covered thousands and thousands of kilometres. From Katherine in the Top End to Burnie in northwest Tasmania, from Karratha in WA's Pilbara to tropical Bundaberg in north Queensland, Big Screen trekked the length and breath of the country.
But Big Screen has always been much more than a travelling film festival. In each region, the festival connects with communities and enriches their cultural and creative experiences. Over the life of the festival, 107,000 Australians have enjoyed the Big Screen cinematic experience, which in 2006 played in 49 regional centres. Australian movies rarely make it to regional cinemas, and when they do it is often months after their city release. The Big Screen team tailors programs for each town in conjunction with local cinema/venue operators. The team then works with local councils, cultural, arts and youth groups, film societies and businesses to stage an event embraced by the whole community.
Black Screen and School Screen
Black Screen and School Screen are two major initiatives that have grown out of the festival over the last 12 months. Black Screen showcases films by Indigenous filmmakers, providing Aboriginal communities and the broader Australian public with access to Indigenous stories. When Black Screen took the 2006 NAIDOC Week shorts compile (including The Djarn Djarns and Mimi) to Tennant Creek in August, over 120 people - predominantly Indigenous - turned out for a cinematic experience under a full moon sky teaming with stars. A few days later they returned to see David Gulpilil in Rolf de Heer's The Tracker - this time on an inflatable screen up against a pub wall. Black Screen also managed the 2006 Message Sticks national tour following its success playing to packed houses at the Sydney Opera House in May.
Big Screen's program of free sessions for school children has snowballed into a massive education initiative called School Screen, which is partnering with other major events such as Croc Fest and the Come Out Youth Festival. For Australian school children, access to cinematic stories from their own landscape engenders a sense of place, belonging and identity, while stimulating imagination and creativity. With audiences as large as 850 for Ten Canoes in Port Augusta, and 1000 for Opal Dream in Wagga Wagga, the cultural impact of Australian stories on our children will reverberate for years to come.
A captive audience
This year Big Screen and Black Screen broke new ground by taking Australian films inside prison walls. The experience was profound both for prisoners and the programming team. Former Festival Director Peter Castaldi noted in his blog after the Ivanhoe (NSW) prison screening in April, "No matter what, inmates are still Australians who miss out on Australian films." He described the experience of screening The Tracker to a mostly Indigenous prison population: "This captive audience seemed captivated. After the men had been counted back in, our officer came back to report that they were all talking about the film, and that they had loved it… I stood on the fringes of lives I can never know, never experience. But through The Tracker, even if only for 90 minutes, I could be a part of their lives … the stories of the people who will always, before and after everyone else, own this land and the truth of it, both beautiful and awful."
Just last month, nine short Indigenous films were screened in Roebourne Regional Prison in WA. The prison's Education Manager Lyn Pearce said, "It's great for the men in Roebourne prison who are mostly Indigenous to see serious, sad and funny films about issues relevant to them, to maintain a connection to language and culture and to see Aboriginal lives portrayed by Aboriginal filmmakers. Around 160 prisoners watched the films. Feedback from the prisoners and staff was that the screening was a great success. It has since been asked, 'When will the films be played again?"'
Old and new
Big Screen programs a significant number of archival and recent films from the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), and most new prints are sourced from national distributors. This year the festival toured a stable of new features including Jindabyne, Ten Canoes, Kenny, Candy, The Caterpillar Wish, Kokoda, Last Train to Freo, Macbeth and Opal Dream. But current features are only a part of each town's program - they're teamed with a curated selection of archival classics (like the Mad Max trilogy, Sunday Too Far Away and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), well-loved family films, an Oscar Animation Showcase, short film festivals and a raft of shorts from the graduates of the Australian Film Radio and Television School (AFTRS).
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Peter Weir's magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock the director's cut version, restored by Kodak Atlab, was screened around the country. This very special event drew those who already knew and loved the film, and a new generation of film buffs eager to see this Australian classic.
No flies on Kenny
The highlights of this year's festival were many, but just to mention a few…
In October, Big Screen took the star and team of Kenny, the number one comedy of 2006, to Burnie in Tasmania. Burnie Council bought tickets to the opening night for all staff of the region's new $15.5 million waste treatment plant. Following the screening a scrum of burly Burnie blokes were buzzing around Kenny like flies on an outdoor dunny to get the big guy's autograph. Kenny toured the waste treatment plant, gave it the big thumbs up and met the Mayor to boot - all of which garnered a lot of local and state press. The local Metro Cinemas took the film on for a commercial season following the event. The runaway success of this film and the phenomena of its central character have tapped into something much deeper in this country than just the main sewerage line!
Big Screen is really proud to partner with many local film festivals and competitions around the country. In Briagolong, Victoria, Big Screen teamed up with the local community for their own short film screenings and awards night. As well, a fantastic program called Sharing Stories (a project coordinated by RuralAccess in partnership with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image [ACMI]) came on board. The ten short films, which screened before each feature, were made by local people with disabilities, and were full of courage, hope and humour. "These moving, beautiful stories from people with various abilities and disabilities brought us a little closer to understanding their lives in the community," said Gordana Bacic, Big Screen Project Coordinator.
Culture and community
Finally, a special tribute must go to the people of Mildura - the first stop on the Big Screen tour this year. The community showed strength and commitment to our festival in the face of tragedy. A few days before Big Screen was scheduled to kick off in Mildura a shocking car accident claimed the lives of six of the town's youth. The decision to cancel or play on was a tough one, as Peter Castaldi wrote, "To come into a town on the tail end of such a tragedy is hard… What do we do? How can we possibly bring anything of any meaning to a town suffering so badly? Do we cancel?" But when the team spoke to everyone they knew there, the message came back that the show must go on - that life continues for the people left, and that celebratory and cultural events would help the community through this tragedy.
Thank you to the people of Mildura for embracing Big Screen and establishing the foundations for a significant 2006 Big Screen festival - connectedness and community teamed with extraordinary Australian cinema.
PS. Big Screen kicks off again in March 2007. We'll see you there.