On February 15th at The Backlot Theatre in Melbourne, the 2019 Australian Film Critic Association awards were handed out. Heading into the ceremony, Sweet Country lead the pack with nine nominations, and at the end of the night, Sweet Country walked away with six wins in total, including wins for Best Film, Best Director (Warwick Thornton), Best Actor (Hamilton Morris), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Neill), and Best Cinematography.
On hand to accept the many awards were the producers of Sweet Country, as well as co-writer David Tranter. Rounding out the winners were nods for Nicole Kidman’s supporting performance in Boy Erased, and Angourie Rice in Ladies in Black.
In the international categories, You Were Never Really Here won the Best English Language Film, and Roma took the Best Foreign Language Film award. Paul Damien Williams was on hand to receive the award for Best Documentary for his film, Gurrumul.
The Australian Film Critics Association doesn’t just reward the best films of the year, it also rewards some of the best writing that come from Australian film critics. For the 2019 awards, there were three winners:
- Gabrielle O’Brien won the Ivan Hutchinson Award for best long-form writing on Australian of international cinema for her piece ‘The Art of Meta-Morphosis: Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto’ in Metro Magazine.
- Glen Falkenstein won the award for Best Review of an individual non-Australian film for his review of Disobedience on Falkenscreen.
- And, surprisingly, I won the award for Best Review of an individual Australian film for my review of West of Sunshine on this very website.
First of all, I want to say thank you to the Australian Film Critic Association for the honour of being recognised for my writing. I’ll get introspective in a minute, but it means a lot to be recognised for a review about an Australian film, and in turn, one as great as West of Sunshine. It goes without saying that Damian Hill delivered one heck of a performance in the film, and I hope that my writing honours his legacy in some way.
I interviewed Damian a few weeks before his passing, just as West of Sunshine was rolling out around Australia, and he mentioned how grateful he was for my review of Pawno, and what it meant to read a review about his film. His appreciation over someone having sat down to watch his film, and in turn, to actually spend the time to write a review for it, was immediate. The Australian film industry is a small one, with the competition to simply be recognised in the field of mammoth Hollywood blockbusters being a tough, exhausting one. With that in mind, it’s clear that any review of an Australian film (no matter how big or small the website) can be enough to help bring attention to the film itself.
While film criticism around the world cops a battering from filmmakers and viewers alike, Australian film criticism is in a bit of a tough spot. There are few paid, full time film critics, and those who are keen to jump into the world of film reviewing do so with little promise of a meal ticket at the end of it all. For a lot of us out there, this is a pure passion project, and one that’s driven by a love of film and cinema as a whole.
Which makes the ‘war against film critics’ a bit of a strenuous thing to watch unfurl as genre fans blame the failure of a film on the critics, and then when it succeeds, decry that film criticism is irrelevant. I’m not going to follow that path to its logical conclusion (read: put your pitchforks away angry teens and go to bed), but rather, remind that most critics get into discussing film because it’s the art form they’re passionate about.
I went to university (in what seems like an age ago) to study film and to ideally become a teacher. That failed quickly, and dreams of being a teacher fell by the wayside alongside the abandoned degree. So, I have no formal qualifications to pin to my name that state that I’m a ‘film critic’, and in turn, I have no ‘tangible’ proof that I know what the heck I’m talking about other than me saying ‘I’ve seen a lot of movies’. But that didn’t stop me from writing about them.
I had no idea where to start, so of course I turned to one of the writers who I grew up reading, Stephen King. His book, On Writing, carried the most sage advice I’d read anywhere about writing in general – read a lot, write often. The note about reading wherever you can has stuck in my mind (maybe it’s because the imagery King painted was so vivid, where he suggested that everyone should have a ‘toilet book’ to read – I’m paraphrasing, but it’s what stuck with me), and so whenever I can, I’m reading film reviews and criticism from all around the globe. In turn, after discovering a group of reviewers that I respected and enjoyed, I followed the path of attempting to write on their level.
Now, my early reviews are atrocious. They were regular exercises in hyperbole, with sweeping statements about films like Inception being the second best film of all time (it’s not). I wrote that review about a year after the film came out, and it became a benchmark of what I didn’t want to write. My early reviews were often written with the mentality that I was competing with the reviewers in Empire magazine or FilmInk, even though that was clearly not the case. It took a long while for me to realise the audience I should be writing for: myself.
To completely disregard ‘an audience’ seems like a fool’s errand – after all, isn’t the purpose of a review to advise people of whether a film is worthwhile watching or not? But, if I had no ‘audience’ to speak of, then why would I be writing into the void to begin with? Well, in a purely self-serving way, I enjoy writing about films, so naturally, that writing needs to go somewhere. On top of this, I enjoy Australian cinema a lot, and love writing about Australian cinema.
As a proud Australian, I’ve long found the disconnect between supporting the ‘Aussie battler’ and the Australian community supporting the Aussie film industry to be a perplexing one. Surely these things are not mutually exclusive, given Australian cinema often struggles for purchase in the box office. Where are the proud Aussies heading out to support Australian films week in, week out, simply because they’re Australian? If we have rallying campaigns for Australian farmers where people cause traffic jams to buy punnets of strawberries, then why aren’t there campaigns to support the Australian film industry in the same way? Yes, there is a difference between a farmer and filmmaker, but it’s not as wide as one may think.
So, as I soldiered on with writing film reviews for myself, I decided to focus on Australian cinema. There have always been reviewers writing about Australian films, but I figured, strength in numbers was the best way forward and that my voice might be worthwhile dropping into the bucket too. Getting feedback from people like Damian Hill or Jonathan Messer about the coverage of their films, and hearing that a review made a little bit of a difference, means a lot. For a film reviewer, it’s nice to know that your review is being read by someone, and in turn, it’s nice to know that it matters to someone.
(Granted, this does work in the opposite direction as well, as that one time I gave a bad review to a documentary and the director tracked me down and gave me a bit of an earful about my negative opinion of his film.)
Film criticism can feel like an awfully singular vocation sometimes. We watch a film in the dark by ourselves. We go home and write a review by ourselves. We then publish said review, and it sits on the internet in solitude with little feedback as to whether what you’re saying has made an impact or not. For small sites or singular reviewers, sometimes that solitude can feel quite defeating – why am I doing this if I’m getting no response at all? When there is no feedback loop, it can often feel like you’re SETI transmitting ambient noise into space, patiently waiting for some kind of response.
And if that’s you, then the smallest amount of advice I can give is, do not worry about the metrics of how many clicks a review has, or how many shares, or how many likes or comments. The moment you start obsessing about how many people have clicked on the review is the moment you start losing focus on why you are writing in the first place. Write for yourself first of all, and your readers second. Hold onto that joy of writing and keep that in your heart.
(Now, of course, if you are being paid for your writing, then that’s a whole different kettle of fish, and a focus on metrics is necessary so you know that you have money coming through the door.)
To be fair, there are days where I simply do not have the energy to write. There are films that I look at and think, I have no idea how I am going to review this. But, I’ve learned to push the notion of trying to cultivate clicks out of my mind and focus on why I started doing this hobby in the first place – namely, I love films, and I love trying to push films onto other film lovers. (By the way, have you seen Sweet Country yet?)
This is all a long about way of saying that I sure as heck didn’t expect to win an award for my writing, or to have recognition from my peers that it was any good. I certainly didn’t ever feel that I was even in the same field as many of the people who make up the Australian Film Critics Association. I wasn’t getting paid for writing. I had no qualifications. I was just a guy with a keyboard and a brain and that’s it. But, I soldiered on and pushed myself to try and get my writing as close as I thought I could to the level of the critics that I admired.
And I’ve gotten there.
I’m proud of my writing. I’m proud of my dedication to Australian film and my desire to try and push it as wide and as far as possible. That hunger for discussing film is still there, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be satiated any time soon.
I look at director Heath Davis, and how he is using a group made up of Australian filmmakers to help support and foster each others work in a bid to help make Australian films more widely known and to take away the competitive nature of the film industry, and I think of how that same mentality applies to AFCA. The Australian Film Critics Association is a great avenue for Australian critics to be heard, and there is a lot of great stuff coming with the site soon.
I hope that there are people out there who are still excited about discussing film in a way that doesn’t require that feedback loop. I hope there are people who aren’t discouraged by the initial dud reviews they write, and push themselves to be better writers. Sure, the field of paid reviewing roles is dry and absent of life, but that doesn’t mean that film criticism should die completely.
I’d love to be paid for what I do, mostly so I could pay the writers that write for The Curb for what they do. With that in mind, if you are a writer who is itching for a place to house your writing, get in touch with me and I can try help you out. I’m always looking for new voices to hear shout out about the world of cinema.
This stream of consciousness has gone on for longer than I expected. I hadn’t really explored my own film writing story before, and this award has made me reflect on where I’ve come from with my writing, and where I aim to go with it in the future. I’m excited about the future of Australian cinema, and the future of Australian film criticism. And, most importantly, I’m excited about what I can do as a writer.
Thank you to those who have read my work along the way. Thank you to those who have contributed to the website. Thank you to the filmmakers out there for making films. Thank you Damian Hill.