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The AACTA Awards and Australia’s ‘national imagination’

Cate Blanchett, AACTA Ambassador. Siebbi/Flickr

The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards are described as Australia’s version of the Oscars. Some wags call it the “Ozcars”. AACTAs are voted for by the screen industry, rather than through a popular vote as happens with television’s Logies.

In last night’s televised award ceremony, Geoffrey Rush described the Australians who make our film and television as “passionate custodians of our national imagination”. If the creators of our screen culture are charged with the responsibility of sharing Australia’s stories, then what do the AACTA results say about the nature of our “national imagination” in 2014.

To begin with, it’s impossible to ignore that the film categories were dominated by Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It took out a monumental 13 awards, including best lead actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. Though supported by Hollywood funding, the film was shot at Fox Studios in Sydney.

The list of AACTA (formerly Australian Film Institute) best actor recipients across time is a real “who’s who” of Australian acting. The recent award history includes David Gulpilil, Hugo Weaving, Eric Bana, David Wenham and Ben Mendelsohn. The American DiCaprio’s AACTA win follows last year’s award to Irish actor Chris O’Dowd for his work in The Sapphires.

International actors have taken out Australia’s premier film acting prize in the past. Swede Max von Sydow was recognised for his role in Father in 1900 and American Harvey Keitel for The Piano in 1993. Meryl Streep was named best actress in 1989 for Evil Angels, followed by Holly Hunter, who also starred in The Piano.

International collaboration on film and television continues to increase. It brings with it the successes of films like The Great Gatsby and best television mini-series winner The Lake (a co-production between BBC Two, UK TV Australia and the Sundance Channel). Nevertheless, these international partnerships make the idea of a uniquely Australian “national imagination” a little harder to define.

While the Academy Awards and BAFTAs do not restrict entries to American and British films respectively, the AACTAs only consider Australian productions. With our small industry, it seems logical that local film and television would struggle to be promoted and acknowledged with a similar eligibility policy.

In 2012, the AACTA International Awards were instituted to recognise film achievement “regardless of geography”. The International Awards are presented in their own dedicated ceremony in Los Angeles.

Given the national focus of the main AACTA awards, it could be more in keeping with the spirit of the AACTAs for international actors in Australian productions to be acknowledged at the International Awards. Or perhaps that would reinforce an unhelpfully provincial model of filmmaking?

Australian screen culture is changing with respect to its reach. High-profile Australian filmmakers and actors, including Luhrmann, Rush, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, have found success in much larger markets overseas. It is also showing signs of change within, especially with respect to the diversity of people working in Australian film and television.

The Raymond Longford award is the highest honour that can be bestowed within the Australian screen industry. Recipients must have made “a truly outstanding contribution to the enrichment of Australia’s screen environment and culture.”

It took 25 years before the Australian Film Institute presented the award to a woman, producer Sue Milliken in 1993.

Though only six actors had ever been recognised with the Raymond Longford award, all of them were male. Jacki Weaver yesterday became the first female actor to be acknowledged for an outstanding contribution to Australian film.

Video caption here.

The gradual chipping away of barriers to diversity in Australian film and television is evident not only in Weaver’s historic AACTA win. The award of best television drama to Redfern Now shows a new strength in local screen culture. The series not only weaves contemporary indigenous stories into our cultural fabric, but allows indigenous writers, directors, producers and actors to tell them.

Some online commentators have made something of a national pastime of lamenting the state of Australian film and television. Yet newer, more international ways of making film and television, as well as local attempts to tell a broader range of stories, seem to be changing our screen culture for the better.

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