The characters in Mike Retter films are typically reflective of suburban reality. (Supplied: Port Film Co-op)
Mention the modern-day Australian film industry and you’ll likely elicit a groan as frames of the same actors performing cliché roles, safe plotlines and token ideology flick through the mind with stop motion predictability.
A once-gutsy beast that surprised the world with critically acclaimed films like Wake In Fright, Romper Stomper, Gallipoli or Picnic At Hanging Rock, much of the industry has seemingly withdrawn into a safe space in recent years.
Fledgling Port Adelaide film director Mike Retter, who has been grabbing attention from the likes of Rolf de Heer for his bold and gritty films about working class youth, believes we’re on the verge of an independent film revolution which can’t come soon enough.
Port Adelaide filmmaker Mike Retter has produced his films on a microbudget. (ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)
“Australia’s art films are middle brow and usually jammed with ideology, the same ideology, the university elite point of view that does not reflect the rest of society and frankly doesn’t reflect reality,” he said.
“On the other hand, we don’t know how to make a populist film anymore either.
“Look at The BBQ. That was slammed everywhere and was just trying to repeat The Castle and a few other titles as if it was almost written by a computer.
“The last really popular movie that I can think of is Red Dog, and that was an independent film funded by the mining industry.”
He said films that received funding from art bodies, most of which are government-backed, typically had to tick the box of politically correct ideology and identity politics regardless of whether it reflected mainstream reality or not.
He said these films had to utilise an easy-to-understand “oppressor-oppressed” narrative that was “neat and pleasing” for art bureaucracies.
“For example, it’s easier to rape and murder a woman in an Australian film than it is to marry one,” Retter said.
“This is not stuff that most men and women on the street have any kind of connection to and that’s why people have turned their back on Australian film.
“I could probably tell you 12 films about rape and sexual violence and torture because that’s what’s taken over the art film genre in this country, but when was the last time we made a Christmas movie in this country?”
Political correctness = death of art
Retter is a champion for an independent film movement he believes could be at “tipping point” in Adelaide.
It includes the opening of a small independent film society and bar in the East End called Sax & Violins Film Society, which includes a 54-seat cinema.
Having presented the likes of Bad Boy Bubby, Lake Mungo and Idiot Box, its intentions to present stand-out Australian cinema is clear (although its next series will be focused on American suburbia).
The society’s co-director Chris d’Antonio-Hocking said it was about pulling together “titles that a lot of people wouldn’t have seen or heard of, the kind of stuff you might catch once on late-night TV and not have a chance to see again.”
“I think one of the surprising things for us has been the interest in titles that we thought, I guess, might have been riskier choices,” he said.
“They often turn out to be the ones that we get a lot of positive feedback for.”
Chris and Ashleigh d’Antonio-Hocking at Sax & Violins Film Society, which opened in February. (Supplied: Daniel Purvis)
Another key shift will be the launch of a website devoted to alternative Australian cinema by Melbourne filmmaker Bill Mousoulis, the founder of renowned international online film journal Senses of Cinema.
Retter said Mousoulis had moved to Adelaide and the website would be called Pure Shit, after the “classic Australian film”.
“It’s obviously not going to pull any punches, and it’s going to work hard to show what’s happening in the underground, because there’s plenty of interesting filmmaking in Australia that we wish people just knew about, but they’re films not shown at festivals,” he said.
Retter and his own Port Film Co-op is also preparing to publish a new Zine, or subculture magazine, called Cinema Now.
“I feel like we could be reaching a sort of critical mass where there’s an independent arts culture here, because until there is one, it’s kind of dead, it’s monolithic, stagnant, safe and politically correct,” he said.
“And believe me, political correctness is the death of art.”
Empowered by independence
Retter himself has been throwing curveballs at the industry with his second feature film, Youth On The March, which was shot in 9:16 format — a vertical format not unlike an upright mobile phone video.
Youth On The March is about a teenage stoner living with his single mother and watching his life drift by.
It was released at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival and received critical acclaim by award-winning filmmaker de Heer, who described it as “sublime filmmaking”, while renowned critic Adrian Martin called it “innovative, daring and unsettling”.
It followed in the footsteps of Retter’s first feature film, Stanley’s Mouth, which was shot in the same format and presented in the US in 2016.
After presenting the screenplay for Youth On The March to a government arts board, Retter and co-writer Allison Chhorn were initially refused funding to make the film.
It was a rejection Retter said was explicitly stated for “sexism” due to its use of an archetype or a typical character reflective of suburban reality.
“So many people are changing their scripts and their concepts to fit what they know will get funding, kind of like on autopilot,” he said.
“But people are giving up on Australian film and would rather watch a comic book film because there may in fact be more truth in a comic book than in an Australian film.
“I don’t watch comic book films but at least they have an embrace of archetypes, universal truths, which I think people naturally crave.”
Retter made the film regardless, shooting with a camcorder “turned on its side” that he originally bought for about $2,000 but which now has “buttons that don’t work”.
Once it was finished and seen by the same funding body, he was granted funds to present it at the Adelaide Film Festival.
Mike Retter’s budget home studio and camcorder he uses for 9:16 shooting by turning on its side. (ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)
Retter never went to film school and his work is edited on modest and often retro equipment.
“It’s easier to make a movie than ever before and I think we’re too institutionalised into thinking we can’t do it unless the government gives us a green tick or an art board gives us the green light.
“I think we need to be more empowered with independence.”
Retter and Chhorn are writing a third 9:16 film, “an erotic thriller set in a South Australian wine region” which will be their last in a trilogy of vertical films.
Retter said he then planned to revert to a regular horizontal format for a “Christmas movie, or a Karate Kid-style martial arts film”.
“I have a great love for cinema that’s not all avant-garde. I just like good films.”