Australian Aboriginal films light up global screen

SYDNEY - Australians are enjoying a high profile at Cannes this year, but beyond the star power of Nicole Kidman and Kylie Minogue, the film world will be watching the ground-breaking work of Aboriginal artists.

Indigenous stories have breathed new life into the film scene Down Under, with "The Sapphires" the latest to come to international attention with a screening in official selection at the French festival that kicks off Wednesday.

Actor Deborah Mailman, who stars in the feel-good feature about an all-girl singing group plucked from a remote Aboriginal community to play for Australian troops serving in Vietnam, is delighted with the response.

"Yes, it's huge. It's a really great acknowledgement," she told AFP at the launch of Sydney's Film Festival, just days before jetting out for Europe. "There's obviously something in the film that they went, 'Yeah, we want this, and we want it on the world stage'. So it's wonderful that that's been recognised. And we are very proud of this film, no matter what."

Mailman is a household name in Australia for her many television roles and appearances in films such as the musical comedy "Bran Nue Dae" and the historical drama "Rabbit Proof Fence", starring Kenneth Branagh.

But the 39-year-old, who in 1998 beat Cate Blanchett and Rachel Griffiths for the Australian Film Institute award for best actress, is still excited about heading to Cannes for the first time.

"My head, everything is still catching up with the idea of it," she said.

From the 1980s film "Crocodile Dundee" about a knife-wielding bushman to Baz Luhrmann's 2008 sweeping romantic epic "Australia", Australian films have long featured Aboriginal characters. But a batch of films being created by indigenous artists is reinvigorating the industry, and in 2009 "Samson and Delilah", a heartbreaking love story set in a remote indigenous community, won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.

Australians will have a strong influence in France again this year, with Kidman starring in "The Paperboy" by US director Lee Daniels as well as Philip Kaufman's "Hemingway and Gellhorn", which will be shown out of competition.

Singer Kylie Minogue stars opposite Eva Mendes in "Holy Motors" by Leos Carax, and two Australian directors Andrew Dominik ("Killing Them Softly") and John Hillcoat ("Lawless") are competing for the top Palme d'Or prize.

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, whose 2004 debut feature "Somersault" was shown in Cannes, said the indigenous input is part of the reason that Australian film is performing so well.

"The issues that everybody is going through are international issues - about people not going to the cinema as much, and also the amount of money that is put into the blockbusters as promotion so the smaller arthouse films sometimes slip away.

"But I would say that the industry in Australia at the moment seems quite robust and what I am really interested in is the diversity, and the strength of the indigenous work."

Shortland, whose latest work "Lore" is a German-language film shot entirely in Europe and set at the end of the war in 1945, is pleased about the success of "The Sapphires".

"It's fantastic for all of us to be represented in an international market," she said. Queensland-born Mailman, who grew up in the isolated mining town of Mount Isa, is proud of her work with indigenous artists, including a new movie about a landmark land rights case "Mabo" which is premiering at the Sydney festival.

"There's nothing better than working with my mob. And I mean that from my heart," she said. "It's great to be telling a story that's from us, that's been directed by us, and that is telling our stories."

She said it was hard to put a label on the work coming out now.

"That's a great thing - you can't define it. You're getting all these directors who have been working for years... suddenly finding their particular story-telling skills.

"I think what you see is people coming into their own craft. Which is where indigenous film may be heading."

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