Cinema Autopsy on the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Feature Film Nominees

Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo
Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

The nominations for the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards have come out and in a year that has been very strong for Australian cinema the nominations have nicely captured the diversity of Australian films that were eligible. This was the first year that I voted in the individual categories as a professional member of the Australian Film Institute and while the nominations don’t 100% reflect how I voted, I would have never expected them to and I’m overall pleased with the outcomes.

Among the feature film nominees I’m particularly happy to see Balibo, Samson and Delilah and Mary and Max – the three films that I regard as easily the best Australian films of 2009 – to be nominated for both the AFI Members’ Choice Award and the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. I’m less enthusiastic, but not surprised, about Beautiful Kate and particularly Mao’s Last Dancer also getting nominations in both these categories but I certainly don’t begrudge the fact that are included. Having said that, I would up upset if Mao’s Last Dancer won anything over the far superior films that it is up against.

Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) and Katrina (Sophie Lowe) in Blessed

The interesting point of difference between the two best film categories is that Australia got the sixth nomination for the AFI Members’ Choice Award while Blessed received the sixth nomination for the Samsung Mobile AFI Awards for Best Film. Both films are flawed but nevertheless contain elements of considerable merit. They also curiously represent the growing divide between the different types of films that various commentators argue we should be making more of or less of depending on where these commentators stand on the whole art versus commerce debate.

There were a number of films not represented in the nominations that I would have liked to see included but in the majority of cases their absence is understandable. I only saw Newcastle recently and was completely bowled over but its energetic depiction of youth surf culture, however I am aware that I am somewhat on my own with just how highly I regard Newcastle. Lake Mungo, Van Diemen’s Land and $9.99 are other films that I wish had picked up at least a couple of nominations each but they are all niche films and their absence is hardly surprising.

David Lurie (John Malkovich) and Lucy (Jessica Haines) in Disgrace

The real shock this year is the complete lack of nominations for Disgrace. While it is a film I had issues with (although I am increasingly realising that was exactly the point) I am still very surprised not to see it represented at all. It is an acclaimed film, technically very impressive, it contains strong performances and it is adapted from a well-renowned novel. So what went wrong? Perhaps it was too challenging and confronting. This is an unlikely explanation considering the number of nominations for other ‘challenging and confronting’ films such as Balibo, Samson and Delilah, Mary and Max, Blessed and Beautiful Kate. Maybe Disgrace wasn’t considered Australian enough (which is reasonable) and didn’t attract votes as a result (which is not so reasonable). Again, if that was the case then how do we explain the large number of nominations for Mao’s Last Dancer? I honestly have no brilliant explanation but the complete exclusion of Disgrace is the only significant sour note in the nominations this year.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to discuss each category in more detail closer to the 2009 Samsung Mobile AFI Awards Ceremony on Saturday 12 December and I’ll also then mention the mostly brilliant feature length documentaries, short fiction films and animated shorts that have been nominated this year.

In the meantime, below is a personally ranked list of all the feature films that were eligible for nomination:

(Robert Connolly, 2009) 14 nominations

Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009) 11 nominations

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009) 4 nominations

Disgrace (Steve Jacobs, 2008)
Newcastle (Dan Castle, 2008)
Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008) 
Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008)
Cedar Boys (Serhat Caradee, 2009) 1 nomination
The View from Greenhaven (Kenn MacRae and Simon MacRae, 2008)

Blessed (Ana Kokkinos, 2009) 4 nominations
My Year Without Sex (Sarah Watt, 2009) 2 nominations
The Combination (David Field, 2009)
Beautiful Kate (Rachel Ward, 2009) 10 nominations
Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) 6 nominations
Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008)

Last Ride (Glendyn Ivin, 2009) 2 nominations
Charlie & Boots (Dean Murphy, 2009)
Two Fists, One Heart (Shawn Seet, 2008)
Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, 2009) 9 nominations
Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009)

Lucky Country
(Kriv Stenders, 2009) 1 nomination
Closed for Winter (James Bogle, 2009)

Under a Red Moon (Leigh Sheehan, 2008)

Beautiful (Dean O’Flaherty, 2009)

Sweet Marshall (Eva Acharya, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Hey Thomas,

    Totally agree re: Disgrace. Such a complex film and very deserving of more recognition. Its release here was a bit crap considering the novel helped win its author a Nobel Prize, and the second time I saw the film it was a blocky pixelated digital projection at the Westgarth (the first time was a lovely 35mm version). I wonder if nominators just missed this one, or if they saw inferior versions?

  2. Hi John. Thanks for you comment and good to see you around these parts.

    I’ve given this a lot more thought since I posted this piece twelve hours ago and I now suspect there were three main factors that worked against Disgrace getting any nominations:

    1. It significantly lacked a big marketing drive so it simply didn’t have the public awareness that a brilliantly marketing film like Mao’s Last Dancer had. I don’t want to say too much because a lot of my thoughts on the Australian film industry will be going into a piece that I am getting published next year, but I think poor and/or under-resourced marketing is a significant problem in general for many Australian films.

    2. It is a film that is very difficult to digest at first and requires time, distance and ideally conversation to unravel its attributes. I only gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars at the time and I suspect a second viewing and more thought would result in me giving it a higher score. Many AFI voting members may have only caught it during the AFI screenings that occurred close to the voting period so they may not have benefited from the digestion period that a film like this requires.

    3. Mao’s Last Dancer got away with not being a particularly Australian film because it told a fairly universal rag to riches/overcoming all adversary story. Disgrace, on the other hand, tells a story that is very specific to post-Apartheid South Africa so possibly didn’t resonate with many Australian audiences.

    These factors on their own probably wouldn’t have mattered but I’m guessing that it is the combination of all three that significantly worked against Disgrace.

  3. I like Thomas’s further thoughts. It’s certainly an advantage if you came to the film having read the book, since that gives you a chance to chew over the issues.

    Much of the power of the story (in both book AND film) comes from the challenges it offers the reader/ viewer to make complete sense of it. The way it resists a pat, easy reading is part of its strength. It’s something you keep thinking about. Maybe that strain of anti-intellectualism in the Australian culture jibes at that.

  4. I can totally get behind this three-pronged argument for why Disgrace failed to garner award recognition. The films suffers from having a number of mitigating cultural, thematic and industry factors working against it despite featuring a) a superb adapted screenplay b) an excellent performance from Jessica Haines and c) accomplished technically.

    A shame all in all, personally I preferred it to Blessed which I thought is the weakest film of the bunch. Say what you will about Beautiful Kate, but I still find it to be a brave film despite my own reservations… I suppose I hold it in similar light to Disgrace if you substitute ‘brave’ for ‘challenging’.

  5. For Disgrace to be completely ignored in any category confirms what I have suspected. That the AFI is vindictive and self serving. I will be sending the AFI that I received back. In fact I can’t wait to get it out of the house.

    I hope you print this because I also submitted the above to the AFI . But I doubt very much that they will add it to their comment section. So much for the freedom of speech within the AFI .

  6. Hi Gary

    Disgrace completely missing out like this is, well, a bit of a disgrace I agree. However, it should be noted that the AFI members vote on what films should get nominated and those votes are then calculated by KPMG. So, with the exception of the TV categories, the AFI per se has nothing to do with selecting the nominations. In fact, I suspect many of the people who work at the AFI share our frustrations about Disgrace missing out.

    What we really need are more qualified and informed AFI members who actually see all the films and vote accordingly. Anybody who works in the film industry or has any sort of legitimacy as a critic can qualify as a professional member, which allows them to vote across several categories. It really doesn’t cost very much and getting the accreditation is quite straightforward so I’m not sure why more critics and commentators don’t do it.


  7. hi thomas
    you wrote

    in fact. i suspect many off the people who work at the AFI share our frustrations about Disgrace missing out

    Don’t bet. I think some of them are overjoyed and are rubbing there hands in glee

  8. Why do you think that some of the folk at the AFI would be happy about Disgrace missing out? I’m genuinely curious to know where you are coming from on this. I don’t understand why anybody at the AFI would want to see such a critically well received film not get any nominations. Even though they are not directly responsible, I think it still makes the AFI look bad and has already cast a bit of a shadow over the credibility of the awards.

  9. I for one am quite surprised about Disgrace, and would have put money on it getting a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the very least. As an independent film critic and AFI member I am happy to admit I voted for it in that category and others.

    I would strongly endorse Thomas’s comments about more people getting involved in the AFI membership and voting process. Have your say people!

    Rochelle Siemienowicz
    AFI editor

  10. Oh, and to clarify, the TV nominations are decided by juries of professional AFI members.

  11. Thanks for clarifying Rochelle. For the record I am also an independent film critic and an AFI member and I voted for Disgrace in the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film categories plus some of the others. However, like I said in the first paragraph of my piece, the overall results reflect how all members have voted so I never would have expected the nominations to perfectly match my preferences. If I had my way then Mao’s Last Dancer would not be included so many times!

    If people do want to become a member of the AFI and vote next year then this page is a good place to start. You’ll note that a full membership for one year is $55. That’s less than $5 a month folks and it gets you a whole bunch of benefits as well as being able to vote and therefore significantly increase your credibility when commenting on the results.

    A final note – I am in no way connected to the AFI but these days I am all about supporting positive aspects of the Australian film industry rather than simply looking for more opportunities to deride it.

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