Local actors, writers and directors will be among some of the brightest stars on the Byron Bay International Film Festival horizon this year – its ninth and most ambitious incarnation to date.
Their stellar talents will give meaning to the festival’s theme – that Magic Happens in the Dark – as will the glittering selection of about 200 films chosen from countries as diverse as Qatar, Denmark, Cuba, Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Slovenia, and 64 others.
Festival director J’aimee Skippon-Volke is putting the final selection together out of more than 1,000 entries and says the work by northern rivers filmmakers more than holds its own in what is an ‘increasingly high standard of offerings’ from around the globe.
One local who has shone on both the Australian and international scene is Dustin Clare, who will be familiar to many television viewers for his highly praised performances in McLeod’s Daughters, Underbelly and Spartacus.
Clare, a proud ‘Ballina boy’, plays the central figure, Charlie, a macho former military guy who can’t resist the lure of action, in the feature film Sunday, which has its Australian premiere at the festival.
He also brought his considerable screen experience to co-writing and producing the film, which he describes as a mature look at modern-day relationships and the kind of pressures created by our making the big decisions later in life.
Sunday represents a uniquely personal collaboration for Clare, as his former girlfriend Eve, now pregnant with their child, is played by his real-life partner and mother of their young son, Camille Keenan (Underbelly, Packed to the Rafters) – an on-screen relationship he says owes much of its power and truthfulness to the history shared by the actors.
‘It ultimately feels real, like this is two people you know (or maybe even have been),’ said entertainment website keepingupwithnz.com.
Sunday is also an international effort. Keenan is a New Zealander and Clare said he wanted to do something for the country after the South Island city of Christchurch was devastated by an earthquake.
The film is set in the city a year after the disaster, and the scenes of damage, poignancy and hope provide a fitting backdrop to the couple’s turbulent history.
Director Michelle Joy Lloyd, also a Kiwi, uses the ruined cathedral and other buildings to mirror the broken but once beautiful relationship both still hold dear. Whether they can resurrect it is the question that keeps the audience in suspense throughout.
Perhaps reasonably claiming ownership of the film, the New Zealand website Stuff.co said it is ‘a wee gem’.
‘It’s our own indigenous Before Sunrise, made with some real craft. This is an honest, heartfelt, skilful, admirable, and truly likeable film.’
At last year’s Vivid Awards ceremony in Sydney the BBFF was given a special commendation award by deputy premier Andrew Stoner for its innovation, its huge contribution to helping regional creative industries onto the global stage, and its encouragement and showcasing of emerging talent.
There are few more talented than up-and-coming musician Dan Hannaford, whose work is the impetus behind Lay Down Your Guns, a charming and often hilarious short film dramatising his song of the same name.
In this spoof of the western, with a high-noon standoff, ambushes and a ciggy-chomping, yeller-bellied ‘hero’, Byron Shire’s Hannaford shows a flair for comic acting.
But both the song and the film are more than parodies of the genre: the music has an integrity all of its own, which the film builds upon to create a magical world where children still dress up and play Cowboys and Indians.
It also has a sharp message about guns.
The musical short is a collaboration between Hannaford and Juliet Carrington, who last year was a joint-winner of the Best Byron Bay Film award for her surf feature Burra Jurra, a documentary which showed how surfing could be a life-changing experience for indigenous youngsters.
Lay Down Your Guns was filmed in Myocum but the north coast landscape features in a much grimmer fashion in Babe In the Reeds: A story of Massacres and Resilience.
This powerful documentary made by Lois Cook, a traditional owner of Nyangbul country in the Bundjalung nation, shares the brutal untold story of what happened to her people. Cook acts as a history detective, tracking down people and documents with the help of the staff of the Ballina Library.
The special project for ABC North Coast had a live broadcast from Cabbage Tree Island last year and is part of the festival’s extensive high school program, which is themed Love and War.
There’s both a local and a universal – even cosmic – focus in the festival’s red carpet closing gala event, a study of the work of self-proclaimed ‘deathwalker’ Zenith Virago, a long-term Byron Shire resident and an iconic personality in the region and beyond.
Virago is a celebrant and facilitator whose portfolio covers love and weddings, death and dying, and includes working with youth in grief and supporting families who are dealing with the loss of a loved one.
She met US-based filmmaker Broderick Fox at the Byron festival three years ago and a collaboration between her and the creator of the ‘unflinching, autobiographical’ The Skin I’m In became inevitable.
The relationship spawned a full-length documentary, Zen and the Art of Dying, which is sure to be one of the highlights of the 2015 program.
Zen … uses Virago’s multi-various roles to explore the way we, as a society, behave around death and dying.
With death something of a no-go conversational zone, the film is sure to trigger emotional responses and stir discussion, as it examines this difficult topic, reveals the woman who faces it daily and looks at the work of the Natural Death Care Centre, a Byron-based charity that supports ‘living well, dying well’.
Fox and his partner and cinematographer/director Lee Biolos made up the entire production team for the film.
‘We embedded with Zenith for five weeks, during which she and the community of Byron Bay offered us access to some of their most intimate and vulnerable moments. The experience was both humbling and inspiring,’ Fox reports.
Once again, magic is likely to happen, illuminating what many see as the darkest of subjects.
The 9th Byron Bay International Film Festival runs from March 6 to 15 and pre-sale tickets will be available soon. It will be held across five venues in the shire, plus at satellite venues in Murwillumbah and Ballina.
The full program will be released on February 23. For updates, ticket sales and to see who’s attending, check out www.bbff.com.au or follow the developments on Facebook.
BBFF is becoming a feature on the international film calendar and, says Skippon-Volke, ‘This year’s program is sure to be the best yet.’