Aussie shorts set eyes on Academy Awards

'Freedom Swimmer'.

With preliminary voting for the Oscars now open, we talk to filmmakers behind some of the Australian qualifying shorts about the journey of their projects to this point and how their works have elevated their careers.

The Moths Will Eat Them Up
Director: Tanya Modini, Luisa Martiri 
Producer: Luisa Martiri 
Writer: Tanya Modini

The Moths Will Eat Them Up qualified for Oscars as it won Sydney Film Festival’s Dendy Award for Best Short Fiction. Both Modini and Martiri also won the festival’s Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director.

More recently, Modini also won the AWGIE for short film, casting directors Tom McSweeney and David Newman won the CGA Award for Best Casting in a Short Film, cinematographer Julian Panetta won Gold at ACS Queensland awards, and the film was was nominated for an AACTA and an ASSG Award.

A psychological thriller exploring themes of gendered violence, The Moths Will Eat Them Up centres on a woman (Ling Cooper Tang), who on her ordinary train ride home, is subjected to a terrifying encounter with a stranger.

The film is supported via Screen Queensland’s RIDE initiative and produced with Unless Pictures, with executive producers Meg O’Connell and Jackson Lapsley Scott.

The inspiration behind the short comes via an “intense, scary experience” Modini once had getting the train home alone one night. With one woman a week murdered by a current or former male partner in Australia, the film is intended as a commentary on men’s violence against women – in particular, the need for men, not just women, to step up and call it out.

Modini tells IF the positive reaction to the film has been “hectic and unexpected”, noting she is pleased the crew have been recognised for their efforts as well.

Winning in Sydney, and then being nominated for an AACTA, has helped broaden both filmmaker’s networks outside of Queensland, propelling each forward in future projects. In terms of getting the film in front of Oscar voters, Martiri laughs that “not once did I think I would have to be doing this”.

The success of the film has given them “just a little bit more cred”, Modini observes.

“Even though it’s just a short film, it has actually done pretty well. It clears that path just a little bit for you. There’s still a lot of rubble to get through there, but it has opened up slightly more.”

The Moths Will Eat Them Up is Modini’s first film, and has led to her collaborating with another Queensland writer, Amy Parry, on a feature and dramedy series. She is also working on feature film Seeing Scout with co-writer and producer Stephanie Dower, which won the $25,000 Attagirl Film Prize last October.

For Martiri, the short is her third. She is currently working on slate of different projects as both a director and a producer across various genres. Her main focus is currently on developing her second short, Pools, into a feature film.

“I’ve spent the year talking to different creatives and finding projects that speak to my mission statement as a creative, and trying to get a lot of different things off the ground.”

Director: Eddy Bell
Producer: Nonny Klaile, Steven Rees, Luke Mulquiney
Writer: Eddy Bell
Story by: Eddy Bell, Luke Mulquiney

Giants | AACTA Nominated Short Film from Eddy Bell on Vimeo.

Giants qualified for the Oscars after it won the Flickerfest award for Best Australian Short in January. It was also nominated for an AACTA, won best original score and best achievement in cinematography at St Kilda Film Festival, was nominated for Best Casting at the CGA Awards in 2020, and won best sound in a live action short at the ASSG Awards in 2021.

Shot over 18 months in Narrabi, NSW – nine shoot days over five trips – Giants tells the story of a struggling Australian farmer, fighting to operate under the dual pressure of drought and debt. Touching on themes of generational responsibility, it takes aim at politicians and influential figures within society who deny climate change and its impact. 

Bell connected with the Narrabri farming community throughout the filmmaking process, with Mulquiney and Emma Jackson in the lead roles.

Despite some of the difficulties thrown up by COVID, Bell is satisfied with the film’s festival run, particularly how it has connected with audiences in regional areas of Australia.

“That, for me, is just the greatest thing; the moment in time that we captured in Giants, during the worst drought in Australia’s history, is not only connecting with festival audiences, but the regional audience that went through it. That’s the biggest compliment for me.”

In 2014, Bell was also nominated for an AACTA for his short Grey Bull. At that time, he’d just come out of film school and wasn’t quite ready to step into long-form, but now feels in a very different place.

The path of Giants from Flickerfest, to an AACTA nomination, and now trying to get it in front of Academy voters, has given him a sense of confidence to move forward.

“My feeling is that it’s all about momentum – creating that momentum in yourself; creating the belief that you belong in this space and you can do it. And then also creating that sense of momentum out there with other people who need to believe that you can do it and want to see you make that next step.”

Bell is currently in development on two features with Continuance Pictures, including horror film, Lake Heart to be set up as an official Australian-Korean co-production. He also has a number of TV series concepts he is talking about with various producers.

While in his early career, he was more focused on an auteur model of filmmaking, he has realised he now finds collaboration invigorating.

“I had this epiphany through COVID that I didn’t need to be the sole creative lead of everything that I did, that I wanted to be a part of teams. I’ve now placed myself in a situation where I want to write stuff other people are directing, I want to direct work that is written by other people. I want to open up my world as far as how many productions I’m able to be a part of. And at the end of my career, I want to be I want to make 20 films and shows rather than three or four deeply sort of personal and meaningful films.”

Freedom Swimmer
Director: Olivia Martin-McGuire
Producer: Olivia Martin-McGuire, Brooke Silcox, Ron Dyens
Writer: Olivia Martin-McGuire

Freedom Swimmer qualified for Oscars as it won the International Short Documetnary Award at DocEdge in New Zealand. It also won the Yoram Animation Award at the Sydney Film Festival in 2021.

In total, the short doc has won more than 37 awards from more than 109 festival selections, including the CinefestOz’s Best Short Film, Palm Springs Film Festival’s Bridging the Boarders Award and an Honourable Mention at the British Documentary Awards. In addition, Martin-McGuire won the ADG Award for Best Direction in a Short Film last week, and the film picked up the AIDC Award for short-form documentary earlier this year.

Weaving film, archive and animation, Freedom Swimmer tells the story of a grandfather’s swim from China to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution, which parallels his granddaughter’s own quest for freedom. It is based on a series of audio interviews with intergenerational family members; the real storytellers have chosen to stay anonymous.

The filmmaking team spans Perth, Paris, London and Hong Kong, conversing across English, French and Cantonese, and given the quirks of COVID, have never met. It is animated by Agnes Patron with a score by her husband, Pierre Oberkampf.

Besides Patron, Oberkampf and key creatives, the crew is anonymous. Many crew members had similar family stories to those depicted in the film, or feared ramifications to themselves or their family in Hong Kong. Other crew members then chose then to stand with them in solidarity.

Silcox tells IF that the measure of success for Freedom Swimmer has always been to create awareness, tolerance and acceptance for people who have gone through similar experiences.

“When it was screening at film festivals internationally, we had people come up to us and say, ‘This is our story too. This is my grandad’s story, this is my grandmother’s story, and it’s really valuable that it’s finally, finally being told’.”

Martin-McGuire, living in Hong Kong, was who was first approached to tell this family’s story. Then searching for a producer, she was connected with the Perth-based Silcox via Sally Chesher, then at the ABC.

The pair then raised funding from Screen Australia to do a shoot in Hong Kong in March 2020. With the pandemic interfering with their plans, they pivoted to animation, finding the work of Patron, who’d previously worked on César-winning And Then The Bear. Patron then connected them to French producer Dyens of Sacre Bleu Productions, who raised further finance via the CNC and secured ARTE France as co-producer and French broadcaster.

“Liv and I have still not met, Ron and I have still not met,” Silcox says.

“We’ve been working with each other since October 2019 across emails, Whatsapp, Facebook – everything – and have created a really beautiful international relationship. Ron and I are looking to work together again, Liv and I are looking to work together again. I suppose it just goes to show how much you can do from your bedroom.”

You can watch Freedom Swimmer on SBS On Demand. In the US, will screen as part of PBS’s POV strand.

Director: George-Alex Nagle
Producers: Nick Bolton, George-Alex Nagle Ben Tarwin
Writers: Daniel Corboy, George-Alex Nagle
Co-writer: Ben Tarwin

Mate – Trailer from October Media on Vimeo.

Mate qualified for the Oscars as it won the Grand Prix award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival; the first Australian film to ever win the prize. Other festival wins include Boston (Best Foreign Short), Sapporo (Best Director and Best Actor) and Thessaloniki (Cinematic Achievement), with Nagle also nominated for Best Direction in a Short Film at the ADG Awards.

Shot in Western Sydney, Mate follows the self-destructive John’s (Joshua Brennan) attempts to reconnect with his school-age son Jack (Jeremy Blewitt) over a weekend. Di Smith, Zoe Jensen and JR Laveta also star.

While not Nagle’s first short, it was the first he made just working with friends. In many respects, its origins are in a “mental health exercise” for both himself and Corboy to work through emotions and things they had experienced.

Independently funded, it was intended as a fairly small project, though its run time – 33-minutes – made it an ambitious shoot. With a subject matter that was a “hard sell” and a take on “failed masculinity in Penrith”, to end up an international success has been a pleasant surprise.

“Our film has by far exceeded our expectations and plans,” Nagle tells IF, praising in particular the “staggeringly talented and unique performances” of the cast.

“We definitely didn’t think we’d be at a stage where we’re in contention for the Oscars.”

Mate‘s success has led Nagle, who is developing a number of projects, to reflect on the nature of kickstarting a career in the industry.

“I always thought that if you make a film and it’s successful or you win certain awards then the metaphoric doors opened and then you can then do what you want to do.

“I kind of joke when I say this, but this whole process has been halfway between empowering and disillusioning, because I realise that those two doors don’t exist. It’s always just up to you is going to do it. So I guess that’s what I’m going to do.”

Mate is currently screening on SBS on Demand, and on ARTE TV in French and German speaking territories.

An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It
Director: Lachlan Pendragon
Producer: Donna Hamilton
Writer: Lachlan Pendragon

An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It qualifies for the Oscars as it won the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards and Best Australian Short Film at Melbourne International Film Festival. It has won prizes at many festivals around the world, was nominated for Best Graduation Short at Annecy and shortlisted for the Yugo BAFTA Student Awards.

In many ways, meta-comedy An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It is a meditation on the art of stop-motion animation.

The film follows a telemarketer who confronted by a mysterious talking ostrich, who informs him the universe is stop motion animation. He must put aside his dwindling toaster sales and focus on convincing his colleagues of his terrifying discovery.

Pendragon created the film while undertaking doctorate studies at Griffith Film School looking into stop-motion animation; each decision he made in crafting Ostrich had to have a research base to back it up. With the film school closing during COVID lockdowns, the director shot almost the entire film from his living room, and also voices the main character.

“Stop motion in an interesting place. There are a lot of new technologies that can make the quality of animation and the aesthetics of stop motion look really advanced and polished, closer to what you would see in CGI animation. Then on the other side of things, CGI animation is very good at mimicking the aesthetics of stop motion – they’re getting better and better at doing that,” he tells IF.

“Stop motion is not very efficient, it’s not very practical. I love doing it, because I fell in love with the craft of it. So the question is… What do you get out of that stop motion process that you can’t get any other way? There’s this idea of the appeal or the charm of stop motion, and it was about me trying to figure out what exactly that is and then and I can leverage that or accentuate it.”

When Ostrich won the MIFF Award in August, the jury described the film as a “subtle delight” and “dryly funny”.

Its success has sped up the trajectory of Pendragon’s career; he hadn’t expected to already be considering feature projects.

He wants to stay working in the stop motion space, though he argues it’s not always the easiest sell. “There’s a few at the moment that are just hitting streaming services, like Pinocchio and Wendell & Wild, but… these films take a long time to make, so it’s more like, will people want one in five or six years, when it will inevitably be finished?”

Preliminary voting for the Academy Awards ends December 15, 5pm PT (December 16, 12pm AEDT).