Art in the Country – 2011 Dungog Film Festival

8 June 2011

We all know that some days are better-made for getaways than others, and so it is on the morning we arrive at Central to meet our Countrylink train north to Dungog and the 5th Annual Dungog Film Festival.

Winter had closed in on Sydney in the days preceding, putting a stop to the city’s beautiful but all-too-short Autumn, and the leaden sky hangs heavy with the threat of rain, cold winds, and long bus queues.

So it was great timing to escape the city for a bit, to visit one of the state’s most picturesque regions, and watch some of the best cinema that Australia has to offer.

Dungog film festivalThe Dungog Film Festival is in its fifth year, occupying a place in Australia and NSW’s cultural landscape quite unlike any other. With an elegantly curated and extensive lineup of features, docos, and short films, DFF brings the experience of a major film festival to a part of Australia that so few Sydney-siders have seen.

And it’s this added sense of discovery and adventure that makes DFF just a little bit more special than your average film festival; friends and family make the journey by bus or car to arrive anew upon the wide country streets of this quiet oasis, greeted by the genuinely friendly locals, as the town’s population swells from 2,000 to over 10,000 people over the course of the four day festival.

After making it into town ourselves on the train from Sydney, we catch a lift out to the lovely Fosterton Lodge, nestled amongst the green hills that surround the township and home to dozens of wallabies and kangaroos that graze on its lawn.

Back in Dungog for the festival’s Opening Gala at the centrepiece James Theatre that evening, special guest Rhys Muldoon tells the crowd that for him “Dungog is a very special thing; a very special time” and encourages us to “get out there and make the most of it”. His sentiments are well-complemented by the films shown that night; the Oscar-winning short The Lost Thing, perfectly accompanied by Michael Yezerski’s live orchestral score, followed by a special screening of the Australian-made Oranges and Sunshine, a unique drama starring local stalwarts Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, and British star Emily Watson.

After such an auspicious start, the festival proper begins the next day with a distinctly local feel. It’s “Student Day” at the Festival and the screenings are packed with local schoolchildren and students. Down at the Movie Theatre (aka, the Dungog Public School hall) there’s the infectious vibe of a muck-up or mufti day.

The locals of Dungog don’t just play host to the Festival; they come to the screenings, volunteer at ticket booths, decorate their shopfronts, and keep their cafes open late for hungry tourists. It’s a remarkable level of community involvement, doubly so given how widespread and genuine the sentiment towards the Festival is amongst the locals of Dungog.

Dungog Film FestivalOn the film side of the things, with this year’s features dominated by a David Williamson retrospective (a great chance to catch Australian classics like Gallipoli and The Club in cinemas) the real strength of this year’s program is the great lineup of short films. If you’ve been following the recent successes of first-time directors like David Michôd (2010’s Animal Kingdom) and Justin Kurzel (2011’s Snowtown), you’ll know that these guys got their start directing short films and that it’s amongst the shorts section of a festival like Dungog that you can bet the next big Australian director will emerge. Stand-outs from Dungog this year included Andrew Morgan’s The Skellys, Craig Boreham’s Ostia, and Brendon McDonall’s The Law. Keep an eye out for these directors – and feel confident that the future of Australian filmmaking looks to be in some pretty solid and talented hands.

The highlight of the Festival definitely occurred on the morning as we were due to leave back to Sydney (isn’t that always the way?); the traditional Dungog Main Street Parade that has the sidewalks of Dungog packed to capacity as the town turns out in all its finery and officially welcomes its visitors.

The feeling on the street on that bright, blue, perfect winter’s day is hard to put into words. The crowds gathered to watch and wave the passing floats and the mood is buoyant. So it’s with regret that we have to leave the Main Street behind us and join our afternoon train back to Sydney, wishing we could’ve stayed a little longer.

Whether you’re just looking for a quick escape from Sydney for the weekend or whether you’re a serious cinephile, the Dungog Film Festival really does have a lot to offer, and is certainly a unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else, with a sense of community spirit that’s pretty hard to beat.

Two quick words of advice though; if you decide to go next year, book your Dungog accommodation early as the tiny town does fill up pretty quickly, and remember that phone reception can be pretty limited up there so be prepared to be off the grid for a couple of days (which might be exactly what you need…)