Australian lineup for Palm Springs 2020

Two Australian films will premiere at this key festival: Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and microbudget indie social drama Disclosure.

Held in January, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is a smallish one, but a key event, with its focus on international cinema, as well as profiling big awards contenders at the annual fundraising dinner that kicks it off and attracts big stars.

Now in its 31st year, the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival runs from 2 – 13 January. The magnet festivals for indie producers in the US are Sundance and SXSW in Austin, Texas. But Palm Springs has a history of spotlighting important films and backing the art of cinema, both in features and a separate short film festival as well. These festivals are all competing with each other; the truth is they reflect different aspects of the same broad movement and react to their communities. 

A number of Australian films will screen there, including: Babyteeth, The Australian DreamJudy & Punch, Hearts and Bones and Sequin in a Blue Room, as well as Buoyancy, Australia’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, which will screen alongside the other 51 international submissions for the Oscar.

Two other Australian films will have their world premieres: the hotly anticipated Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears comes with a built in international fan base, many of whom will have been following its journey through crowdsourcing. Directed by Tony Tilse, it’s written by Deb Cox and produced by Fiona Eagger, Deb Cox, and Lucy Maclaren.

The other one premiering is Disclosure, a fully independent microbudget social issue drama about the difficult topic of child on child sex abuse. Set and shot in Melbourne’s Dandenongs, the film is an intimate four-hander about two sets of parents dealing with allegations around a nine-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl. It stars Geraldine Hakewill (who incidentally also plays the lead as Miss Fisher’s niece in the Channel 7 reboot series), Matilda Ridgway, Mark Leonard Winter and Tom Wren.

Disclosure is the feature film debut of UK-raised writer-director Michael Bentham. The producer is Donna Lyon. We spoke to her recently about her other work as Melbourne University academic, teaching producing to film students, and overseeing the VCA Digital Archive project. Talking to her again on the phone now, Lyon tells us: ‘Palm Springs is a really significant moment for us because it puts us on the international stage, and we can then leverage from this by getting an international sales agent and consolidating our domestic distribution strategy and being able to come home and release here with some kind of profile, likely in the VOD and online distribution space.’

Lyon recognises the increasingly excruciating difficulties around distribution and exhibition for tiny Australian films, and especially for one dealing with this sensitive material. She sees this project as important, however, and says it deals intelligently with the complexities of the issue, as well as telling its story with artistic flair. The story came from a real life incident Bentham heard about, and had particular resonance for Lyon, who says she was herself a victim of child sex abuse. 

‘Ours is a social issue film, and I think the people that will want to see it beyond a general arthouse audience are those that work in the social justice space, or mental health and psychological services, and of course the survivor community, who want to see themselves represented on screen. We do have a thirst now for engaging in these kinds of stories, and this particular conversation is not one we’ve really had yet. That was something that was evident in the Royal Commission’s report on child abuse – that child on child abuse was hidden and yet very much an issue.’ 

Ties to universities were strategic in getting the film made on a tiny budget (less than $500,00). Partnerships with VCA Film and Television, as well as the UK’s National Film and Television School and the Northern Film School at Leeds Beckett University helped Lyon and Bentham leverage their day jobs as academics to gain access to facilities, crew, sound design and post-production. ‘We were able to get work done at high quality but in keeping with our low budget, and we made sure everyone got something out of the experience too,’ she says.

Here’s what the Palm Springs Festival had to say about the film, quoted on Disclosure’s website: ‘In his assured and provocative feature film debut, writer/director Michael Bentham accomplishes a very difficult thing: he creates an intense adult drama that takes place in one location. Unlike predecessors such as 12 Angry Men or Rear Window, this story takes place in a tropical garden by a pool. The peaceful setting is in great contrast to the ferocious and complex circumstances playing out there. Two couples, friends by way of their young children, meet to work through the allegation of one couple’s 4-year-old daughter against the son of the other. A conversation that begins with civility and carefully chosen language soon takes unexpected twists and unsafe turns. Marked by notable performances from its four leads and sharp, rhythmic dialogue that doesn’t swerve from uncomfortable themes, Disclosure is sure to be one of the most talked about films this season.’

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram