Treatise de
Indie Cinephile

by Mike Retter

Cinephiles must dig deeper and watch underground work from Australia
if they want to be nourished by their own country’s cinematic output

The Cold Noir episode one by Aaron & Melissa Dykes

Who are the artists making our movies? The actual amount of people we could seriously call artists that get to make our mainstream films is a tiny number. If one went to Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane or Perth and had a conversation with a cinephile, the same handful of serious artists working in funded projects would come up. There is seldom more than three names mentioned, usually the same names every time, basically a series of anomalies, exceptions to the rule, which I am glad exist but I’m not so glad about there only being three.


Thus, cinephiles must dig deeper and watch underground work from Australia if they want to be nourished by their own country’s cinematic output. The only problem is, for the most part, they don't watch such films or even know they exist. There are reasons for this. A lack of festival exposure for underground work means such feature films languish as private Vimeo links. An unconscious bias against anything made outside of the system, which is a kind of extension of industry protectionism, prevents institutions like festivals getting behind them. Also the work itself, because it’s not all brilliant by any stretch. There is a bit to wade through before finding these great works of art. But on the latter, I think it’s important to explore what is and isn't brilliant by understanding both the context for film and how undeveloped the Oz cinema culture may be on these matters.


Without making excuses for poor independent and underground film, it’s important to see this work in context. If you watch a film, the credits usually go for several minutes, often with hundreds of names listed who contributed to the production. But underground work can rarely afford a tenth of these resources and is thus compromised. Sometimes it’s a one-man-band. This may mean imperfection in terms of production and the final edit. It’s often a lack of a post-production team that lets down a low-budget feature, because budgetary-compromised footage may need extra work to get to an optimum state.


Our festival and academic culture is lazy and based on compounding consensus.


So what is one to do when an artist’s work is imperfect, yet may have an abnormally singular vision, uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, great risks taken both formal and thematic? The short answer would be for academics to "grow up" and discover this work for what it is rather than being spoon-fed, cinema as rote learning or science rather than poetry. The lack of curiosity in this field has spread to both Australian festivals and film journalism/criticism, where everything "underground" that is programmed or written about is already pre-discovered and legitimised work from overseas, making it a safe choice and arguably no-longer underground. To put it bluntly, our festival and academic culture is lazy and based on compounding consensus.



If you look at my personal favourite Australian filmmaker Saidin Salkic, I’m puzzled as to why the major festivals won’t program his work. He lives in Melbourne, the heart of film culture, yet MIFF haven't discovered him. In Australia, he isn't written about much. There are some key articles, mostly authored by Bill Mousoulis, but Senses of Cinema, the original Australian journal Mousoulis created but is no longer writing for, would much rather retread safe and tired ground or cover something international, which as I said is already safely legitimised by overseas coverage. But can we really call this true cinephilia if it’s so incurious and lacking discovery? The answer is no.


Low budget independent work must be seen in context. The films of Saidin Salkic are all connected, already constituting a large and deeply personal cannon. All his films exist in the same ecstatic zone. These films star Salkic himself and usually have one name in the credits. They are shot and edited quickly, have a crudeness to them, but always offer a striking sense of emotional form and substance. As a filmmaker, he doesn't much respond to feedback, apart from violent outbursts about being misunderstood. He called me on the phone today while I was doing rehearsals for my own film and yelled at me "Rehearsals? Just like everyone else, you boring piece of shit!" After some extreme behaviour and burning a bridge with someone else, Salkic said "Come on man, what happened to punk rock?" I think he has a good point. If you look back at the extreme characters in the history of art, today seems pretty sanitised and clean. Everyone is well behaved, both in terms of personal conduct and their artistic output. Consequently they are usually forgettable and not worth talking about. Is this because artists rely on Government funds and thus change their behaviour, films and outlook accordingly? The correlation seems to be that those working outside the system don’t have to worry so much about what they say and do apart from following a vision.


If you are curious about what Australia has to offer, you won’t just go and see what the establishment has deemed worthy of attention.


Oz cinephiles know something is wrong. Apart from the handful of auteurs who are making intriguing work within the system, we otherwise universally bemoan our own country’s cinema. But at the same time cinephiles assume there isn’t anything more going on or that rough and crude work is too much of an acquired taste. So breaking out of this safety zone of cinephilia and into the underground isn’t just about form and style, but the extreme characters involved, frankly people often far more worth talking about. The gamblers who risk it all for a dream. Rock and roll was never clean and if you really want punk work, dig deeper to find the loose scenes that exist, often showing in ultra-independent venues like Long Play in Melbourne or Sax & Violins in Adelaide. But you can also find these works directly through the filmmakers themselves. If you are curious about what Australia has to offer, you won’t just go and see what the establishment has deemed worthy of attention. Instead you will start having the tough conversations, probing other cinephiles about what’s out there and expanding the palette in the process. And if your friends don’t know, are they really cinephiles after all? Is a cinephile someone that can just repeat to you what is in Sight and Sound or are they in fact someone that can tell you something new?



For true cinephiles, genuine curiosity is the key and discovery is the game. To be curious, you may need to acclimatise to some ungraded footage and be open to obvious technical flaws not usually found in a mainstream production. This takes patience, tolerance and more than just store-bought screen-literacy. It’s a borderline art in itself to be a real cinephile. Once you can look past roughness and challenging aesthetics brought on by limitation, it’s possible to sometimes be moved like you have never experienced before and not just by style but essence. We all love PT Anderson and enjoyed his last film. But did Phantom Thread really leave us with anything? It’s well made, but was there anything really deep in there? Conversely, Saidin Salkic's 40 minute film Waiting for Sevdah, shot on a camcorder and edited on amateur software does leave us with something. On one level it’s simple, a man waiting for his young daughter to arrive for a visit, but on another level it’s expressing how very profound that experience is. It both stretches and compresses time to new levels of poignancy. His films smash apart the barriers between video-art and cinema, by disciplining the usually one-note gallery medium with some narrative truth. But these are also very much films, not something to waltz by and chin-scratch at before grabbing another champagne at an opening. It’s just that we are so acclimatised to clean images for film that we don’t want our cinema to soar with raw creativity and experimentation like the admittedly lesser medium of gallery installation work can on a more fragmentary level. Just like Sylvester Stallone stole from rock-video aesthetics and Russian avant garde to create the montage masterpiece that is Rocky 4, so too can filmmakers play in rough, expressionistic modes akin to video art. Using technical flaws like video noise as tools or colours on the expressionist’s palette. As an audience we just have to be ready and open for when it comes.


Is there a beating heart there? What is the aesthetic telling me and is it all that different to a TV commercial?


So I’m arguing for a new openness in Australian cinephilia, which can be as simple as when watching a film, asking the question "What are you showing me?". I don’t mean asking of a work just what it can offer in terms of pure craft, but what's in there on a deeper level? Is there a beating heart there? What is the aesthetic telling me and is it all that different to a TV commercial? A new openness may mean sitting through a Vimeo link you would normally switch off. It may mean forgetting a bad edit or two. But when you have found something special, ultimately it will mean hearing voices from the margins, the very kind of people who made punk rock, or some other passionate form that came from sincerity before it was co-opted. Most great artistic movements come out of a perceived crisis, so perhaps there is great opportunity here. There are underground works made in this country by filmmakers such as Saidin Salkic, Allison Chhorn and Matthew Victor Pastor that are very distinctive and unlike anything else being made. Their low budgets afford them to be incredibly personal and the technological age allows them to be highly auteurist. But much like Gil Scott-Heron's statement "The revolution won’t be televised", nor will it be programmed or commissioned at this point in time. So it’s really up to you to be interested and start digging. Truly independent cinema may need an independent cinephile mind to appreciate it.

Mike Retter is a film director, of the indie feature Youth On The March, creator of the zine "Cinema Now", and the Podcast "Meat Bone Express", and part of the Port Film Co-op

Published August 1, 2018. © Mike Retter 2018.