Favorite 'Son': Oz pic highlights int'l image

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The Australian film "Son of a Lion," a world premiere Saturday at the Pusan International Film Festival, is likely the first feature shot undercover in Pakistan's tribal Northwest Frontier Province, and stands as hard evidence of an increasingly international outlook Down Under.

In the past decade, the bulk of successful Australian films have had a reputation as quirky comedies, presenting a distinctly offbeat Australian humor to global audiences.

But in recent years, with an upturn in production, and a brightening of the funding greenlight from the Film Finance Corp., diversity has become an Australian film hallmark.

"Empathy is the No. 1 quality most important quality today, even over brains," said debut director Benjamin Gilmour, a paramedic by training, who shot "Son" over eight months in 2006 with Australian Film Commission help for just under AUS$500,000 ($432,000).

Only after a few months of gaining the locals' trust -- with the help of executive producer Hayat Khan Shinawari -- did Gilmour reveal his Sony MiniDV Cam. Gilmour grew a full beard and wore tribal dress as he shot the story of a Pashtun son coming to grips with his father's arms manufacturing business.

Gilmour first traveled to Pakistan before 9/11, and said he was motivated to make "Son" when he saw Pashtuns demonized.

"What I saw happening did not match my experience. Pashtun carry arms but they are a peace loving people," Gilmour said. "Son" was produced by Carolyn Johnson.

Australian diversity in film also includes an increasing number of independent features that look up from Down Under to show Australia through the eyes of foreigners who, one way or another, make their mark there.

The six features that will screen in the coming days at Pusan include Kriv Stenders' real-time urban drama, "Boxing Day," about a former prisoner having his family around for a visit that goes dangerously wrong; Peter Carstairs' "September," a look at the breakdown of a relationship between an aboriginal youth and his childhood friend, who's the son of his station boss; and "Lucky Miles," a gentle comedy that follows the plight of Iraqi and Cambodian refugees who are abandoned in remote western Australia.

They are part of a raft of films this year that have found critical acclaim and favor with festival audiences worldwide, as well as at Australia's own festivals. "Lucky Miles" for one, this year received the audience awards as best film at the Sydney Film Festival and a special jury prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

Also screening in Pusan are Peter Duncan's "Unfinished Sky," a love story between an Australian farmer and an illegal Afghan refugee, set in the Australian bush, and Claire McCarthy's "Cross Life," six interlocking stories revealing the desire and redemption of life in the urban jungle of Sydney's King Cross.

"It is particularly pleasing to achieve this level of success at one of Asia's leading film festivals after nine Australian films were selected for Toronto," AFC chief executive Chris Fitchett said.

In Pusan on Friday, the Australian filmmakers present were feted by Australia's ambassador to South Korea, Peter Rowe, at a function co-hosted by the AFC.

A diverse slate has long been championed by Brian Rosen, the CEO of the FFC. The FFC last month green-lighted four features that will go to production in 2008 which have stories about Australians and Australians-to-be that take place in China, East Timor, Mexico and the U.S.

"The wide reach is unusual given that none of the films are co-productions with other countries," Rosen said. "Each story is generated by Australian filmmakers who, collectively, are showing a new interest in the global picture."

Rosen said that diversity should stand the industry in good stead as new funding mechanisms providing producers with direct rebates come into play this month. They are aimed at attracting more private financing and should increase the budgets of films produced in Australia.
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