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Ghosts happy as St Kilda Film Fest opens refurbished Palais

David Tiley

The St Kilda Film Festival opened in a convivial social whirl as local industry experts brace for the Industry day on Saturday.
Ghosts happy as St Kilda Film Fest opens refurbished Palais

Image: Palais goes gaudy for 21st century.

St Kilda  is a small, wet island in the North Atlantic whose inhabitants hung off cliffs to steal puffin eggs for the nutrient. They are said to have evolved prehensile toes. 

Australian filmmakers have to be very good at living on little and clinging on like hell, but they do have one other thing in common. The Melbourne suburb of St Kilda houses a goodly number of film people despite rising rents, and the opening night of the local film festival is the key social event in the beachside calendar. 

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They are also fervent traditionalists, and cling to the fact that the opening night is always held in the Palais Theatre, known to be the largest fully seated cinema in Australia, which has gradually become a time capsule. Unlike many, it was well built in the first place, but late 1920s cables and plumbing and light bulbs have gradually decayed. Turn on a switch and hope it works and keep the emergency numbers handy.

After a lot of politics, the state government and the Port Phillip Council found a refurbishment warchest north of $20m, and Live Nation won the rights to the lease as a cinema and live entertainment venue. Work started after the 2016 St Kilda Festival, and obsessed traditionalists worried over the Big Question: will it be finished for 2017?

It was completed enough for last night's launch to be the first event of the newly refurbished venue, though it won't really be finished internally until around October. 

This was the plan, well described in a snappy state government video:

 

And this is a nifty time lapse of the process, so you can see what it has turned into.

  

It is very, very cool. The ghosts should be pleased. We didn't actually see all the pretty colours inside. It still looks like a hive built by giant invisible bees and designed by Mussolini's third best architect. Loveable but mostly because it is old, and definitely less spectacular than the other 30's cinemas like The State in Sydney or Melbourne's Forum in its original form.

The great ochre barn with its Moorish domes and 30's verandah is now a terrific addition to the bayside streetscape and will slowly cross the world on Twitter and Facebook in hundreds of languages. The festival audience was mostly interested in each other, picking at every possible glimpse of actual fashion in the smart casual throng, with the alleged special guests clumped behind a braided cord on the side. This being Melbourne they remained docile. 

This year the management had given up on comedians. Maybe life has simply become too surreal. Instead Sigrid Thornton rolled us briskly through the speeches, from the Welcome to Country by Gheran Steel, the CEO of the Boon Wurrung Foundation, to the mayor Cr Bernadene Voss, the CEO of Film Victoria Jenni Tosi - who will never have to do this particular thankless task again - and a note from Martin Foley, local member and Minister for Creative Industries which said he was at a political event about homelessness in Adelaide. 

The names of individual councillors were read out and each one was clapped from a different part of the room. It was that kind of night. 

Paul Harris, the artistic director for half of the festival's 37 years, took the stage for his annual introduction, a bit like Santa bailed up in the fireplace and talking about toys. He too was pretty clear and concise. He admitted that he hates answering the annual 'Does the festival have a theme?' question and then conceded it does exist for 2017. 'Assimilation and tolerance', he confessed.

The featured shorts started with a tribute to Graham Kennedy, which reminded us just how fast and inventive he could be in a time of bad pie fights and cardboard sets. The NFSA is presenting a program on The King on Sunday 21 May with guests like his scriptwriter  Mike McColl Jones and the legendary voice-over artist Pete Smith.

The stand-out domestic live action shorts were probably Pillars, directed by Ryan A. Murphy, written by actor Nicholas Denton and produced by those two and Arielle Thomas, and The Eleven O'clock, written and performed by Josh Lawson, directed by  Derin Seale and produced by those two and Karen Bryson. If you noticed a theme in those sets of credits, you are probably right.

Melbourne readers should explore the Filmmaker Development Calendar carefully. The program for Saturday 20 May is a crazed cascade of forums, workshops, couch conversations and special events which can blow the heads off emerging filmmakers just touching the ordinary realities of the sector. Clever Tricks!

The trailer this year is very simple. 

   

Last year's trailer was a high point which can never be surpassed and the teams from Byallmeans and The Directors Group wisely didn't try.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.

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