The world at their feet

A scene from <i>Underground</i>.
A scene from Underground.

SAFELY housed thousands of miles away, within the Ecuadorian embassy in London, one can only wonder what Julian Assange would make of Underground. Screening for the first time in Toronto on Sunday night, the film – which stars newcomer Alex Williams at the WikiLeaks founder – traces the whistleblowing maverick from his teenage hacking days in Melbourne in the 1980s, through to his current crisis, trapped inside a diplomatic loophole.

Assange himself may be notable by his absence, but the presence of Robert Connolly's film only reinforces the impact Australia is having on the film world here. Local cinema is enjoying its most substantial showing in years at Toronto – otherwise known as the gateway to the lucrative US market. Toronto has a history of embracing Australian cinema – a fact, says festival programmer Jane Schoettle, that's born more out of shared philosophies and creative minds than trends or fads.

“We share a common bond and a not dissimilar history,” Schoettle says. “Our storytelling isn't so far removed from one another, either. Australia's representation this year is one of most diverse and – frankly – splashiest we've ever had.”

Indeed, both Wayne Blair's The Sapphires and Cate Shortland's Lore have both arrived at the North American event – now in its 37th year, and second only to Cannes in industry terms and star pulling-power – pre-sold to every major territory on the planet (a rare feat for any local release). For Shortland, being on the ground is more a case for celebrating and championing her peers.

“We're in a lucky position, so we're really here to show the film and represent Australia, and celebrate all the hard work that's gone into it,” she says, of her WWII-set romantic drama. “I only came here for two days last time [in 2004], for Somersault. This time, what I'm really liking about it is this very strong contingent of Australians, with really good films. You really feel like you're a part of something.”

Shortland's husband, Tony Krawitz, who also has a film screening here – the brooding contemporary drama Dead Europe – has been surprised by the level of interest in local cinema, particularly from the Canadian media. “ I was struck by how many of them were fans of Australian cinema,” he says, after completing press duties here (his film quickly sold to Canada, and will go on to screen in Europe at next month's London Film Festival). “They were saying how amazing and diverse it is. It's something I think we in Australia tend to forget. I'm energized by that, and I think a lot of filmmakers in Australia are, too. That's exactly what any film industry needs – diversity.”

Australia's indigenous population – showcased to great effect in Wayne Blair's musical smash The Sapphires, also enjoying a warm reception here – is the focus of Catriona McKenzie's thoughtful drama, Satellite Boy. The film, which premiered on Saturday, stars Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil as grandfather to a young boy displaced by developers. McKenzie is similarly bolstered by the reaction her film's received. “There's a real buzz here,” she says. “If you talk to American studio executives, they're don't have the government support we have. My film would not have got made without it.”

This year's Toronto International Film Festival – which has eclipsed its older rival in Venice for market dominance – has also offered some early indicators for Oscar contenders (The King's Speech and Slumdog Million-aire both screened here). Among them: Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, an epic follow-up to 2010's Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as a pair of fathers at odds with one another's families (and featuring an excellent performance from Australia's Ben Mendelsohn). Ben Affleck's fact-based Middle Eastern thriller Argo has premiered here, as has the sprawling sci-fi fantasy tale Cloud Atlas, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

TAG The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival runs until September 16.

This story The world at their feet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.