Braidwood Film Festival (December 2008)

It’s been a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Braidwood, but there is a faint trace of rain in the air as the daylight starts to fade. “I hope the weather holds,” says Susie Edmonds, grimacing slightly as she looks up at the sky. “It’d be a real shame if it rained.” It seems odd to hear a Braidwood resident lament the possibility of rain when the region is in the middle of a long and painful drought. But today, Susie’s wish is completely justified.

The town is celebrating the 21st anniversary of The Year My Voice Broke, an AFI award winning film shot entirely in Braidwood and its surrounds. Wallace Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, has been closed down by the local SES and turned into a makeshift open-air cinema for the evening, complete with a large inflatable screen that has been transported down from Sydney. Seating, however, is a BYO affair, and as the audience begins to arrive, Wallace Street gradually fills out with a colourful array of outdoor furniture.

The iconic National TheatreSitting quietly off to the side is the National Theatre, reputed to be the oldest operational cinema in Australia. It is one of Braidwood’s most iconic buildings, but its modest size has prevented it from being used for the screening. Still, the old cinema is due to host a pre-screening reception for some key members of Voice’s cast and crew – and its intended function has not been completely neglected, either. “The National Film and Sound Archive loaned us copies of Dad and Dave, Robbery Under Arms, and the Mick Jagger version of Ned Kelly,” says Braidwood Film Club president Michelle Robison. These (somewhat less acclaimed) examples of Braidwood’s film history have been playing in the theatre throughout the day. “We’ve had a great turnout all day. There are a few locals who were extras in these films, and for some of them, it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves on screen!”

From the footpath outside, Jill McLeod watches the National Theatre’s ad-hoc cousin take shape. Although a Braidwood resident for almost twenty years, Jill does not feel she has earned the right to refer to herself as a local. Instead, she calls the town her “adopted child” – one that she carries an evident fondness for. “We have a strong, caring community here in Braidwood,” Jill says. “But there’s not a great deal of money in the town. You have to be fairly self-sufficient – mentally and financially – to live here. If you want something to happen, you have to work for it!”

Which is exactly the attitude that Tracey LaMont, vice-chair of Braidwood’s tourism board, adopted when she set about organising tonight’s event. “I emailed [production company] Kennedy Miller in March about arranging a screening,” she says. Coincidentally, a DVD release was scheduled for December, so the company was happy to mark the occasion by partly sponsoring a screening in the film’s hometown. A large part of the project’s funding was, however, sourced closer to home. “I mentioned the project at a barbeque one evening, which aroused the interest of a generous local,” LaMont explains. The anonymous resident would subsequently volunteer to cover the majority of the screening costs.

Turning the main street into a cinema would prove to be more problematic. “The levels of bureaucracy were pretty frustrating,” admits LaMont. Because Wallace Street forms part of the main highway linking Canberra to the south coast, the Road Transport Authority and local council were concerned about the length of time that it would be closed off. “But they came around in the end. They realised it’s an important community event.”

Come the evening of the screening, LaMont’s work is still not done. She rushes around the National Theatre, dancing an intricate hospitality ballet with Michelle Robison and other film club members as they make final preparations for the pre-screening reception. Such cordiality is a defining trait of Braidwood – which still resonates with Voice’s director, John Duigan, despite the time that has passed. “We were warmly received by the town,” he fondly recalls during the reception. “I have very happy memories of filming here.”

Even the weather was generous. “The colour scheme that I’d worked out for the film was blue, gold, and brown,” Duigan explains. “Braidwood was in the midst of a drought when we came here, and I was desperate for the colours to stay for the duration of the shoot.” Fortunately – from an artistic perspective, at least – the rain held off for the six weeks it took to wrap production. “The day we drove out of town it poured with rain. A couple of days later, it was all green.” Duigan summarises this extraordinary luck in simple terms: “The film was blessed.”

21 years later, the blessings continue. By the time the sun sets, the threat of rain has passed, producing a crisp, clear evening for Braidwood to sit back and enjoy Voice’s anniversary screening. A few shops along Wallace Street have elected to stay open late; some of them even make cameo appearances in the movie. Purchasing a coffee from an establishment that is simultaneously on-screen is a curious feeling – even more so when the celluloid version is not that different from the one you are standing in. But such timelessness is the reason John Duigan chose Braidwood after all – and it is perhaps also the reason the town has maintained its warm demeanour in perpetuity.

(POSTSCRIPT: This piece was originally set to appear in a local community magazine, The Berra (which perished before the article was published). To adhere to the set word limit I excluded the interview I did with the film’s lead actress, Loene Carmen. Not the wisest choice, in hindsight – Loene was very pleasant and forthcoming. The complete interview can be found here)

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