It’s the opening night of the Vision Splendid Film Festival and the host town of Winton, 1350 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, has turned on a typical western Queensland winter welcome. In other words it’s as cold as charity in the Royal Open Air Theatre and the popcorn sellers are doing a roaring trade hiring out fleecy blankets to the patrons who are hunkering down in the canvas deck chairs for the screening of David Stratton: A Cinematic Life. David’s not there, but his partner in film of almost 30 years, Margaret Pomeranz is, along with actor Roy Billing, director Sally Aitkin, producer Bill Leimbach, a host of local dignitaries, visiting film buffs, and curious grey nomads from the caravan park across the road, who’ve been attracted by the action in the street.
In many ways Winton, population 900-ish, is the little town that could. The wool industry collapsed, the train stopped running, and the drought seems never ending. But Winton has refused to die and looked to tourism as its lifeline. The region has long attracted visitors for the surrounding opal fields and there are other subterranean riches in the form of dinosaur remains. The first discovery of a fossilised footprint in the shire was made in 1962, on Cork station. This led to the uncovering of the world’s only recorded dinosaur stampede, now known as the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackway. Later revelations include what was then the largest dinosaur skeleton found in Australia, a 20-30 tonne sauropod, Savannasaurus elliottorum, nicknamed Elliot for local grazier David Elliot who discovered it while mustering sheep on his Belmont station in 1999 and its friends, more long-necked herbivore sauropods and meat-eating theropods of varying sizes and types.
Winton also has a place in recent history books as the hometown of our unofficial national anthem,Waltzing Matilda. A. B. (Banjo) Paterson was staying on nearby Dagworth station in 1895 when he wrote the lyrics and legend has it that its first public performance was in the lounge of the North Gregory Hotel. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the song and the ill-fated swagman when the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which was destroyed by fire in 2015, reopens later this year. The blood on the set of this menacing western tale of brutality and brotherly bonds may have been fake, but the sweat and tears were completely real as the predominantly northern hemisphere cast grappled with the 40-plus-degree heat of a Winton summer. Due to a series of hold-ups before filming the film’s makers were left with no option but to shoot in the wilds of the Bladensburg National Park in the extreme midsummer conditions. As Screen Queensland’s Production Incentives and Attraction Manager Gina Black, who worked on The Proposition explains, the makers “came for the landscape, but stayed for the people”. “Winton welcomed the cast and crew with open arms,” she says. “Nothing was too much trouble. And of course, as many of the locals were extras, they became very personally involved in the project.”
Then in 2013 Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road starring Aaron Pederson as an indigenous cowboy detective investigating a murder in his hometown, was made in and around Winton. Following the Queensland premiere, which was held in the open air theatre, a group of locals hatched the idea of a film festival. The ring leaders included Winton’s fiercest advocate, mayor Butch Lenton, who sadly passed away as this issue was going to press. But the Vision Splendid Festival would not have gained traction if it weren’t for Clive Kitchen, owner of the North Gregory Hotel. His son-in-law just happens to be Greg Dolgopolov, a lecturer in film at the University of NSW, who became the festival’s creative director.
The inaugural festival opened in 2014 with a screening of The Slim Dusty Movie. The following year Michael Caton came to town for the Queensland premiere of Last Cab to Darwin, and in 2016, director Ivan Sen and Aaron Pederson were back again for an opening night screening of Goldstone, which was filmed 170km up the road at Middleton, but again with huge support from Winton Council and the local community. By the time the opening credits rolled on the 2017 festival with its theme of women in film, the program included more than 30 screenings across nine days, masterclasses with screen writers and producers, breakfasts with the stars and tours to the spectacular local locations. There was a day devoted to dog movies, one where the theme was utes and special screenings for kids. Eleven of the 34 movies were directed by women. There were also 60 film students in town, part of an important footnote to the program. They included film students from Griffith Uni, the UNSW, Brisbane’s Conservatorium of Music, animation students from the Beijing Film Institute, a contingent from the Film and Television Institute of India and one German film student.
The students were among more than 2500 people who came to Winton just for the event, and festival publicist Krista Hauritz was able to report 144 per cent growth in ticketing and 100 per cent in terms of sponsors since the festival’s inception. It doesn’t take a degree in higher maths to work out the importance of this patronage to the town, its hotels, cafes and accommodation venues. Return visitors included Brisbane film buff Jennifer Egan, who came with a friend in 2014 and has been back every year since. “This year I brought 16 friends,” she says. “It’s a juggernaut, because everyone I encourage to come brings their friends the following year. Apart from the fact that it’s great to attend a festival that is solely focused on Australian film, it’s wonderful to meet locals and receive their hospitality. After a few days in town, you really begin to feel like one of them.”
On Australian Country’s second day in town, we were sitting at a pavement table outside our by then regular haunt, the Musical Fence Cafe, when a posse of film students came out of a script meeting for Follow Me, their entry in the Qantas Short Film Competition. We found ourselves involved in a kerbside chat about the plot and several surprising twists and turns. The competition is deadly serious for these students, a chance for them to make their mark on a cut-throat environment and be seen by industry professionals. In the first part of the week they pitched their synopses to a jury of film-makers and festival executives, and the six best contenders were given the go ahead to make a film of five minutes or less, to be screened on the festival’s closing night. The various prizes up for grabs include $500 cash and a tablet computer for the best film winner, but it’s the prestige they are chasing and the reason they are giving the project a red hot go. As the festival director Mark Melrose explains, the short film competition is aimed at attracting the next generation of film-makers to outback Queensland, hopefully bringing more crews to Winton when they are making their own features. “The festival committee is determined to develop a post-production space in town so crews will stay longer and inject even more into the community,” he adds.
As it turns out, our adopted film crew is not successful on the closing night, but they’re satisfied to have given it their best shot and that Follow Me received an enthusiastic audience reception. However there is one happy ending. On our last night in town, I’m passing reception at the North Gregory and I’m inspired to ask if anyone has handed in my missing earring. Sure enough, I’m directed to the bar, where it has been sitting in a glass since opening night. That’s Winton for you. Honest and open as the outback sky. Where nothing is impossible, including finding everything from opals and dinosaurs to lost earrings and award-winning Australian movies.
For more information visit visionsplendidfilmfest.com
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 21.1. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass