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Community & Business

11 May, 2023

Film fest a hit!

A mix of community spirit, resilience and humanity was the theme of all three short films, show at Saturday’s inaugural Gilgandra Film Festival.

By Lucie Peart

The audience in the packed Gilgandra Shire Hall, witnessed the local premiere of the Tooraweenah- based documentary by filmmaker Simon Target, “Warrawong - The Windy Place on the Hill’, and his moving film about the Polish support of Ukrainian war refugees in ‘Masha and Valentyna’. In between was another Australian-based documentary about the journey of a transgender teen in “The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone”.

Over 230 people attended the film festival which was a welcomed result for the novel festival idea. The festival was opened by Uncle Ralph Naden, providing the Welcome to Country, following with a short address by mayor Doug Batten. Mayor Batten described a film festival (admittedly with a bit of help from Dr Google) as a platform for filmmakers to “introduce their work and discuss topics shown in the film as well as filmmaking process”.

He welcomed the audience and dignitaries. He praised the involvement of the Country Women’s Association (CWA) in the event, and their work in the community before introducing festival director and co-star of the first film Sue Armstrong. Mrs Armstrong couldn’t praise the community and the organising committee enough for their support of Gilgandra’s first proper film festival.

“They were amazing,” she said.

“Without the support of the community in sponsoring the festival - local businesses, Gilgandra Shire Council, the Bendigo Bank and the efforts by members of various CWAs - it wouldn’t have been able to happen at all,” she said.

Mrs Armstrong also praised the work of filmmaker and the festival’s artistic director Simon Target, who shot the Warrawong film at Sue and Brian Armstrong’s property of the same name. The film gave viewers an “unscripted” insight into the couple’s life on the land, living at the foothills of the Warrumbungle National Park. British-born filmmaker Mr Target provided the following introduction to the festival:

“What's it really like to live on a remote farm out here? What's it really like to be born a boy but spend your whole life wanting to be a girl? What's it really like to be woken up in the morning and told ‘No school today; the Russians are coming. Pack your whole life into a suitcase. We're going to Poland’. Tonight (April 22) we're showing three short stories about real people. Now, these are documentaries. Not dramas. There's no script no acting or pretending no special effects or convenient cheesy endings just like our own lives. These films try to be honest and intimate and sometimes that's hard to watch. But maybe you'll recognize a bit of yourself in some of these people living very different lives and very different places.”

‘Warrawong’ was selected for competition at the Kraków Film Festival in Poland last year and at the Sydney Film Festival, but until Saturday had not been shown in Gilgandra, where it was made. The film is an honest reflection of a couple, who after farming on their property for decades, are now contemplating a retirement plan.

 With no family-interest of succession, the Armstrong’s story depicted many familiar events for those living in the Gilgandra shire. From selling livestock, having to get the fourwheeler out to get to town (because the road was too wet), COVID haircuts, the occasional ‘hostage situation’ involving an outdoor loo and a black snake, a forgotten birthday, and the dreaded memories of the mice plague; the film no doubt resonated with the audience. What was also of strong resonance in the film, was the presence of Tooraweenah CWA and the ensuing connection with community. This was also evident at the film festival event with the attendance of the state CWA president Joy Beames, state international officer Jenny Chobdzynski, and the support of local CWA groups in catering for the event.

The second film, ‘The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone’ (also available on Netflix) from director Maya Newell, was another very personal insight into the life of an Australian transgender teenager, and her transition journey. The film spanned a decade and showed glimpses of Georgie’s childhood (a happy family upbringing with her parents and twin brother) and harder teenage years (parent’s divorce, and puberty), paired with her present self and her advocacy for transgender children to be spared further trauma by having to attend the family court to access to hormone treatments – of which they were successful. Georgie’s story was also one of resilience and finding connection; to herself and to a community of support – one which she had to build herself. Georgie is also the first openly transgender actress to appear on ‘Neighbours’ and was a high school leader. Georgie was unable to attend the Gilgandra Film Festival in person due to another event. The film was chosen by Mrs Armstrong, after they watched it, and their own film, at last year’s Sydney Film Festival.

The theme of the third film ‘Masha and Valentyna’ was bolstered by the attendance of the Polish Embassy’s Vice- Consul Łukasz Graban and his wife Joanna. The film follows the story of two women who left Ukraine for Poland during the first week of the Russian invasion in 2022. In introducing the film, Vice-Consul Graban said that over 10 million people had left Ukraine, some two million have remained in Poland. These people were supported immediately by the Polish government, for shelter, health and work rights. Many were taken in by Polish families – such were the film’s subjects Maria ‘Masha’ Parfeniuk and Valentyna Merzhyievska.

Filmmaker Mr Target found the two women during a trip to Poland, as his wife is Polish. The women filmed their ongoing experiences of adjustment on their phones and sent the footage back to Mr Target to compile with his own. 18-year-old Masha began her journey with her sister’s 10-week-old baby in her arms as she and family members crossed a freezing border point into Poland. She was later lovingly ‘adopted’ by a Polish family, attended high school, and has remained in Poland to study at university. Valentyna, a teacher, came to Poland with her two sons while her husband was fighting in the Ukrainian army.

The trio also found a new temporary home before returning to Ukraine after five months. Valentyna began the process of rebuilding her school and community before her husband was injured while disarming land mines left by the Russian army. The support given by the Polish government and people was outlined by Vice-Consul Graban.

“For freedom, and independence, we [Poland] have engaged in comprehensive assistance on an unprecedented scale.” “Poland remains one of the top military donors to Ukraine alongside the US and the United Kingdom. Furthermore. We are a living voice in the European discussion on further delivery of military equipment. Although numbers do not necessarily reflect the whole spectrum of the atrocities caused, they might help us to better understand the sheer scale of human movement.”

Vice-Consul Graban said recent numbers as of April 18 show approximately 10.5 million people crossed the Polish border, some of them went back to later to Ukraine, some travelled to other countries, even to Australia. 2.3 million have stayed in Poland. Total humanitarian aid to Ukraine is at one-and-a-half per cent of the GDP [Polish], compared to a Polish defence budget of two per cent GDP. “Almost 80 per cent of Polish people have been directly engaged in one way or another in helping Ukrainians,” said the Vice-Consul.

As seen in the film “many of them invited those Ukrainians to their homes and what it's more important, is that we [Poland] are ready to support Ukraine as long as it takes.”

The Vice-Consul also brought a special exhibition of children’s artworks to the film festival. The display titled ‘Mum, I Don’t Want War’, was a combination of children’s artworks preserved from 1946 in Poland (during WWII) with artworks of the children currently experiencing the war in Ukraine. The display was set up at the festival and again at the Coo-ee Heritage Centre on Sunday.

The exhibition has not previously been shown outside a metropolitan city and was a fitting accompaniment to the last film’s chilling and moving story of displacement due to warfare, and its affect on the mindset of children. After the festival Mrs Armstrong said the event had certainly set a high benchmark.

“I do think we have the opportunity to expand,” she said.

“We have had a fantastic learning curve; we have learnt so much putting it together this year. We have other embassies interested in showing films, a connection now with the Polish Embassy and we will be attending the Sydney Film Festival for ideas. It was a fantastic community event, and I can see room for growth over time. “We were so fortunate to have Simon Target as festival artistic director – also the support and expertise of his family members.

“We were also particularly grateful for the immense job that Peter Gaff did for the festival in providing and operating the audio/visual equipment and film screen,” said Mrs Armstrong.

Janet Cheal also provided a musical accompaniment during the festival.


For those who have seen ‘Warrawong’, this reporter will leave you with a hot tip - Brian’s birthday is December 2.

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