Dan Slevin wonders when Netflix will come shopping at our film festival.
In a sign of the times, one of the biggest successes of last year’s Adelaide Film Festival never saw a cinema screen once the festival ended.
Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo should’ve been an example of a much more positive development – a prize-winning short film developed and extended into a feature proving that competitions like 48 Hours and Tropfest can be a worthwhile career-enhancer.
Usually when a domestic film premieres at a local festival it has distribution locked in – in New Zealand features don’t get funded without it. But in Adelaide, Cargo was immediately snapped up by Netflix and just over six months later was available to viewers in every corner of the globe. The Netflix model means an instant financial return for the producers and should mean a much bigger audience over the film’s lifetime.
Cargo is a very Australian film (even though it stars the very English Martin Freeman). Freeman is Andy and when we meet him he’s cruising one of those broad slow moving South Australian rivers with his family – wife Kay, Susie Porter, and one-year-old daughter Rosie, portrayed by no less than two sets of twins – in a houseboat. It looks idyllic at first but the fractured society that they are hiding from soon makes itself apparent.
We learn – in impressively lean exposition – that there’s a virus abroad and that there is no cure. Worse, the “virals” survive – zombie-like – and pass on their affliction by biting the human meat they crave. The boat’s first aid kit contains a compressed air spike with a diagram showing how you press it against your own eye before firing.
Things are bad. Kay gets bitten and her countdown starts – you have 48 hours before you turn and the virus has been around long enough that Fitbits seem to have a programme setting for it. On the drive for help, Andy himself is bitten and not long after it’s just him, Rosie and his virus. The Fitbit clock is ticking and he has to find some kind of safety for Rosie before his time runs out.
It’s a great setup and a great execution. The South Australian outback is the perfect location for an apocalyptic road movie where heroes are in short supply and country characters might be dangerous, they might be on a clock of their own or they might just be wary of strangers.
Adding extra resonance is the presence of a community of indigenous Australians with their own explanation for the plague and their own methods for keeping it at bay.
Cargo is great genre filmmaking and one of the best Australian films of the last few years. Freeman in particular is better – not just different – than I’ve seen him in years. Someone at Netflix in Australia had a chequebook and the authority to use it. I wonder when they’ll cross the ditch to snap up some of our talent.
Cargo is a “Netflix Original” film. This film is also an entry in Dan’s long dormant #52filmsbywomen project.