By Erin Free & Julian Wood

“Film is the most powerful gift for all of us and it is just being abused,” Paul Cox told FilmInk in 2004 with obvious feeling. “It’s packaged like an item in the supermarket. You buy films off the shelf like shampoo.” The Australian film industry has lost one of its most singular and uncompromising cinematic voices with the sad passing of Paul Cox, who finally succumbed after a brave and hard fought battle with cancer at the age of 76. Cox could never be accused of making films that could be packaged to fit on any shelf. It is impossible to write about Paul Cox without alluding to the fact that he is an outsider. But, in a typical Cox paradox, this “outsider” made more films over a longer career than almost any other Australian director. The fire and the passion that lit such essential Cox classics as 1983’s Man Of Flowers, 1986’s Cactus and 1991’s A Woman’s Tale would continue to burn through to his more recent projects, with the director showing equal heart and emotional intensity on the likes of 2004’s Human Touch and 2008’s Salvation.

Born in 1940 in Holland, Cox’s life began in struggle, and never really let up from there. “As a child, I saw so many tears,” he told FilmInk. “I saw dead bodies as I was walking along, and everything was broken by the war. I remember when I was ten, I saw a newly constructed road for the first time.” Migrating to Australia, Cox found a warmer, less scarred home, but his battles to make the kind of films that he wanted to make raged quietly throughout his entire career. Though some of his aforementioned works enjoyed critical acclaim and even modest box office success, many of Cox’s films have just been ignored, and the filmmaker occasionally felt targeted, and was annoyed when his films were branded too “European” for Australian audiences. “People have really abused the shit out of me,” he told FilmInk in 2004. “There have been so many attacks on this miserable circus of ours. And every now and then when I get mad enough, I resurrect it.”

Paul Cox's Man Of Flowers
Paul Cox’s Man Of Flowers

That “miserable circus” is well known to Australian cineastes, with Cox working with a small band of actors and technicians over and over again: the sadly lost Norman Kaye and Wendy Hughes, who starred in so many of his films; his regular right-hand man, Chris Haywood; the brilliant David Wenham (who endured the notorious production horrors of 1999’s Molokai right alongside Cox); and Aden Young, who both acted and edited for Cox. “One of us would be cooking, the other one would be doing some cleaning around the house,” Young laughed to FilmInk in 2008 about the shoot of Salvation. “It was as if you were making a film away on a summer camp. We all had to chip in.” A longtime supporter of Cox, Young has been suitably horrified by the treatment that the filmmaker often endured at the hands of Australia’s funding bodies. “Filmmakers of Paul’s generation are facing a battle to convince government bodies of their worth,” he told FilmInk in 2008. “In many ways, the industry’s been very good to Paul, and in many ways it’s been – after having answered some of the emails and some of the faxes and the phone calls myself – utterly contemptuous to him as well. I can understand his disillusionment.”

When FilmInk asked Cox about his difficulties in getting films made, the director visibly bristled. “It’s not just me,” he said of the funding process in 2008. “It’s Fred Schepisi and all these people. The humiliation of the process is ridiculous. People that have a substantial body of work that has been appreciated all around the place are being treated like little school boys. ‘Naughty, naughty, naughty – maybe we’ll give you five cents if you fill in 200 forms and spend three years of your life filling in crap and licking people’s arses.’ It’s not a very nice way of putting it [Laughs].” When it was suggested to Cox that his cash battles might have been grist for the creative mill, he scoffed. “I’ve heard that one before,” he said in 2008. “I won’t tell you who said it to me, but it was somebody we all know. They said that it was good for me to suffer because it brought out the best in me. I can’t buy that argument. It’s a lot of nonsense – ‘It made me more determined because I couldn’t get the money and I made personal films.’ There has to be a few people in the world who use film as a means of self-expression. That’s what I attempted to do, and I got away with it.”

Paul Cox's Force Of Destiny
Paul Cox’s Force Of Destiny

For Paul Cox, his life as a filmmaker was tough, but selfishly, we as audiences got to benefit from that struggle, as did the many people who were able to work with him. “Paul’s a beautiful friend of mine,” Jacqueline McKenzie – who starred in 2004’s Human Touch, as well as Cox’s final film, Force Of Destiny, a deeply moving and semi-autobiographical take on his battles with cancer – told FilmInk. “I absolutely adore him. He’s a national treasure. His films are deeply personal in a conscious way. He’s a joy to work with and collaborate with and just to watch and be a part of the process. He just wants to tell stories, and all actors want to tell stories. We think that we’re storytellers…we try to be storytellers. At the base level, that’s what we are. We try to entertain and tell a story and be as compelling as we can in the process. You want to learn from someone like Paul.”

Thankfully, we’ve all been able to learn from Paul Cox: about the fragility of life; the importance of friendship; about how absolutely essential the arts are for societal enrichment; and about how fighting tooth, nail, blood, and bone for something that you believe in can reap enormous dividends. For Paul Cox, those dividends may have felt small, and occasionally not worth the fight, but for film audiences, they are huge. “Hopefully these films will live,” Cox said to FilmInk in 2004. “One day these films will be alive, and I won’t be.” As he sits in some non-denominational, more cerebral version of heaven smoking his trademark pipe, we can only hope that the late, great Paul Cox knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that his wonderful collection of films will remain utterly and profoundly alive in his physical absence…


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