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This WA festival found the perfect combo

AAP logoAAP 22/09/2016 Danielle McGrane

There are at least five people passing around desserts, and the question on everybody's lips is have they tried all of them?

There's a chocolate cake concoction, a rich cheesecake and a creamy panna cotta.

The debonair man in the scarf snaffles up the last panna cotta while a group of young actors keep an eye out for the cheesecake.

Luckily there are at least three more trays about to hit the marquee and, lo and behold, there's actually a mini ice-cream cone on offer too.

It's quite possible to feel very full and well-fed at this festival, and the wine from a nearby boutique winery is flowing too.

But this isn't a gourmet event. It's actually CinefestOz, a festival celebrating new Australian and French films.

And while this looks like a VIP party, the decadence comes free with the price of a movie ticket for the Orana cinema in Busselton, a city on Australia's southwest tip. Everyone in this tent has just seen Girl Asleep, the quirky Adelaide film that will go on to win the film festival's $100,000 prize, the country's richest film prize.

Over these treats concocted from the nearby wineries and farms in the beautiful Margaret River region, everyone is getting a chance to discuss what made this film such a delight of Australian storytelling.

The film festival has been running in Busselton, a two-and-a-half hour drive south of Perth, for nine years.

Putting a film festival right beside the wineries of Margaret River feels somewhat like a mini-miracle, and every event takes place in a new, stunning location.

At the director's lunch at Willy Bay Resort, overlooking a lake, film director Gillian Armstrong, who is the jury chair at this year's festival, makes a plea for more women in film.

"I think we do need to have more women creators and writers out there," she says and somehow, over a plate of tender lamb, her pleas have decidedly more resonance.

Armstrong returned to the festival for the second time because of its unique location and atmosphere.

"It's in a beautiful environment and has a very high standard of films. It's a very classy festival," she says.

"It's lovely to sit in a country town cinema with audiences that love film, love Australian films."

The following day, a lunch at The Beer Farm, a brewery converted from a working dairy farm, feels like the most apt place for a discussion about Bachelor and Spinsters balls, which form the basis for the plot of new Australian film Spin Out.

The film, starring Twilight actor Xavier Samuel, was written and directed by Tim Ferguson of the Doug Anthony All Stars.

Three years ago, Ferguson tested the movie's script on an audience at this very festival.

"They were Busselton people who just turned up on a Sunday morning," Ferguson says.

This dry run allowed him to see the ebb and flow of his script, catch the moments where a joke worked or fell flat on its face.

The writer/director returned this year to premiere the movie here, so the story has come full circle.

"The thing I like about Busselton is that it's poser-free," he says.

"Everybody here has a purpose, whereas in Sydney and Melbourne a lot of the people who turn up at film festivals are people just pretending to be useful."

The CinefestOz community is not just useful but passionate.

Those trays of canapes are not brandished around by corporate catering company employees but by festival volunteers who proudly distinguish themselves from festival punters with their berets - the festival's nod to the inclusion of French films.

On the gala closing night, host Magda Szubanski has been forced to pull out of her MC duties because of illness.

But that's OK because the festival's community spirit extends to one of the region's major celebrity residents, Ben Elton.

The TV and film writer comes armed with gags aimed at that "other" WA writer, Tim Winton, all in good spirit of course.

When the director, writer and producer of Girl Asleep receives the coveted film prize, their fellow filmmakers don't appear envious but joyous.

This has been a week of film screenings, discussions and creation not driven by money or accolades but by collective passion for film.

"CinefestOz has a really great sense of community and heart, and that's what's been wonderful," Girl Asleep director Rosemary Myers says.

"This community has welcomed us so warmly and helped build momentum for our film, and helped us understand people respond to our film as strongly as we do."

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Perth is a five-hour flight from Sydney, about four hours from Melbourne and about 5.5 hours from Brisbane.

Qantas and Virgin fly from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Perth. Fares start from about AUD$700 return, including taxes and charges, from Sydney to Perth. Go to webjet.com.au

Busselton is about a 2.5 hour drive south of Perth. About ten car hire companies are based at the airport with prices starting at about $40 per day www.airportrentals.com.au

STAYING THERE: Abbey Beach Resort, on the Bussell Highway, is a five-minute drive from the town centre. Situated on the beach, the large hotel is ideal for couples or families, with an indoor and outdoor pool. Prices start at AUD$158 per night. Go to abbeybeach.com.au

There is a large choice of accommodation in Busselton. Go to waholidayguide.com.au for further options.

PLAYING THERE: CinefestOz takes place from August 23-27, 2017. Go to cinefestoz.com for more details.

Other festivals coming up in regional WA:

Blues at Bridgetown - November 11 to 13 (bluesatbridgetown.com.au)

Margaret River Gourmet Escape - November 18 to 20 (www.gourmetescape.com.au)

Manjimup Cherry Harmony Festival - December 10 (www.cherryfestival.com.au)

*The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism WA

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