FILM / Leading a merry dance: Sheila Johnston talks to Baz Luhrmann, director of Strictly Ballroom, the opening film of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and, below, previews highlights from the programme

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The Independent Culture
The Australian comedy Strictly Ballroom can best be imagined as a cross between Come Dancing and The Dame Edna Experience. In it fiery young blood Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) defies the wrath of the local Ballroom Dancing Federation by devising his own steps rather than following the lacquered form dictated by convention. Deserted by his partner, he teams up with the frump of the dance studio who - as convention also dictates - turns out to have extraordinary hidden talents.

The message is unashamedly corny: follow your dream. 'All the way through you might be moved, but at the same time you have a smile on your face; you're meant to know how it's going to end the moment it opens,' says the director, Baz Luhrmann. 'It's not supposed to be naturalistic or psychological. It's a fairytale set in a bizarre and interesting and ultimately life- enforcing world.'

The film is an affectionate parody of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical, although there are other stylistic interludes - the opening sequence spoofs the investigative documentary and a later flashback is filmed in the manner of a broad silent comedy. Nobody would make any claims for greatness, but it would be difficult to find a livelier and more sheerly enjoyable film: Strictly Ballroom missed out on the Camera d'Or for Best First Film at this year's Cannes festival by a whisker (three votes to four), but was the festival's undisputed popular hit. It will be a feisty curtain-raiser to the Edinburgh Film Festival tomorrow night.

'Ballroom dancing is a curious mix of sport and art,' Luhrmann says. 'On the one hand it's dance, which is all about communication through the body, but it's also a competitive sport, like football. The paso doble is a drama about the relationship of the bullfighter and the bull. When you see it in a ballroom dancing contest it's about gymnastics. Scott's journey is one of finding the truth in the dances.

'At the same time the great thing about ballroom dancing is that these people work all day in a car salesyard and by night they're glamorous creatures. They practise all night, every night of the week, they travel hundreds of miles at the weekend, they spend every cent they have on it. The dancing is a great celebration of life, fantastically theatrical and funky. It's a celebration of kitsch, too, but we in Australia are kitsch, in a wonderful way: bright and strong and kind of full-on.'

The characters are loud, broad, verging on the burlesque; but Luhrmann says there was no intention to take easy pot- shots at lower middle-class Aussie suburbia (and anyway the film is much too affectionate to have much bite). 'Sure they're bizarre people - they're seen from Scott's point of view. All the ballroom dancers who have seen the film loved it: they recognised the characters in it. And let me tell you, when their whole drive in life is to be a star, they see the fact that someone's bothered to make a feature film about them as a 99 per cent positive thing. No doubt there'll be people who will be slightly offended, but there are people in Hollywood who will be offended by The Player too.

'And ultimately the film celebrates dance; the point of it is to uplift. You know, when you don't have a real film industry, which we don't in Australia because there isn't a real market, you have an art-film industry - it's about what your contemporaries think, not about touching your audience. Now I think film-makers are becoming more honest again - in a way we've lost the fear of being that naive.'

Luhrmann is one of those maddening multi-media wunderkinder - he has worked in television, theatre and rock video, and has directed several productions for the Australian Opera in Sydney - his next project is Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Baz, incidentally, is short not for Barry but the impressively Teutonic-sounding Basmark). But he stresses that Strictly Ballroom is strictly a team effort. Its success as a film is the more surprising given that it started life back in 1984 as a 30-minute student drama workshop piece with a skeletal cast of six actors. It became a popular and commercial success and eventually won the two main prizes at the International Theatre Competition in Bratislava.

The film has been conceived on a rather more ambitious scale - it managed to muster 3,000 extras for the final scene - but on a micro-budget of 3.5m Australian dollars: the gorgeous, gold-encrusted Spanish matador's jacket worn by Scott cost Adollars 5,000 alone and there are Adollars 7,000 worth of ostrich feathers on display. Along the way, Luhrmann jettisoned a subplot about a factory strike that he now admits was a 'disaster' to make the film an all-out escapist fantasy. In Cannes, Luhrmann says, one intellectual French critic asked him, as the French will, 'If I could be so bold, could I title this Joyous Expressionism?' and he, being easy-going, was delighted to accept the accolade.

'Strictly Ballroom' opens the Edinburgh Film Festival at the Filmhouse tomorrow evening at 7.30. It opens across the UK on 16 October.

(Photograph omitted)