(1) What year(s) were you festival director?
(2) What kind of activities did you do, or were you responsible for, as festival director?
It was primarily a curatorial role; there was some administrative work involved, but the City of Port Phillip took on much of that load. In brief, we shortlisted submissions, convened selection and judging panels, participated in the selection process and then curated the sessions. Paul organised the international programme, travelling to Le Festival du Court-Metrage Clermont-Ferrand in France in January and securing one of its Directors, Roger Gonin, as the Festival’s international guest. Diane travelled to Sydney to assist with that leg of the national touring programme, which is managed annually by the Australian Film Institute (AFI). We also selected the filmmakers – Andrew Ferguson and Clare Sawyer – who made the wonderful 1998 trailer See Treasures.
(3) What were the challenges you faced?
We found it problematic, to put it mildly, that the Director’s position reported to the City of Port Phillip, rather than functioning autonomously as in the case of virtually every other film festival the world over, and as in St. Kilda’s case until a few years previously. It’s extremely difficult to run a festival in accordance with your initial ideas and plans when you don’t have full administrative or creative control, when you have no say in how budgets are spent or priorities allocated, and when those in authority have little or no direct experience in this specific field. Furthermore, we were hired quite late in the day – only five months out from the event – which made it hard on numerous counts. There was little chance to secure adequate levels of sponsorship, for example, which meant that Paul’s trip to France was ultimately entirely at his own expense despite responsible staff’s assertions that a big sponsorship was virtually assured; and procedural stuff-ups meant that several key tasks weren’t commissioned in time for them to be effective. From speaking with other St. Kilda directors, we know we weren’t alone in our frustrations with these aspects of the Festival.
When we raised some of these issues with senior Council staff and expressed strong anxiety about the Festival’s future, one of the most senior staff said: “Well, [if it falls over] I couldn’t give a shit”. It was hard to sustain morale in such a climate.
The previous director, Peter Kaufmann, spent considerable time talking to us about the two Festivals he’d worked on; apart from his (wholly voluntary) advice, there was no follow-through or history from previous years and thus little chance to work on building strengths or addressing problems.
(4) What combination of elements do you think makes for a successful short film festival?
Well, the short answer is a brilliant programme bolstered by adequate resourcing and promotion; but the quality of the films is obviously paramount.
To be a little more expansive regarding St. Kilda, while new Australian shorts will always be the core of the Festival, one of its consistent strengths has been the contextualisation of those shorts within a programme which also offers international and historically significant works. It gives local audiences opportunities not only to see new Australian films but to “compare” them with shorts made in other times and places. In our case, we programmed three sessions of international shorts under the banner of a survey of 20 years of the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival; a retrospective session on depictions of Melbourne in the 1950s, in association with the National Film & Sound Archive; and a session curated by filmmaker Richard Lowenstein around his formative viewing experiences (“Confessions Of A Filmmaker”). We believe these programmes attracted some new viewers to the Festival – and that’s probably an important element in the ongoing success of any festival. Shorts can tend to be regarded by the broader public as highly specialised fodder for film buffs and filmmakers – attracting a stronger general audience is a highly desirable goal.
(5) What role do you see the short film as playing within a filmmaker’s career? How important is the short film?
It would be heartening to see the short primarily as an art form in its own right, and to some extent it is – many audiences certainly experience shorts in that context. But when funding for shorts is so meagre and opportunities to launch a career in the industry relatively few, for most Australian filmmakers shorts tend to be pretty much do-or-die opportunities to showcase their talent (with a view to capturing the industry’s attention, especially). Once they’ve gone on to bigger projects, some filmmakers would surely love to “go back” and make shorts on a real budget, but as things stand it’s not possible unless they’re prepared and able to put up the money themselves. And we haven’t yet met the filmmaker who really hankered to revisit the struggles they endured on low-budget shorts when they were starting out.
That said, we’d emphasise that we’re referring here to narrative drama and documentary – experimental and new media projects (and animations, too) can be quite different, in that their creators aren’t necessarily looking to work on more large-scale, “commercial” productions.
(6) What do you think are the great challenges that confront the filmmaker when making the leap from the short film to the feature?
It depends on the short/s in question, but if you’re a director (or producer, for that matter) who’s only tackled the logistics of no/low-budget shorts, particularly under 15 minutes, it must be difficult to feel confident that you’ll be able to sail through a project as demanding as a feature. You haven’t always honed your skills sufficiently – it’s a huge leap from a 5-minuter or even a 10-minuter to a 90-minute narrative and all that goes with it (narrative, cast, crew, technical elements). If you’re both lucky and talented, maybe you’ll have a dream run after a highly acclaimed short and deliver a brilliant first feature; but if you flunk out due to relative lack of experience (and so very many things can go wrong at so many stages, even for seasoned players), it’s nigh on impossible to get another shot. You can cut your teeth in many other art forms on numerous not-so-successful projects before you’re forced to quit, but unfortunately you only get so many chances to make any kind of film.
(7) What role do you think the St. Kilda film festival plays in the Australian short film scene?
A pretty pivotal one – it’s still the broadest showcase available for Australian shorts, and unlike other short film festivals St. Kilda makes no prescriptions on genre, subject, length, formats or “ideological” values (try showing Matt Williamson’s provocative Barry And Garry [1998, Aust] at other festivals and see what happens), which makes for a welcome diversity. The prizes may not be as lucrative as at other festivals (though no serious short filmmaker is in it for the money alone), but winning an award at St. Kilda nonetheless gives filmmakers significant kudos within the industry, and an opportunity to have his/her work seen by informed viewers.
(8) How important do you see the festival in the context of the Australian film industry?
Again, it remains a major showcase for emerging filmmakers, and the industry continues to see it as a reliable sourcing ground for new talent. It has an international reputation, too, due in part to its longevity but also the quality of its programme.
(9) How does St. Kilda film festival compare with the myriad of other short festivals in Australia?
The most obvious differences between St. Kilda and other shorts festivals are probably its longevity and its length, as well as its breadth of programming. But we don’t assert this in any parochial context; we think the various festivals complement one another’s roles very effectively in the main.
(10) How does it compare internationally?
Having visited the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, St. Kilda Film Festival by comparison comes out as poorly resourced; and it attracts relatively small audiences with a fairly narrow demographic (you could probably make similar observations about many other film and arts festivals in Australia). It would obviously be unfair to compare the programme selections of these two festivals, or to “pit” St. Kilda against other major international shorts festivals; however, it has to be said that it’s heartening to attend a festival like Clermont-Ferrand which is so wholeheartedly embraced by its community, attracting an enormous cross-section of people rather than predominantly the young, the hip, and the dedicated cinephile.
St. Kilda certainly has a dedicated audience, but it would be great to see it “break out” and attract a true cross-section of the filmmaking and film-going community.
(11) How has the festival grown since you were director? What would you attribute this to?
In short, its attendances and profile have grown significantly; and we’d attribute this largely to an improved management structure, from which inevitably flows a host of benefits – longer lead-time, more sponsorship, more partnerships, more extensive publicity and promotion, more extensive liaison with the industry within Australia and overseas, and so on.
(12) Do you think that the tremendous growth in short filmmaking since the early ’90s has made any impact on the kind of films now being made and screened? Is there any real innovation or real accomplishments in short filmmaking going on? Has the format’s function become solely as a training ground or a calling card for feature filmmaking?
We’ve already commented on the calling card issue.
In terms of the impact of what happened in the ’90s, for us the most worrying aspects of any perceived “boom” in shorts production throughout the last decade have been the notion that wider access to production equipment can make auteurs of untrained amateurs; the demise of the longer-form short; and the simultaneous rise of the gag film.
Regarding the access issue, there’s been a lot of hype in recent years about the “democratisation” of production, particularly via video – as though access to a Hi-8 camera is nine-tenths of becoming a gifted practitioner. Why? All the paint and canvas in the world won’t make you a remarkable painter unless you have innate aptitude in the first place. Wider access to production facilities is hardly a negative thing – far from it – it obviously allows many worthy groups and individuals to make use of film and video, as indeed they should be able to do. But the political aspects of access are a separate issue, really; and we’d argue that the increase in production which stems from wider access doesn’t necessarily make for a wealth of exhibition-standard product for festivals.
Furthermore, mainly because of the funding squeeze at Federal and State levels, what’s proliferated over the ’90s is the ultra-low-budget very short film (15 minutes and under), and that’s not necessarily a good thing per se either. Not only has a whole form – the 20-30-minute short – been rendered virtually extinct, but production values are visibly falling; and consequently, as we’ve argued, filmmakers aren’t getting opportunities to make the kinds of projects that can realistically equip them to move on confidently to a feature. Those opportunities were pretty scarce in the past, admittedly, but they were very valuable and now they’re non-existent.
And then there’s the runaway success of Tropfest, which has also had an obvious impact. While it’s made a wonderful addition to the festival calendar in terms of giving filmmakers and audiences a high-prestige shorts festival (and all power to John Polson for his passionate commitment and his achievement in getting it there), it’s ostensibly had a stronger focus on fun and glamour than on skill or talent. Add extremely lucrative prizes to the mix and you get a vast annual crop of comedies under seven minutes, mostly shot on video (rather than film), which are about a set-up and a punchline, and little more – no narrative to speak of, no character development, no subtext, and no cinematic flair, necessarily. The winning entries and those running close behind might be exciting – often the comedy will be sophisticated, and the filmmaking talent amply evident – and that’s great when it happens. But the downside is that you have a festival scene flooded with the lesser entries – literally hundreds of poorly conceived, badly written/produced/directed, facile gag films – and an alarming dearth of truly affecting, mature work (in any genre).
The compounded, cumulative effect of all this is surely a downturn in the quality of local features, and the last few years all too clearly exemplify it. But the industry always fluctuates – this will inevitably change.
(13) Are filmmakers these days too conscious of prizes, and forgetful of the quality of their films?
In some cases, yes; and we’ve just outlined how we feel about that aspect of Tropfest. But regarding St. Kilda and most other local festivals, while they’re undoubtedly mindful of the competitive element and delighted to win awards, most serious filmmakers are focused squarely on the quality of their work. From what we’ve seen and heard, St. Kilda entrants seem to be fairly realistic about their chances, and the prize in their eyes is often simply getting their film screened.
(14) Do you see any connection between the shorts being made in Australia, and the features?
Again – quality. It’s no surprise to note the relative paucity of skillfully crafted features at a time when filmmakers are expected to make shorts on the smell of an oily rag, and in many cases to move straight from a 5-minute project or so to a full-blown feature. (Then there’s the push for the no-experience-necessary first-time feature director, but that’s another, even more woeful story.)
(15) What were the highlights for you as festival director (if the highlights were particular films, you can mention them)?
We had a wonderful opening night, to begin with. We’d programmed Arnaud Debree’s exquisite L’Enfant de la Ciotat (1995, France) as the final film in the session because we felt it was a stunning encapsulation of what can be achieved in the form and we believed it would be deeply affecting for the audience (even those who’d seen it at the Melbourne International Film Festival previously). But we became increasingly anxious as we talked with Roger (Gonin) – the film ends with a child’s suicide, and much as he also reveres it, Roger kept teasing us: “What are you doing to your audience, you want to depress them, you want to make them suicidal on opening night?” He was only half joking, and on the night we sat duly clinging to the arms of our seats in trepidation as the film started. But as it finished, and the Truffaut quote imposed on the final frames came up – about life being far more difficult than film – the whole audience gave an audible sigh, almost a gasp, as though it had been holding its collective breath for minutes; the emotion was almost palpable. And many people approached us afterwards to say how much they’d been moved by L’Enfant and how much they’d enjoyed the whole session – it was an extremely satisfying night.
On a completely different note, Richard Lowenstein delivered a memorably hilarious, characteristically laconic introduction to the “Confessions of a Filmmaker” session – an idiosyncratic selection of films that he’d identified as significant to his development as a filmmaker. And the films were equally memorable. They included Buster Keaton’s criminally-neglected final film, The Railrodder (1965, Canada), and perhaps the most sublime, truly visionary short film ever made, Chris Marker’s astonishing La Jetée (1962).
It was gratifying too to see Ivan Sen’s Tears (1997) win the Best Film award. It still remains one of the most accomplished and confident short films made in Australia in recent years.