A Golden Eye on Tropfest

Tina Kaufman

The Golden Eye Awards at the University of Technology, Sydney, for student work from the media arts program, is always an enjoyable event. The awards for last year, held in late October, featured lots of guests, impressive judges, an entertaining MC (director Graham Thorburn, just announced as Head of Directing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School) and some good speeches. And the films were great. The program was packed and the range of production was exciting, from serious documentary through to wacky multimedia, everything made with a sense of experimentation, inventiveness and love of the medium that more than made up for the obviously tight budgets. Innovation, film knowledge and resourcefulness were there in equal measure. There was even a full length documentary, Jewel in the Garbage (Janine Jones), made in the Middle East with a sense of great commitment. Prizes were awarded for drama, documentary, experimental, and new and convergent media, and for direction, cinematography, soundtrack, art direction, editing, and script, and organisers had obtained sponsorship for prizes, mostly in kind. It was a good night.

Meanwhile, the juggernaut that Tropfest has become rolls inexorably on. A full-page story in the Sydney Morning Herald on some of the filmmakers working on this year’s entries mentions that organisers are confidently expecting over 600 works to be especially made for the event this year—600 that will be narrowed down to 16 finalists. There have been some changes of personnel; festival founder John Polson has taken a sideways step, with Fashion Week director Simon Lock coming on board as executive director, but everyone seems happy, the publicity machine’s in full gear, the sponsorship drive is reaping results, and the audience keeps getting bigger—more than 100,000 people watched the festival either live or in simulcast last year, and they’re talking 300,000 by 2004. Well, perhaps not everyone’s happy—there have been a number of comments about the sameness and predictability of the films leading to audience burnout, and with sponsorship not meeting its targets last year, this year might be even tougher.

Tropfest is not only the biggest and best publicised of a raft of such short film events, it’s also the biggest generator by far of films. It sometimes seems as if every suburb, organisation, major event, and even neighbourhood cafe is running a short film festival—IF magazine has just compiled its calendar for the first half of this year, and has between 40 and 50 short film festivals, awards and competitions listed. There’s the 15×15 Film Festival (make a 15 minute film in 15 hours), White Gloves, Quick Flicks on the Central Coast of NSW. Most of these events attract 40 or 50 entries.

Paul Harris, director of the St Kilda Short Film Festival, says, “we get a lot of films from Tropfest and they’re mainly sketch comedy films—they tend to be the kind of films that are made by friends as a lark—and they have a certain house style, a quirky, offbeat one theme-ness, a certain sameness.”

He believes that Tropfest is potentially a fantastic idea for a short film festival, but thinks that to encourage better quality films and more diversity there needs to be the perception that it’s a festival that takes in all sorts of filmmaking practices. “But perhaps there’s something about the event, that huge audience, everyone out to have a good time, that’s conducive to the success of the one-joke film, conducive to watching a comedy. Even the judges seem to be having the same kind of night as the audience, and they don’t really take the films seriously. If you screened more serious or subtle films you’d probably get people calling them boring.”

The St Kilda Film Festival is Australia’s oldest stand alone short film festival, and this year will be its 19th. In the last couple of years the festival has received about 500 entries, from which about 150 films are selected for screening over 6 days. “We probably see about 200 to 220 that we’d like to screen, and it’s that last stage of the decision-making process that’s really hard. We select on quality, and there are quite a lot of films that are good without being excellent,” says Harris. He estimates that about 100 films come from students at AFTRS, Victorian College of the Arts, UTS and other film courses, and is pleased that there’s some particularly exciting documentary work appearing. “Every year we get about 8 or 10 productions from the Footscray City College, where they have been made using very scant resources, but they show a lot of potential.”

Then there are a substantial number of films made by established or up-and-coming filmmakers with the assistance of state or federal funding bodies (there’s some good work coming out of South Australia, he believes, where the SA Film Corporation appears to be very supportive), and another large group made entirely independently, often on credit card, including about 30 to 40 films which come from Tropfest. “There seems to be a circuit of these sorts of films, but it’s a bit harder to tell if they were made for some of the other competitions, or just made.”

The short film awards that have been part of the Sydney Film Festival have been sponsored by Dendy Films for 14 years (previous sponsors in their 32 year history were Benson and Hedges and Greater Union), and the numbers of films entered have been growing every year, with 268 entries last year (entries close this year on February 18). The fiction category has been the main area of growth, and had to be divided into short and long fiction in 1995 to try and cope. Last year there were 136 entries in the short fiction category. Jenny Neighbour, Manager, SFF Programs, estimates that Tropfest films make up from a third to a half of those entries, “but we get a lot of student films, and a number from more established filmmakers as well,” she adds. “The entry fee of $25 is probably a bit of a deterrent. We also get about 30 to 40 films entered in the festival proper, where there’s no entry fee, that are probably Tropfest or other such competition films.”

“You realise there is this explosion of low budget short filmmaking happening when you see ad after ad in every Filmnet, of people looking for free crew and free cast members. We’ve even had calls from people wanting to know what kind of film to make to get into the festival!”

This year, for the first time, the Sydney Film Festival will be pre-selecting in some categories of the Dendy Awards. “The numbers of entries we’re getting make it very difficult for the judges, who give us their time and enthusiasm, to do a proper job—there’s just so many short films you can see over a weekend, the way these awards are structured. It’s asking too much, so pre-selection just has to be the way to go.”

Once upon a time people wanted to become filmmakers because they had things to say; now it seems that they just want to become filmmakers. And the digital camera has made filmmaking more accessible than ever. But it takes more than a camera to make a memorable film; that’s why a night like the Golden Eye Awards holds so much promise for the future of filmmaking.

Golden Eye Awards, University Hall, University of Technology Sydney, Oct 19; Tropfest 2002 screens nationally Feb 24

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 18

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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