Zoom brand SA shorts

Mike Walsh

Once a year in Adelaide, we come together for the Zoom! ShortsFest, one of the central pieces in the South Australian Film Corporation’s creative development strategy. This series of awards brings together the SAFC, the Media Resource Centre and the SA Young Filmmakers’ Festival, a laudable achievement in itself. The crowning moment of the awards is the Filmmaker of the Future presentation, at which the makers of 2 short films are given a wad of cash, and anointed with this year’s hopes. It is a heady mixture of youthful ambition, small state desperation, and free booze in which to rejoice or drown your sorrows.

We’ve had 2 years of these awards now, brand name recognition is starting to grow and so it’s time to take stock. Basing creative development on an annual competition seems to be part of the post-Tropfest landscape in which young filmmakers are led to believe they can suddenly vault to greatness (or at least a first feature).

The awards system undeniably focuses the local film community’s attention and encourages audiences to watch and discuss local film. It is based on the assumption that an industry can best be encouraged from the top down by establishing a small number of stars, rather than from the bottom up by increasing the level of overall activity in short films. The MRC’s director, Vicki Sowry, made the point that the end of the SAFC’s New Players’ funding scheme would make it even more difficult for Future Filmmakers to make films in the future.

Currently, the top prize goes to the director of a short fiction film made during the year. There are several assumptions here: (1) that we need more fiction filmmakers than documentarists (who are only eligible for the second prize), (2) that directors are responsible for the achievements in the rather vaguely defined criterion of “excellence in visual storytelling,” even though one potential entrant was disqualified for having a Sydney cinematographer (a strange ruling for an event which craves national exposure), and (3) that the state’s development bucks can be wagered on this director on the basis of a single, isolated film.

This year’s awards went some way to laying these concerns to rest. One Day, Two Tracks by Shalom Almond and Tamsin Sharp was a worthy winner and seemed a good bet, as it also picked up awards from the MRC and Young Filmmakers. (Note to the SAFC Board: could we get the TAB to run a book on this event next year? If creative development is going to be run as a competition it seems un-Australian not to let us bet on it.)

The story of a perhaps incestuous moment, One Day, Two Tracks combined an interesting subject with strong performances and a solid professionalism in its visual style. The film was produced with the aid of an SAFC grant, and the directors clearly spent the money well, getting a lot of value for their cinematography and post-production dollar.

This gave me a sense that they were ready to win the award and spend the money fruitfully. One innovation this year has been the stipulation that 20% of the purse go to production-related expenses. The Corporation might consider increasing this percentage, given that the award is supposed to stimulate future films rather than function retrospectively as simply a best film award.

Second prize went to Rachel Harris for There’s a Hole in My Chest Where My Heart Used to Be. Harris has worked within a more artisanal mode of production to make a stop-motion animation employing dolls. We’re in the territory of Todd Haynes’ Superstar, or closer to home, some of the films of Maria Kozic. The central logic of this genre is that dolls are stereotypical representations of femininity to begin with, so they provide an appropriate form in which to comment on broadly social gender roles. This allows for postmodern self-consciousness combined with the didacticism of a Barbara Kruger. Harris’s film manages to rejuvenate its heavy social comment with a good deal of visual inventiveness, which earned it an MRC award for best design.

One of the problems that the judges undoubtedly faced was that the 27 entries represented wildly different conceptions of what short filmmaking is, and indicated a variety of backgrounds and ambitions concerning possible futures in filmmaking. Mike Theobald’s Deadline, which won the MRC’s editing award, is the opposite in every way to Harris’s film. Theobald has clearly made the film as a calling card for a career in commercial filmmaking. It is your standard slasher-chases-isolated-woman movie, designed to showcase professional skills rather than to produce interesting film. While we need all the good commercial filmmakers we can find, it seems a shame that Theobald understands commercial filmmaking as merely the replication of generic formulas rather than the reinvigoration of them.

If Theobald wants to become John Carpenter, others in Adelaide would prefer to be David Lynch. This brings us to another model of short filmmaking, which is the abstract, dissonant essay on the loneliness of Existential Man. Two examples are Jack Sheridan’s Solipsis and James Begley’s Buggin’, which won the MRC’s cinematography and sound awards respectively. Both films are based around lone protagonists who have isolated themselves in pared down rooms. In both cases, the spare mise-en-scène and lack of dialogue allow scope for the formal elements to come to the fore.

On the whole, I suspect that the strength of the films this year left people feeling more positive about the awards systems than they had hitherto been. However, those members of the film community who see themselves as clients of this system look forward to some discussion of it. Both years, the judges have commented on the anomalous position of documentary. This is an obvious issue that needs to be addressed. For example, I’d personally have given some encouragement to Amy Gebhardt for her SBS doco, Gepp’s Cross Drive-In, a vibrant celebration of community within a set of sub-cultures rapidly passing away before us.

I suspect that in the long run (if there is such a thing in any Australian film industry), these awards will be judged by the subsequent successes of their winners. Let’s hope that the results will justify the system quickly.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 17

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001