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Richard Sowada has now been at the helm of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival for nearly a decade. Over that time, the festival’s founder and director has seen its reputation and cache as an uncompromising advocate for independently made and distributed cinema grow exponentially.

This year, Sowada received more than 350 entries across the festival’s genres—feature film, animation, feature documentary and shorts—with almost 40% of the total coming from overseas filmmakers who had heard about the festival through good old-fashioned word of mouth.
Boys of Baraka Boys of Baraka
It’s the same with promoting a film or any cultural activity, really, Sowada says of Revelation’s increasing profile. “Sometimes you can really promote the buggery out of something and work really, really hard and it just doesn’t fire. At other times, things just build their own momentum. I’m not saying I haven’t worked hard in building Rev, but it seems to be taking on its own momentum now. The network of filmmakers and screen artists internationally is large, but really it’s not as big as you might think, and in an environment where not many events are prepared to stick their necks out, a reputation can build quite effectively under its own steam.”

Revelation has always been strong on a particular ethos, an anti-commercial philosophy that underpins every decision Sowada makes about what will or won’t make it into his program. Revelation isn’t just about screening great low-budget, indie films to cult film buffs who want something more challenging than the dross served up by the cineplexes. It’s about fostering distribution opportunities for young filmmakers who may not have the clout or experience to penetrate a market glutted by product aimed squarely at the major distributors’ appetite for no-risk, guaranteed-commercially-successful formula.

“Rev purposely exists outside of the established distribution and exhibition infrastructure, which works, I think, in direct opposition to independent activity”, Sowada says. “That’s the very nature of vertical integration and corporate strategy. The current structure has really scattered independent activity to the 4 winds and it puts screen culture at the mercy of commercial dynamics which it can’t obey.”

Last year Sowada introduced a screen conference element to the festival, a forum for filmmakers and those involved in the industry to discuss the logistical, technical and creative aspects of filmmaking and distribution. He believes the troubled relationship between production and distribution in Australia has reached crisis point, but it’s an issue consistently swept under the carpet or put in the too-hard basket.

“The relationship between healthy production and the existing distribution and exhibition environment is something Rev has continued to highlight and it’s a central component of the conference side of things,” he says. “You can’t really have one without the other, but at the moment the distribution and exhibition component is very unwell and the vertical integration of the industry’s main players—Village, Hoyts and Palace—is a real problem. One weak link in the chain has a major impact on the others, and I think we’ve seen this in the low standard of Australian films recently. If one element is in trouble, then they’re all in trouble, but I’ve yet to read anything that makes that link or provides a serious critique of these relationships.”

While film festivals can redress the imbalance caused by the domination of the multiplex mentality, Sowada argues that Australian audiences still get exposed to only the tiniest fraction of what is being produced globally.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to have too many independent film festivals in Australia, although I think the term ‘film festival’ is used too loosely”, he says. “One of the big problems with film festivals to a degree is that there is such a lack of context in the programming, and in the philosophy behind the event. With something like Rev, where I think there is a very strong sensibility behind it, people respond very strongly.”

One of the most important aspects of Revelation is Sowada’s insistence of taking film viewing out of the cinema complexes and providing other avenues of exposure and exhibition. Although the idea of ‘microcinema’—showcasing film selections outside the theatre environment in more informal settings, like clubs, bars and lounges—has been popular in the United States and Europe since the 1930s, it’s still a comparative novelty in Australia.

“The problem with filmmaking here is that people aren’t exposed to enough,” Sowada says. “We don’t have the alternative screening mechanisms that places like the States and Europe have. There’s a fairly long tradition of more subversive styles of film exhibition and distribution over there. In the last decade or so things have become incredibly corporatised in Australia, but people are slowly beginning to turn around towards concepts like microcinema, not just in the Eastern States but also here in WA, where you’ve got 3 or 4 different sources that I know of either working non-theatrically or looking at non-theatrical screening of alternative or experimental works.”

Along with this year’s Cinema Tabu microcinema showcases (replete with live music, DJs and a bar), Revelation 2006 contains a mix of its stalwart categories with a handful of new initiatives, including a feature length program of short Australian experimental films. The animation showcase has a much stronger Australian component than last year, while home-grown talent gets highlighted through Get Your Shorts On—Rev’s selection of Western Australian short films—and S.P.L.I.F (Screening Perth’s Local Independent Films).

This year’s feature films are a typically diverse and wacky lot, from Spanish director Santi Omodeo’s Astronautus—described after its showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s on methadone”—to Hungarian film Fekete Kefe (Black Brush), a ‘lazy, aimless’ film that Sowada describes on the Revelation website as a cross between Richard Linklater’s Slacker and the Jim Jarmusch classic, Stranger than Paradise.

This year’s ‘buzz’ film is I Am A Sex Addict, the ultra-low budget autobiographical story of writer, director and star Caveh Zahedi’s addiction to prostitutes, which has been a cult hit on the US film festival circuit and which, Sowada says, is “told in such a clever and interesting way that, as with all good low-budget films, the budget is irrelevant”.

The festival’s Australian contingent includes Kriv Stenders’ Dogme-style realist film Blacktown, the Vietnamese-Australian co-production Bride of Silence, which traces the life of a young Vietnamese woman disowned by her family for falling pregnant, and Perth filmmaker Zak Hilditch’s The Actress, made for $800 by a group of Curtin University film graduates and already screened to acclaim at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah earlier this year.

As always, a strong documentary section combines recent work with archival films. While this year’s documentary program is not as heavily music-based as last year, Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley is the feature film every Buckley fan has been waiting for. Other highlights include Favela Rising, a powerful portrait of Rio de Janeiro’s slum areas, Boys of Baraka, an uplifting film about a group of young, ‘at-risk’ Baltimore kids who spend 2 years attending school in a tiny, remote Kenyan village; and The Future of Food, which takes a hard-hitting and eye-opening look at the GM cropping industry in the United States.

Sowada says he programs the festival according to the mood or a tone of a film rather than trying to provide any kind of overarching theme. “The process tends to dictate itself,” he says of the selection process. “I end up choosing films that relate in some way to the feeling that people have about the world around them. Last year the films were overtly critical and politically questioning; this year there aren’t as many political documentaries, and even the feature films aren’t as bleak. Instead, there’s a lot more twisted, black humour and introspection. It’s not as fist-shakingly angry, but it’s still very much about individuals who have no control over their circumstances. Yet they just keep going forward, because they have to. The anger of what’s been happening globally over the last couple of years has resulted in a batch of films that are giving a much more sophisticated and subtle critique of society, and how it impacts on the individual.”


2006 Revelation Film Festival & Screen Conference, July 13-23, www.revelationfilmfest.org

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 24

© Pip Christmass; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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