Paul Cox (director) Aleksi Vellis (Director), Simon Rogers (actor), and Mark Poole (writer/director) on the steps of the National Theatre, St Kilda.

(1) What year(s) were you festival director?
1991-1993. I followed Nigel Buesst.

(2) What kind of activities did you do, or were you responsible for, as festival director?
Everything! When I took over, the budget was around $6,000. The first year I did absolutely every job – even putting the opening night champagne in the fridge. I had a publicist and that was it. During the second year, I was assisted by Michelle Truckenbrodt, who increased her participation in the third year and became festival director the following year (1994).

(3) What were the challenges you faced?
The Festival was already highly esteemed but it didn’t have any money. I increased sponsorship steadily each year.

I wanted it to be reflective of short film practice nationally, and spent a lot of time in the second and third year working with film culture organisations in other states to expand the material – especially those from Queensland and Western Australia.

I saw it as a grass roots festival and so was very open to student work. I accepted films (with a selection panel) which didn’t have high production values but had something to say, showed talent or had wonderful talent in them (either actors or if documentaries, subjects).

Programming to get the right balance is also a challenge as is getting people to come back after opening night! The industry will come out on mass to the opening, as will the public generally but it is important that the momentum is maintained. The balance in the program is important but not an easy task. Films need to work well together and sometimes will work on each other – so these choices are important. In addition, the program itself has to take into account the potential audience, its marketability and the like. For example, the VCA students tended to come out on mass if there were a lot of their films in one program, so programming them in one night or in one particular slot which was likely to be quiet (eg, the night after opening night) kept the festival “buzz” happening. In terms of the marketability, some programs will draw an audience more easily than others so it would be wasteful for example, to put a big draw card program on Saturday night when a lot of people will come out anyway. However, it has to also make the audience want to spend their Saturday night at the festival. There are a multitude of variables to juggle!

When I took it on, the Festival was 6 years old. It had screened the odd feature. I decided to make the short film the focus and to work to position the festival as a shorts-only showcase. I also worked exclusively with Australian material as another way of branding the festival – it now has international components.

(4) What combination of elements do you think makes for a successful short film festival?
1. A good crop of films – some years are better than others.
2. Curation – Organising films in a way that makes them work together and also which is easy for the audience to follow (to understand).
3. Good publicity and enthusiastic filmmakers willing to contribute to it (the publicity campaign).
4. Good projection – The National could never get it right and that was the bane of my life!
5. The “buzz” and good will that is built up with patrons over years in combination with strategies to bring in new audiences.
6. Funding/sponsorship helps make things possible.
7. Industry support.

(5) What role do you see the short film as playing within a filmmaker’s career? How important is the short film?
Some people just want to make shorts and a good one can assist them to make another one or a larger scale film (if that is where they want to go).

Shorts are regarded as a place where filmmakers can experiment and often this is true, but with short films that are made with funding there are also compromises involved.

Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong, Ana Kokkinos, and many others built feature careers out of shorts. Others, such as Corine Cantrill have worked within the form.

(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 is so big! There are so many people waiting for the director to tell them what to do. It is likely to be less collaborative and involve more compromises. However, as I’ve said already, not everyone makes, or wants to make the leap!

(7) What role do you think the St. Kilda film festival plays in the Australian short film scene?
It is the best short film festival in Australia. I think it is the matriarch of festivals – the one all the others look to. It puts shorts on the map. It creates energy and enthusiasm around the form. It showcases a huge amount of short work and gives filmmakers a venue to network. People come in mini-buses from around Australia!

The St. Kilda Film Festival has contributed to the birth of other festivals, for example, one of the years I was a director, John Polson came to the whole festival. He was very enthusiastic and he hung out in the foyer the whole time. Following this, he went back to Sydney and founded Tropfest.

(8) How important do you see the festival in the context of the Australian film industry?
Very. There are few avenues for screening shorts and although the Australian Film Institute (AFI) have managed to get them into theatres recently, they deserve many and multiple screenings. Many successful filmmakers have come through the festival and I think there is a lot of good will towards it – you only have to look at the prizes the festival offers and the way the industry backs those.

(9) How does St. Kilda film festival compare with the myriad of other short festivals in Australia?
See Q.7

(10) How does it compare internationally?
I haven’t been to any international film festivals which only show shorts but the links brokered with them over the last couple of years (by the AFI) with for example Clermont-Ferrand and this year with Oberhausen have given the festival an international edge.

(11) How has the festival grown since you were director? What would you attribute this to?
I love the move to the Palais Theatre, I always wanted to do that. There is something I miss about the National – but the poor projection put a stop to it as a venue. I’m thrilled to see it get bigger every year, to gain more sessions, more momentum and more interest.

More people are able to attend at the Palais – one year I had to turn people away from opening night and that was awful. There are international components, which I think work well. Each year there have been special initiatives. I ran a children’s component and had 1500 children on the Friday – hoping to get them young!

I think it is a pity that the opening night party is restricted, I think the key thing about this festival in the past has been the networking and a major spot for this is opening night. While the networking will still go on, an important opportunity is lost by an invitation only list. Filmmakers have seen St Kilda Film Festival as their festival, it has been egalitarian, grass roots and extraordinary. I may be making too much of this but it seems to me to be against the spirit of the festival itself.

(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?
There is innovation but you have to look for it! The format’s function isn’t and won’t be exclusively a training ground or a calling card for feature filmmaking.

It appears that the view most widely held of short films is that they are a training ground for feature filmmakers. While some filmmakers clearly have this in mind, this is not the whole story. If I can use a metaphor, it is like saying that the painting of a miniature is done in preparation for a mural. Some of the skills and thinking are shared. But what is required to make each is quite different. The design for a mural, for example, would not be appropriate for a miniature. In the same way, shorts are condensed and what is required is unique to the form. This is not to say a short cannot evolve into a feature, but when it does, it is a whole new thing.

In regard to innovation, any work is only as innovative as its producer/s. Any form has the potential to be innovative, and with more creative control, a short has a better chance of this than a feature.

(13) Are filmmakers these days too conscious of prizes, and forgetful of the quality of their films?
I don’t think that filmmakers are too conscious of prizes – not when they are making the films anyway. My observation is that they are totally immersed in their project and often forget what is going to happen to it later (and consequently forget to do things like make publicity stills). Some filmmakers may approach it in a more cynical way – for example, making something specifically for a festival, and are probably more likely to have a pathway and a prize in mind but I don’t think they have a better chance than another of getting in. If I had two equal films, and only one space, I have to admit that I tended to go for the one that was local (Victorian). ‘Quality’ is often measured by technical competence but my own criteria is much more about the content, whether the filmmaker has something to say, if they have said it, and how it was said (the texture or filmic qualities).

(14) Do you see any connection between the shorts being made in Australia, and the features?
There is a connection between shorts and features being made in Australia. Sometimes there is a direct line out of short production to features, for example Stavros Efthymiou (now Kazantzidis) made a short called Road to Alice (1992) – it later (in my opinion) was remade into True Love And Chaos (1997). In this way, many of the same players are involved in that they move from short narratives to features (and sometimes back again).

Another connection between the shorts and features being made in Australia is the direct line from the film schools or funding bodies. When one looks at the films from the film schools, or when I do, I can see to some degree the films they have been shown (or sought out), or the taste of the people who teach them and this has had an impact on their film. It seems to me that the various schools do in general have a house style. Happily there are those who always resist this as well. This is not a criticism, it is just when you make art, you naturally look at other art and it takes a while to find your own style. It makes sense that recent Australian feature successes will interest the short filmmaker and visa-versa – a dialogue of influences may flow between them.

Funding bodies make decisions about which films get made – for almost all features and for the well-funded shorts. Not only is this a small pool of people making choices, but there are other factors, particularly for features, that make the pool smaller. For example, many features (and some shorts) have investment from a multitude of sources because one source can rarely offer all the funding. This means that not just the funding bodies but the commissioning editors and the distributors are all bought together to fund the one project. This means that certain tastes and choices are privileged over others and consequently the kinds of films that get made resemble each other.

(15) What were the highlights for you as festival director (if the highlights were particular films, you can mention them)?
My first opening night, 1991, was a highlight. In that year we announced the winners on the opening night – which in retrospect wasn’t a good idea and I didn’t do it again. But it did mean there was a certain amount of energy. Magna Szabanski was the MC but she was upstaged somewhat by the Mayor, Melanie Eagle (partner to John Thwaites MP). I had got all the St. Kilda Cafes to donate the wine and had a band – as opposed to the past, which saw patrons gathered around a punch bowl! It was a wonderful night and I had significant positive feedback.

There are a lot of filmmakers whose work I helped to put out there and who are still working in the industry, and that continues to be a highlight. I screened Emma-Kate Croghan’s second year VCA film Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1991) as the last film before the party started in 1992. It really sent everyone out there in a party mood – none of who knew that when we opened the film can at 5pm, we found only the leader and no film! I drove all over Melbourne trying to find Emma-Kate and another print – we got it and it went on. Phew!

There were a lot of documentaries to get a theatrical release, work from filmmakers such as Tom Zubricki, Sally Ingelton, and Leonie Dickinson comes to mind. There were also those that got away, a fascinating documentary/experimental film on shopping by Sarah Gibson called In the Beginning There was Shopping – it wasn’t finished and didn’t make it to the 1991 Festival. That is the danger of accepting rough cuts.

I tried to show the depth and breadth of the festival in the opening night and put in little films that probably have not been seen since. For example – David Stranger’s Bad Rocks (1988), a personal, experimental film by a local filmmaker. I really like experimental films and may well have over-favoured them. A lot of filmmakers stood up for the festival when confronted with the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) telling them that they wouldn’t get into MIFF if they put their film into St. Kilda first. Michael Buckley did it anyway and got into both. There are always a dozen to go to both festivals. Given the different audiences for the festivals, I don’t know why MIFF are so competitive about it (instead of taking on the role they should in fostering the film culture landscape and brokering assistance to the smaller fish in that pond!)

I remember the opening nights always as a highlight, like the night you give birth (which is inevitably followed by a low patch a few days later – the end of the festival, or when the milk comes in!). I do like champagne opportunities and it was always great to have the festival all in place. But the next day, it was back to work: trying to get the projectionist to get hair out of the gate; worrying about whether people would come; and just keeping everything happening through to the closing night party. I decided to have a closing night party in my second and third years because I wanted the filmmakers to be able to celebrate their wins and network with sponsors, and I wanted it to go out with a bang rather than a whimper!

About The Author

Lisa French is Deputy Dean in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She co-authored the book Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute (2009 & 2014), and was the co-writer/editor of the anthology Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia (2003).