St. Kilda Film Festival and Short Filmmaking in Australia… the Director’s Point of View: Interviewed – Peter KaufmannPeter Kaufmann June 2000 Festival Reports Issue 7 (1) What year(s) were you festival director? I was festival director in 1995 and 1997. (2) What kind of activities did you do, or were you responsible for, as festival director? In my first year as director I was appointed in late December of ’94, so with the Festival being held in April (as it was back then) it was extremely full-on right from day one. The Festival was managed under the auspice of the then St. Kilda Council so there was no Events Unit in place, as now operates under the City of Port Phillip, to carry out much of the administrative work. With one part-time assistant, my direct responsibilities were very broad. These included all the negotiation and submission writing to the various government film bodies for funding assistance and for all the sponsorship raising – both cash and in-kind support which even extended to the catering for the opening night party. Amongst my other early responsibilities, I wanted to ensure wide national publicity announcing the Festival and inviting filmmakers to enter their films. As well, there was the choosing of the program selection and judging panels, the gathering of production information on all the short films produced in Australia in the previous year and subsequently contacting filmmakers and inviting programs from those who may not have been aware of the Festival’s entry deadline. As the director, I assumed final responsibility for all the films programmed and for their scheduling, consequently I viewed all the films entered into the Festival, which in both years was around the 400 mark. I also prepared all the copy and program notes for final artwork to go to the graphic designer and worked closely with the designer on the overall festival concept for the program, poster, flyers and other publicity materials. The budget was much smaller in 1995 than now and, as time was short, I changed my hat to produce the trailer which was screened prior to each screening to acknowledge the funding bodies and sponsors. The Festival was fortunate to have a very energetic and committed publicist as there were many interviews to do with the print and electronic media. Previously the Festival had screened at the National Theatre – this venue was a great location in the early days under Nigel Buesst and I was conscious of the traditions and character of the Festival being tied to the National. But I saw the Astor, with its excellent projection facilities and having established itself with a festival focus already, as a venue of great character and ambience – so I negotiated with George Florence to stage the Festival there for the first time in ’95. This proved very rewarding, on the opening night the theatre had a full house as it did for the retrospective program, which meant that my fears about attracting larger audiences to the Astor were allayed. I had always seen St. Kilda, with its profile as Australia’s major short film festival, as a significant forum in which to highlight the scope and innovation of this country’s filmmaking tradition. In an effort to broaden the scope and appeal of the Festival, I introduced several specialist programs. These included a retrospective which highlighted the short films of a number of successful Australian feature film directors and a program profiling the use of new image technologies to embrace animation, music clips, documentaries and commercials. As director in 1997, I took on the job in unusual circumstances, the city of Port Phillip had previously appointed another person to the position but in the interim he had taken up a full-time position elsewhere. So again I started late, mid January, but this time I had the benefit of support and camaraderie provided by the Events Unit now established at the City of Port Phillip and I had the advantage of being director previously. I was no longer responsible for the administrative side of the Festival organisation, in particular, the direct negotiations related to sponsorship, for which I was very grateful. This allowed me to concentrate more on the Festival’s creative content which saw the inclusion of a full international program for the first time in St. Kilda. I negotiated with the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of England and put together two very different and challenging programs under the title New British Cinema. With support from the British Council this program was accompanied by special guest Andy Powell from the British Film Institute. To complement the British programs I included “Confessions Of A Filmmaker”, a selection of films chosen by guest curator, filmmaker and writer Lawrence Johnston. I hoped the international program would widen the Festival’s scope and audience, and provide a point of reference from which to appreciate Australian short films. Also the international programs would allow for the opportunity for filmmakers and audiences alike to consider how overseas filmmakers were approaching the short film idiom. This aspect also raised questions regarding the merits of the short film as an entity in its own right when compared to the strong imperative in Australia for short film as a training vehicle for filmmakers to move towards feature film production. New British Cinema included examples of both, and this debate was taken further with a public forum at the George Cinema. “Confessions Of A Filmmaker” allowed for a more esoteric approach to programming with both local and international films and was an insight into the kind of films that are appreciated by and influential to a filmmaker’s approach to their own work. The audience response to both these programs was exceptionally pleasing. I felt strongly that the inclusion of the international programs gave weight to the value of the Australian films in the Festival and encouraged appreciation for the creativity of the filmmakers. In ’97 with the support of the Port Phillip Council and the Australian Film Institute I initiated the first national tour of the St. Kilda Film Festival. This tour, which profiled the award winners and the New British Cinema program, has continued since, and I believe it helps to reinforce the Festival’s reputation as Australia’s major focus of short film. (3) What were the challenges you faced? The major challenge I personally faced in both Festivals was the short lead up time. When you have the entry deadline in mid February and you are forced to select and program the competition sessions along with organising the presentation of special programs and side bar events, and then organise the program notes with a view to having the printed program available by early April – when combined with all the related administrative and media requirements – it made for a gruelling schedule. Although I lobbied strongly during my time I was unable to get agreement to have the Festival pushed back in the calendar, fortunately the Festival is now held in late May. Other challenges are the on-going questions facing every festival director. They involve personal perceptions and decisions – such questions as the number and scope of competition films included in the festival and questions related to the selection criteria and themes for the films you believe should be programmed. Overriding all these questions is what the director believes to be the true purpose, function and character of the Festival. You have to make theoretical projections about the potential audience and box office as opposed to the venue costs and general expenses. You are also forced to make a subjective decision regarding the notions of quality versus quantity for the competition films in the Festival, I believe this is important with regard to maintaining the integrity and character of the Festival. Audience, filmmaker and funding body expectations of what they consider as the role of the Festival are important considerations and it can be a real juggling act to make everyone happy. The other increasing dilemma is in maintaining a unique national position and identity for the St. Kilda Film Festival when there are so many annual film festivals currently being held throughout Australia. This is an important issue when there are swelling demands placed on the national funding purse for film culture. Fortunately for St. Kilda, the Australian Film Commission along with the City of Port Phillip and Film Victoria, or Cinemedia as it is now known, have in the past been very positive in this regard. (4) What combination of elements do you think makes for a successful short film festival? I feel it is important to be clear about how, as a festival director, you view and understand the character and role of the Festival. You need to have a very committed and enthusiastic group of people working with you and you need to feel a commitment to the filmmakers contributing to the Festival and to the audience. Whilst respecting the wishes of all filmmakers to have their films screened in a festival and the importance for them to have an audience respond to their films, you need to keep the audience satisfied, returning and growing. At the end of the day a successful festival needs to have good films and the right venue. With so many events in Melbourne’s cultural calendar, effective promotion is extremely important and a good publicist is a must. To make the Festival personally satisfying and vibrant it is essential to continue to extend the boundaries, to continue to push the realms of programming and, on a more practical note, to have reasonable lead up time to develop and prepare the Festival. (5) What role do you see the short film as playing within a filmmaker’s career? How important is the short film? In Australia the short film is essential in the career of a filmmaker if they wish to make a living from their craft. In addition to providing the opportunity of learning their craft, a short film provides a stepping stone for a lucky few to move to feature film and television production. Others can use their short film as a calling card for doing commercials. The opportunity to make a living from continual short film production is very slim in Australia but intermittently limited opportunities arise for established filmmakers. From time to time the ABC and SBS, usually with the encouragement, financial support and a degree of risk taking from the Australian Film Commission, provide opportunities for making programs within a traditional short film idiom. It seems these opportunities are diminishing, unfortunately Australia doesn’t have the strong traditions and appreciation that Europe has for short films of this kind. This is an important reason I feel for continuing to program international and specialist programs within the St. Kilda Festival to provide good examples and encouragement for short films of this genre. (6) What do you think are the great challenges that confront the filmmaker when making the leap from the short film to the feature? Moving to feature film production instantly raises a series of very complex issues when dealing with a dramatic narrative – the shifts, rhythms and complexity of plot development combined with the exposition of characters are major considerations in a feature film which are not nearly as apparent in the development of short films. There is a wide consensus with regard to the low level of financial support in the script development phase for Australian features which has meant that many of these films have been produced with inferior and underdeveloped scripts. On the other side of the agenda is the limited financial opportunities that exist in Australia for making feature films – while government support for feature films has been reasonably positive over the past decade, when compared to other countries particularly of similar population, that support has certainly diminished over the past few years, particularly when you consider the demise of the FFC Trust Films program and the closure of the Commercial Television Production Fund. With the complexity of financing requiring international market interest many filmmakers are adopting stories with ‘international themes’, this is unfortunate as many of Australia’s most critically successful films have been strongly based within an Australian contemporary and historical vernacular. (7) What role do you think the St. Kilda film festival plays in the Australian short film scene? The St. Kilda Film Festival has been, and still is, this country’s major focus for screening and viewing the best examples of important and contemporary short films of all genres produced each year in Australia. (8) How important do you see the festival in the context of the Australian film industry? The festival is extremely important because many industry people, including established practitioners with feature film and television backgrounds, advertising agency people and producers of commercials, as well as network program buyers come to St. Kilda because they know St. Kilda is where they will see the best Australian short films made by tomorrows maverick filmmakers. (9) How does St. Kilda film festival compare with the myriad of other short festivals in Australia? The impression I gained during my time was that St. Kilda was seen by many filmmakers as the festival in which to have your film screened. As I mentioned previously it is widely accepted as the major forum in which to see the best short films produced annually in Australia. In both my years there were a number of filmmakers, as well as other festival directors, who made the effort to travel from Sydney in particular, but also from all Australian cities, who were genuinely excited to have their films in the St. Kilda Film Festival and in such a beautiful venue as the Astor. (10) How does it compare internationally? It is difficult for me to make an assessment in this regard because I have been to very few overseas festivals but I do know that St. Kilda’s reputation is well known and held in high esteem internationally. (11) How has the festival grown since you were director? What would you attribute this to? I think that every director, with the exception of Nigel who created and shaped the Festival from its beginnings, has had the wonderful opportunity to take an event which has grown and evolved through the creativity and extreme hard work of the preceding directors. So each year the Festival should continue to grow and develop, each director will improve little bits here and there, and add little bits which reflect their own personalities and interests – it is a natural progression. Paul Harris has taken the Festival to the Palais which is a fantastic venue and his attitude to programming has been to extend the quantity of the Festival’s films. Judy Schreiber, who was director in the in-between years of my time, is much more pizzazz and extrovert than me – her attitude to marketing the festival was by firing all guns. She really introduced a great concept with the trailer as a short film, being made by local filmmakers incorporating a kind of local idiosyncratic theme, and using it to promote the festival in various cinemas around Melbourne. This has been a great success in lifting the profile and awareness for the Festival around this city. (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? The tradition and expansion of genres for short film production in Australia commenced in the early to mid ’80s really and that was the main reason for the beginning of St. Kilda. But there is no doubt the expansion of film school courses, easier access to production processes and new funding avenues from film bodies and broadcasters has meant that the volume of films available is much larger. I’m not sure the quality of the films in their story telling ability has improved exponentially with the increase in the volume of films produced, certainly at the top end higher budgets reflect a dramatic improvement in production values and stylistically films have both improved and matured. Every year, particularly when you consider that there are more than 100 films screened at St. Kilda, there is no doubt you will find films that are challenging, exciting, revealing and moving, both stylistically and in their story telling. I remain optimistic based on my own experience that there will always be a number of very talented and creative filmmakers, with a sincere love and appreciation for the traditions of cinema, who rise to the surface each year. However, most certainly festivals like Tropfest have influenced a significant few amongst the films being made and the funding bodies increasingly view short film production as a direct career path to feature film and television production. (13) Are filmmakers these days too conscious of prizes, and forgetful of the quality of their films? I don’t think the thought of winning a prize is a strong influence on filmmakers at all. When they develop and produce their films, they just want to make the best film possible and hope that as many people as possible will see it and appreciate it, and if there are prizes won then that’s icing on the cake. As a winner of a St. Kilda award myself in 1998 the thought of winning an award didn’t bestow itself upon me until I was walking to the stage to receive my prize and thinking what the hell was I going to say. (14) Do you see any connection between the shorts being made in Australia, and the features? I find it difficult to make a generalisation in response to this question but I do feel there is a common penchant for the story line that is constantly verging on the frivolous or dare I say it, ‘quirky’. This is unfortunate. (15) What were the highlights for you as a festival director (if the highlights were particular films, you can mention them)? The real highlight for me each time was standing in the foyer of the Astor half an hour before the scheduled start on the opening night and wondering whether anybody was going to turn up – then suddenly having a full house. The joy of filmmakers having their films screened, experiencing a big audience enjoying themselves and appreciating what they are seeing, and taking pleasure in a very satisfying bottle of red wine and having a cigarette at the opening night party are the first things that come to mind. There were many films I was really impressed by, I wouldn’t do justice to those not mentioned if I was to name only a few. I was always so grateful to be lucky enough to have so many films of high quality in the festival.