Under the Underground Film Festival

James Holloway questions the lack of festival opportunities for young filmmakers. Art by Ann Ding.

Art by Ann Ding

This year, the Sydney Underground Film Festival will screen 36 feature films over the span of four days. Only four of these films will be Australian.

Why the lack of local films? The answer, according to director and head programmer Stefan Popescu, is that most of the Australian films submitted just weren’t that good.

“We’re pretty brutal with our programming,” he explains. “We definitely don’t screen Australian stuff just for the sake of Australian stuff… it has to be shot in Australia and good.”

Although nominally an ‘underground’ film festival, Popescu says that for a film to make their program it has to be “on par with the larger cinema-scape of the world”, and while the festival prioritises independent films that “push the boundaries” in form and content, they must nonetheless meet a certain level of production value in regards to audio and visual quality.

This fact is reflected in the types of films SUFF screens – which often come from high budget, high profile sources such as Sundance-accredited director and screenwriter Todd Solondz, and Hollywood actor Eli Roth. Popescu acknowledges there is quite a lot of debate amongst the programmers over what qualifies as ‘underground’.

“We look for mainstream people who are on the margins…we even screened, a few years back, a James Franco film, and the reason was because he actually produced it himself… the boundaries are so blurred now, we have to take each film on a case by case basis.”

These programming decisions set a difficult precedent for young Australian unknowns working on low budgets and unable to reach the production qualities necessary for inclusion. Of around 250 films submitted to the SUFF this year, around 60 were Australian – meaning the vast majority were deemed to be unsuitable.

Part of the reason for such consistently low quality, Popescu suggests, has to do with the way funding works through Screen Australia: “They’re very upfront that they’re not here to establish anyone’s career. They’re here to basically support commercial productions.”

Popescu suggests Screen Australia acts this way out of fear of competition, “that if you can go off on your own and make a film with a couple of friends for $10,000 its actually a threat to the industry”.

Despite this, Popescu remains optimistic, citing a supposed plethora of smaller niche festivals as convenient outlets for emerging young filmmakers. These smaller festivals aren’t easy to find however, especially for feature filmmakers – with the majority of local festivals catering exclusively to short films or genre flicks.

Those that do accept feature film submissions receive so many that the likelihood of selection is slim. It’s a reality Sydney filmmakers Lorenzo Benitez and Jonathon Parker are all too familiar with. In 2015 they set out to make a documentary exploring the impacts of the ‘voluntourism’ industry in rural Thailand. It was made on a budget of $5,000 AUD and financed almost entirely by the crew themselves.

They submitted the documentary to almost 50 festivals both local and international. After a while, however, the replies became frustratingly repetitive.

“The rejection comes in the form an email and usually begins with the programmers thanking you for ‘the pleasure of having been able to watch your film.’” Parker says. “This is then followed by the news that this year they’d received a ‘record number of submissions’ but that ultimately, they were unable to find room for your film in their program.”

“That’s the classic rejection letter,” laughs Jai Love, a 21-year-old filmmaker and current student at AFTRS in Sydney.

It’s an email he’s not too unfamiliar with himself. That is, not until his documentary Dead Hands Dig Deep was accepted into Slamdance – an unofficial Sundance offshoot catering exclusively to low budget independent films.

“Once we got into Slamdance, it took off from there. Once that happens all of a sudden your email inbox is just full of distributors … everybody wants to watch the movie.”

Dead Hands Dig Deep follows ageing punk provocateur Edwin Borsheim who lives in complete isolation, alone in the desert of southern California. A former ‘shock-rock’ musician, Dead Hands sees Borhseim reflect on a past of “drug-abuse, violence and self-destruction.” It was made on a budget of $20-30,000 – though Love says their initial estimates had been around $10,000.

The money came mostly from friends and family, but what’s interesting is that Love and his crew took advantage of Screen Australia’s Producer Offset scheme – a rebate allowing filmmakers to be reimbursed for some of their production costs as long as they use an Australian cast and crew. In general, Love says he’s not “the biggest fan” of Screen Australia, but describes the rebate as “the only good thing they’re doing that’s really worth something.”

For his less fortunate peers, rejection is a continual struggle.

“The most difficult part of the process is definitely the lack of clarity as to what each festival is expecting,” says Lorenzo. “For the vast majority of festivals, we are vaguely told that ‘all feature films, documentary and fiction, are welcome’ without any honest warning on how competitive some of these festivals are.”

“Because of commercial reasons, festivals aren’t that open about the fact they mostly only accept films with budgets in six or more figures” Parker adds.

Parker and Benitez aren’t alone in these observations; they are sentiments echoed by Mekelle Mills, who after a similarly disheartening experience with the film circuit, decided to take matters into her own hands. Earlier this year Mills founded the Below Five Zero festival, a festival catering to films made under a budget of $50,000.

“I noticed when trying to find festivals in Australia, none were really suited to the Micro Budget side of things – which meant I would ultimately be competing against films with a budget beyond my wildest dreams.” Mills explains on the Below Five Zero website.

Yet although a providing a definite glimmer of hope, even Below Five Zero is limited in its capacity, with only four feature films in its program.

While some malign the overwhelming preference for short films in the festival circuit, filmmakers such as Sydney-based Laurence Rosier Staines see them as a necessary and rewarding first step. His third short film Real Estate was selected to screen as part of the SmartFone Flick Fest, a festival challenging filmmakers to produce low budget films made entirely on a smartphone or tablet.

“A short film is a kind of calling card… a place for people to try out ideas, make their bones a little in terms of filmmaking in the first place.”

When asked about the current state of independent film, Laurence laments the loss of Metro Screen – a not-for-profit film, television and digital media organisation associated with Screen NSW. However, he also believes the problem doesn’t lie entirely with entities like Screen Australia, which are only operating within the parameters set by the Federal Government.

“It’s a lack of other infrastructure,” he says. “At this level, the SmartFone Film Festival is easily the best example I can think of in terms of nurturing young filmmakers with fewer resources.”

For Bronte Jovevski, another Sydney-based independent filmmaker, the problem with the industry is not just a lack of resources, but a lack of resources for women in particular.

“I see my role as a producer to tell more stories about women, to see more women behind and in front of the camera – obviously, you look at the statistics and that’s not what’s happening in Australia.”

Jovevski produced the crowd-funded short film Shan and Kate, which has found success with the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California. She also works for Women in Film and Television NSW and is festival coordinator for WOW Film Festival. WOW – short for World of Women’s Cinema – specialises in the promotion of short films by women filmmakers both locally and internationally and has been running for 21 years.

Bronte also believes the traditional role of the short film is changing. “I just love the short form, I think they are a very different sort of pleasure than watching a feature.”

The Sydney Underground Film Festival itself has an entire session dedicated to showcasing 12 locally-made short films. The stats are much worse for features – of the four Australian films showing, three of them are documentaries. The sole fiction film being screened was directed by festival programmer Stefan Popescu himself.

The conclusions drawn are self evident – lacking access to the resources necessary to make a high quality fiction feature, short films and documentaries are becoming the obvious cheap alternative for Australia’s aspiring independent filmmakers. At the same time, the lack of infrastructure that Laurence points to makes it difficult to sustain any unified sense of local filmmaking community. There was certainly no truly underground Sydney film scene Jai Love could point to.

“Maybe it does exist” he says with a laugh, “maybe I’m just not cool enough to know about it.”