In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

As I start writing this, I’ve just ejected from my VCR the 349th entry for this year’s Revelation Perth International Film Festival and…well…it looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

I love programming the event. It’s always fascinating to see how distance and borders melt under the influence of common themes. It’s a powerful thing, and this year it’s more noticeable than before.

There’s no question that there’s a dark streak running through the creative heart of the international independent sector—I’ve had this very conversation with a number of festival directors and curators many times lately. I like it though—there’s a very real and deeply critical approach and a palpable sense of a personal quest. There’s something very human and certainly political about the strong works at the moment, and for an event like Rev, that’s something we’ve always been connected to.

For me, Rev has been an intense journey. I’m not sure about other film festivals, but Rev is a work in progress. Eight years of Rev as Rev and a previous six years of working with a host of curated bar and club projects and cinema concepts as a distillation of the idea, introduced me to a world of film collectors, filmmakers, forbidden cinema and the wonderful world of microcinema—all bubbling just below the surface of mainstream cinema.

Although we made a serious move into cinemas in our third year, the microcinema is still at Rev’s philosophical heart. Microcinema is where it’s at and really where I see a revolutionary movement happening. It’s real DIY exhibition and distribution with the added punch of a “total” experience. It embraces both artistic and commercial imperatives and is driven by single-minded motivation.

Rev’s philosophy and approach is simple, and the background of the event is found in smoke-filled noisy bars and venues well outside of established film circuits and more accustomed to wild rock than celluloid.

As a part-time archivist with a decent collection of strange 16mm educational films, I believe a real film experience requires that old Bell and Howell whirring in the background, a small room packed with 60 people hungry for something new, booze, a great rock PA sound, pool balls cracking together somewhere in the distance, the occasional wafting of pot through the room, the sleazy house band cranking up in the corner between films, rare (and I mean rare) films from private collections and treasure-filled archives, and the spinning of my favorite records throughout an evening’s entertainment. In this environment there’s no distributors, no buy-‘em-up and get-‘em-out commercial exhibition dynamics—just fans on every front. It’s honest and raw, and it draws directly from the rich carny tradition of the great independent “roadshow” pioneers that have populated the darker corners of exhibition and distribution since film’s earliest days.

There’s a show, but also something deeper. There’s an immediate connection with history—not only in being part of this “outlaw” fraternity of hit and run exhibitionists, but from handling great and often rare pieces of history. Audiences stand right next to you, watch with great interest, chat about movies as you thread the projector and make shadow rabbit heads on the screen while the end of the film flicks through. Hit the switch and the audience is delivered works made by Burroughs or Maysles or Meyer or Marker or Conner—often with prints five decades old. There’s a direct connection to the tradition and a feeling of unpredictable discovery.

There’s also a great tactile quality when working with films in such a direct way. Since Rev’s inception eight years ago, 16mm film has all but gone the way of 8-track tapes. It’s a real shame, especially when working with the older films that each has its own quality and character. They run through the projector differently each time—some are real thick, some brittle, some you have to really ride the sound, some stink with age and some have lost all their color. That’s one of the great things, too: The film never stops changing, and all these qualities force you to pay attention to it from the moment you take it out of the can. You’re forced to examine the physical and visual quality of the film itself. You’ve got to focus on its character, and once beyond the simple mechanics there’s history flashing at 24 frames per second. Perhaps these deeper intricacies are not picked up on by the audience as strongly as by the curator, but I think the audience can sense the personality and respond actively to the archeological effort.

I take a great deal of inspiration from the “roadshow” pioneers and their understanding of psychology, love of everything about the industry, and total (dare I say obsessive) dedication to reaching audiences with the new and often the taboo. And if nothing else, like my carny kin, I learned how to make a poster glue so strong (brown flour and a dash of caustic soda is the key) that there are still posters on the street that I’m sure will outlast me.

Since its exclusively 16mm microcinema foundations in the basement back room of a Perth jazz club eight years ago, Rev has grown to embrace all film and digital formats and screens now at five cinema and bar venues across town over 10 days to audiences totalling 10,000 annually. Our audiences continue to grow in an unforgiving exhibition environment and for 2005 we have introduced a screen conference focused on creative imperatives rather than commercial outcomes. For Australia, this is a major shift and one that receives considerable resistance in a disturbingly market-driven economy. There is no question Rev’s approach is purist, but in an environment of creative compromise, this hard-nosed approach has served us well.

Australia, though, is not an easy place for screen culture, and if Australia isn’t easy, Perth can be like carving granite with a screwdriver—especially when you’re talking creativity over business. Perth is the world’s most remote capital city. Isolated by two days drive to the nearest capital city there’s a regular murmur amongst “middle Perth” as to the “evils of the East” (coast that is), and as a result Perth has developed a very protective, conservative community (we have a local film censorship act that can override that of the national censor to protect the delicate sensibilities of a family-oriented city). In addition, a national exhibition environment dominated by distribution interests that are directly at odds with independent screen culture makes for an interesting ride.

For Rev, these industry and social dynamics are a potent mix, one that the event seeks to shake. Toward this end, I tend to take a Columbo approach—you know, the bumbling detective—where the outward approach seems oddly random and perhaps slightly erratic, albeit strangely likable. Here, the event does its own thing. But underlying the exterior, analyzing the patterns of the industry from its early days is more than a part-time hobby for me. Without the significant resources available to the more established screen events, this is Rev’s primary weapon. It’s one I think allows it to grow and one that allows the event to more than just respond to developments, but be an active part of them. It enables Rev to read the works and sector and connects it to a much deeper industry context. The great works, the great advances, the great styles, and the great movements are born from looking deeply and applying or rejecting established intellectual principles. I like to think this is what Rev does in its business structure, and it’s certainly what it actively does in its programming.

Moving beyond a simple point of exhibition and into this deeper territory is both the challenge and the strength of the festival. Where most film festivals seem to be increasingly dominated by distributors as launch pads for films (sometimes only days after fest screenings), Rev resolutely seeks to maintain its autonomy from this sector and as a result rarely screens works that are immediately recognizable to audiences—that is, films with secured distribution. For other events, I feel that while the distribution orientation may provide strong box office, it dilutes the event philosophy and continues to feed the status quo. For the audience, where is the discovery? The work is already discovered by the wider marketplace populated by business people and filtered through the “market vibe.”

I don’t mind saying that I find the world of distribution (in Australia at least) enormously frustrating. With a couple of notable exceptions and much like TV, it’s a backward-looking sector that tends to base its selections on past successes rather than the integrity of good new work. It waits for market affirmation rather than trust inherent quality. Rev attempts to deliberately spin this relationship around so as to work both within and without the established distribution and exhibition framework. It quite simply doesn’t need (or want) the business of the business. It wants something more, and so do audiences. Our aim is to give it to them. And to eat lots of popcorn along the way

About :

RICHARD SOWADA is one of Australia’s most active screen culture practitioners. His expertise includes over 15 years in production, distribution, exhibition, curating, strategic planning, and screen-event board participation. He is committed to the development of local audiences and the embracing of progressive industry practices. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD concerning the WWII works of Frank Capra and their influence on documentary. He is founder and director of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival and works as a consultant to the Australian Film Commission and National Screen and Sound Archive.