As film festivals around the world were announcing postponements and delays due to the unfurling pandemic, something new and exciting was emerging in the sleepy little death toll town of Perth. As rain fell on quiet streets, Palace Cinemas Raine Square and Paradiso were filling up with a buzzing and bustling group of artists and film lovers all eager to champion an industry that was awaiting reports on its future.
Perth’s short film and webseries festival NextGen mastermind Jasmine Leivers and the man behind Cinema Australia Matthew Eeles joined together to show the natural evolution of their efforts to cultivate and support the West Australian film industry by creating the WA Made Film Festival*. As the name suggests, this is a film festival that’s all about films made in Western Australia. Shorts, feature, documentaries, the lot.
(It’s worthwhile noting that while the fest was all about WA made films, there was also a primo focus on WA food and drinks too, with drinks by Atomic Beer and Abbey Vale wines, and catering by Gourmet Trader, all providing excellent nosh to make the conversations between films go down a real treat.)
Those who attended had no idea that those few days from March 13th through to 15th would be the last film festival that Australia would witness for the foreseeable future.
Kicking off with the hometown debut of Maziar Lahooti’s post-apocalyptic feature Below, and wrapping up with a set of short films on the 15th, there was a sense of community that comes with all the best film festivals. Local filmmakers came out in droves to check out the Perth film communities output, and it was clear that the support was tangible.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the second iteration of WA Made features some films and projects that were born on this very night.
Jasmine and Matthew would have had no idea how their choice of films would be received on the brink of a pandemic, but it was truly amazing to watch films like Hunter: For the Record and The Light with the perspective of a whole new world emerging around us.
Hunter: For the Record is a film that’s all about WA hip-hop icon Hunter, and his battle with terminal cancer. It shows this legend being elevated and supported by the Aussie music community who all come out to show their love and affection for this titan of music in his time of need. Watching Hunter with the looming threat of self-isolation showed how inventive and adaptive people can be in times of need.
Restricted to minimal activity, with his illness constricting his ability to perform exhaustive live gigs, Hunter turns to the internet to interact with his fans and the public at large. All the while, he documents his life for his son, family, and ex. Hunter recognises that the future is now, and that it lives within us at all times, and as such, he embraces this mentality completely, never letting the illness get him down. His legacy lives on in this film and in his music, and nearly a decade removed from the films completion, it’s touching to see the impact his journey has on those who watch the film.
In many ways, there’s a lot we can learn from Hunter in this crisis. We all have the tools in our hands to create stories and to connect with the world. We all have the ability to inspire, to create, to connect with everyone in a time where we are forcefully disconnected. And as we should be. We need to be disconnected from one another to save ourselves, and to save each other.
When WA Made was announced, I was anticipating writing a piece about the festival itself and that alone. I didn’t expect to be writing about the impact of a virus that has gripped the world in fear and anxiety and how it was reflected in a film festival that was never established with it in mind, but here I am. I’m digressing, but this is a point that I want you all to remember now, as each film festival tumbles out of necessity and safety, that with their closures, a world of connection and community subsides and disappears. It’s not until what you hold dear is gone that you recognise how valuable it was to begin with.
Back to the films.
I was reminded of the innovative ability that exists in us all while watching Aisling Rose McGrogan’s short film, Loveless. As a one-person show – literally – Loveless is an exceptional slice of absurdity and hilarity. A woman (Aisling) sits at a dinner table with her husband (also Aisling) and they have a conversation. Aisling wrote, directed, filmed, acted, and post produced this joyous short, reminding that it doesn’t take much to create a slice of brilliance, except a bit of ingenuity, talent, and some handy YouTube videos.
I’ll do a deep dive on each of the short films at a later stage – each deserves their moment in the spotlight – but I want to highlight the curation that Jasmine and Matthew have exhibited here with their selection of shorts. I don’t say this lightly, but there is not a dud in the bunch at all. This may seem like a backhanded comment, and I do apologise in advance for that, but short film line-ups are often a pot luck of quality, with the majority being less than stellar. But, there’s something in the water with WA films, because the inventiveness and quality hit a high watermark.
And it’s worthwhile noting that the path to filmmaking came differently for each filmmaker. Some of the shorts were made through WA Tafe, others were made through community projects like the City of Vincent’s community art projects, and others were made through crowd funding campaigns and community support. In many ways, it’s never been easier to create a film.
(I say this, fully knowing and appreciating the financial limitations many filmmakers are faced with, and will certainly be faced with even more now the world has changed completely.)
Which leads me to Zack Inglis’ thriller The Light. I’ll do a deep dive review on this one later on, but the basic concept of this micro-budget film is one born out of boredom and necessity. Zack is a Kalgoorlie based filmmaker, and as such, has an intimate understanding of what it means to live in a town with limited culture and community.
In The Light, the high school students crave excitement, and as they lead into the Christmas break, one of the students conceives of a plan to bring the town to life, and entices a group of students to follow through with outlandish plans by offering a massive financial reward for the ‘biggest story’ created. Things quickly turn deadly, with a team of masked killers tormenting the teens, and before too long, things spiral madly out of control.
Zack Inglis has crafted an impressive debut feature, one that exists thanks to the enlisted help of family and friends. The irony of watching a film about the dearth of culture and communities in a rural town is seeing how quickly things turn to chaos and carnage. Now, we’re not at that point in the pandemic, with civility still being exercised by almost all, but The Light does propose a world where it doesn’t take much for people to turn to darkness and inflict pain on others.
Unfortunately, I missed the sell-out screening of Below, but having seen Maziar’s short film that the feature is pulled from (Abraxas), I can see the mindset that he’s working in, and the devastating impact that horrid government decisions have on those in need. I also missed the sell-out screening for Punchin’ Darts, and had seen Burning Kiss last year at MonsterFest.
After both nights of short films, there was a buzz, a delicious discussion taking place with those who attended the screenings. The variety of shorts on display was next level, with everything from post-apocalyptic fables to personal stories of long term relationships devolving to basic civility.
Yet, the throughline of community was clear in all of the films. Take The Throwback for example, the winner of the first nights audience award for Best Short. Directed by Louise Bertoncini, this short (made with the help of the City of Vincent) looks at the sadly now closed Network video store in Mt Hawthorn, run by Mel McInerney with her family and dedicated staff. Louise’s documentary positively pops with energy and joy, showcasing the – yep, that word again – community that thrives around a local video store.
Louise interviews faithful customers who are dedicated to keeping the store alive, with the array of joyous characters making The Throwback a genuine treat of a short. (It’s worthwhile mentioning that an audience member thought they were actors, but no, these are genuine people, eccentric and ecstatic, larger than life.) There’s a look into the struggle that a battler like Mel has against the streaming giants, a struggle that unfortunately, Network Video could not battle and overcome.
I’m reminded of this tussle between the ease of access that streaming giants provide as the closure of cinemas around the world mean that communal experience of watching a film together is thrown into jeopardy. Additionally, let’s never forget the countless people left without work and a livelihood in this time of need. It’s not just video stores being relegated to the footnotes of history, with the genuine fear that some cinemas may never reopen due to this virus making the film-loving folks out in the world terrified for the future. We say that cinemas will always exist, but we can’t help but feel a shiver in our spine that maybe that isn’t always the case.
As film festivals shutter up shop, many are turning to creating online festivals to harness that communal experience. But, sitting at home on your laptop or watching your smart TV just isn’t the same as being in a room with a group of strangers, all experiencing the same moments of emotional cinema together.
I was reminded of this as the last night of WA Made wrapped up. We’d been advised by the Prime Minister that come the following day, groups of 500 people or more would be banned. If the festival was scheduled a week later, then it would have fallen to the ruling that groups of 100 or more would be banned. These directions are necessary to help stave off further occurrences of Covid-19 in society, and I’m grateful that my last venture into a cinema came before the closure were implemented was in the comfort of my fellow West Aussie film lovers and filmmakers.
The winner of the second audience award for Best Short was A Safe Space for All. Directed by Shannon Taylor, this documentary shone the light on four members of Perth’s queer community, and listened to their stories about queer safe spaces, and how they have helped them feel safe and accepted in society. This is a deeply moving short, one that I hope gets translated into either a webseries or a feature down the line.
Given the lengths the queer community has gone to fight for safe spaces, and to be recognised in society, this short reminds how much further we have to go. And, as we find ourselves in lockdowns and isolation, it’s a reminder that some of the communities that will be hardest hit are the marginalised LGBTIQ+ communities.
As A Safe Space for All was announced as the winners of the audience prize, the team behind the production erupted with excitement. This wasn’t just a one person project, this was a family that came together to tell the stories of their own community. While all of the films were worthy of the award, it was clear how much this meant to the A Safe Space for All team to have their work recognised by this film community.
And that’s what I love about the WA Made Film Festival. It’s a festival born out of love for Australian film, and its presence feels as vital and important as Perth’s Revelation Film Festival and Busselton’s Cinefest Oz film festival. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s clear that with the trio of film festivals being run in WA right now, Western Australia has become the surrogate home of Australian cinema.
Cinefest Oz houses Australia’s richest film prize, awarding a peer-voted film with a massive $100,000 award. It is a festival that celebrates the wealth of talent in Australia, highlighting the rising talents and the established artists of this fine land.
Revelation Film Festival has tirelessly supported Australian film for over two decades now, with the monthly screenings of Australian films at Perth’s Backlot cinema working as a way of highlighting the Aussie classics. They recently announced that the 2020 festival would be delayed from July until later in the year, with the intention of supporting filmmakers online in the meantime.
As a trio of fests, WA Made Film Festival (March), Revelation (July), Cinefest Oz (August), they operate together to make WA the home of Australian film. WA Made is not a festival that is operating in competition with other festivals, but rather, it compliments what already exists, and as such, it works to ensure that West Australian audiences have year round access to killer film festivals that showcase and support Australian cinema.
One of the things I heard on the tongue of various people attending the festival was how WA is perceived from our Eastern states friends. We’re often seen as doing something different, something a little unique. And sure enough, that’s true. We are different, we are unique. But we’re a tight knit community who gets out and supports each other in times of need.
The landscape is rapidly changing, morphing into an almost unruly beast that we don’t yet have a guidebook on how to tame. How cinemas will change and adapt to both the Covid-19 virus, and the deluge of streaming services, is yet to be told. But, one thing is for certain, film festivals like WA Made will continue to exist, and continue to support and champion filmmakers and their stories.
As the vox pop camera went around and people talked about what a festival like this meant to WA, I couldn’t help but mention that this is the start of something new and exciting. That I can’t wait to be there in ten years time, saying, wow, do you remember what the first iteration of this festival was like?
And now, with an uncertain future for cinema as a whole, I can’t help but feel that energy even more than I did that night. I don’t just want to see what WA Made will look like in ten years, I need to see what it looks like in ten years. I need to see the creativity that it helps foster. I need to see this community thrive and survive.
I know I’ve said that word – community – a bunch, but I don’t repeat myself lightly. I say it with meaning.
The WA Made Film Festival is one that is all about community. It’s all about loving West Aussie cinema and the people who dedicate their lives to telling stories through films. Jasmine and Matthew ought to be proud of their efforts, and given Matt’s joyous announcement that the fest would be back in 2021, it’s clear they are.
For me, as my last visit to a cinema for a while, there is no better memory to have in the front of my mind than being part of a community like the one that WA Made Film Festival brought together over three days in March, 2020.
*The banner image is bang on West Aussie, featuring a grinning quokka and bucket of chips with the word ‘Rotto’ on it (note: I’m itching for a future iteration of the festival that has a screening on a Rotto beach).