Sunday night in many ways marked a great achievement for the Australian short film genre, with the live broadcast of Tropfest – “the world’s largest short film festival” – on national television via SBS 2. The short film was elevated from the realms of a niche marketplace to the mainstream, an achievement that many Australian filmmakers would have been happy with.
But such elevation carries, surely, a great responsibility, as such exposure implicitly represents to the audience what the short film means to the makers and the film community.
The winner of the festival, Bamboozled, has been heavily criticised in social and mainstream media as being “homophobic and misogynistic” but Sunday night’s awards have also raised further serious questions about the competition’s integrity and the implications this has for fledgling filmmakers and the Australian film industry in general.
Playing to type
When Tropfest began in the 1990s it was greeted with great excitement by student filmmakers and filmmakers in general who were pleased to have a high-profile competition that championed the short film genre and provided an opportunity for showcasing Australian filmmaking talent and promoting future filmmakers.
It was embraced with great gusto and strong hopes. Since then, the festival has attracted some negativity – largely thanks to the overriding emphasis on the one-line gag nature of films that have been encouraged, along with film stories that are structured with a twist at the end.
These have become known as Tropfest-type films. Nevertheless, many good filmmakers have had their careers spring-boarded from this competition, such as Alister Grierson and Rowan Woods to name but two.
The most recent Tropfest finals choices plummeted to a new low on many counts. The first being the homophobic and misogynistic themes seen in Bamboozled. But I would argue this is symptomatic of a greater disease.
Tropfest purports to encourage talent and be a springboard into the film industry – but what kind of industry is it advocating? One of the exciting things about young and fledgling filmmakers is their ability to explore and create new and challenging films that will help move the film industry forward.
The short film genre allows for experimentation in story and style that should help create a new kind of director or writer and breathe new life into the film industry.
Sunday’s finalists were often, if nothing else, quite derivative in style. There was, for example, a spate of dated mockumentary style comedies that were once new in the late 90s. The filmmakers were largely producing films that looked like what they expected a Tropfest film should be, rather than attempting to break new ground.
Some films in the finals did attempt this – such as Makeover and Coping – but they were overlooked as winners in favour of a film that had a simple, one-gag storyline. The filmic style was neither inventive nor particularly creative.
The road ahead
Such a decision informs the bigger question of where we are heading with storytelling in films in general. As a long-term film educator I have helped many ambitious and dedicated young people try to achieve their dreams of making films of impact and making it big in the industry. They were encouraged to be brave and to value add to the body of existing film by providing a possibility of a new direction.
Short film festivals in Australia and internationally have been significant in promoting this kind of talent but Tropfest has become concerned more with its own marketing brand and international franchise rather than with the product it began promoting.
Appeal to an unspecified audience is driving young filmmakers with limited opportunities to conform in order to win rather than aim to challenge. This is reinforced further by the prizes Tropfest offers and the messages these prizes give.
For example, the very exciting and excellently executed film Still Life by Martin Sharpe, was awarded the Qantas digital cadetship - a six-month paid internship with as part of the airline’s Digital and Inflight Entertainment division. A worthy prize but with a definite corporate overtone. What message did this convey to the filmmaker?
I would argue it carries an implied negativity, that the corporate world is the only way forward for this form of filmmaking; that this creative, talented young director may at best be able to get a job as a corporate filmmaker. To me, it basically says “don’t bother”. There’s no money or incentive in Australia to develop your kind of creativity.
The winning prize (a 2012 Toyota Corolla Levin ZR, a A$10,000 cash prize and a Nikon D800 and A$2,000 RRP worth of lenses and accessories) – taken by Bamboozled – includes as its crowning glory a trip to LA and meetings with Hollywood executives. Of course, this is a great opportunity but it its subliminal message is one of cultural cringe: if you want to make in film you need to leave Australia and head to the US. Where were the Australian industry prizes? Should we be training our filmmakers to leave our shores?
The right questions
This year’s Tropfest was screened on SBS 2, which has a charter to provide alternative programming – much of which is aimed at young people. It has an excellent reputation in supporting the unorthodox and the creative and providing an alternative voice.
Despite being appreciative of the opportunity for this broadcast, were the organisers of the festival aware of the conflicting messages that the winners were giving to this audience? A winning film that was derivative in style, short on story and homophobic in content relying on a one-gag punch line? Was this what the audience wanted? Did they expect more? Did they deserve more? What is Tropfest’s responsibility in all of this?
The organisers of Tropfest are in a great position to foster and promote exciting new Australian film talent. What a pity they have forfeited the opportunity.