Down in Front at Tropfest

FilmInk\'s Julian Wood heads down to a supposedly new and improved Tropfest for a night of short film festivities.

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So the bigger than ever Tropfest has just wrapped and the marquees are packed away and the starry-eyed winners are being feted and interviewed. One cannot help but wonder if swept away with the crowd’s detritus is the last little scrap of the spirit of the original festival.

Let’s not be too curmudgeonly about it though, things have to change. It is no good harking back to the good old days fifteen odd years ago when we sat in chairs in the street in Sydney’s groovy Darlinghurst to watch some wonky efforts from first timers. The festival had to morph and grow and under its manic but now a bit elusive one man engine John Polson, grow it did. It burst its seams at a number of venues before taking over almost the entire Domain. By then it was a victim of its own success as, if you were foolish enough to join late, you could just spot a screen the size of a fag packet in the distance. And, if you were in the middle, well you had better not want to go to the loo for about 6 hours.

Now Trop has moved to Sydney’s beautiful Centennial Park in a cleared area that is apparently called Brazilian Fields though it has nothing to do with pubic fashion. To be fair the screening on the giant tri-fold erection is pretty good. The only drawback, and it is one that frustrated all the filmmakers I spoke to, is that the sound continues to be terrible. The soundscape is often the least sophisticated aspect of early or low budget filmmaking, and so it comes as a double penalty. What is more surprising – but perhaps shouldn’t be – is that nobody really seems to be watching the films very closely all the way through. Attention spans are clearly getting shorter when seven minutes is too long.

Sitting in the press arena like gnomes behind a white picket fence, one has to put up with a constant stream of passersby. Shouts of ‘down in front!’ are greeted with incomprehension and a baffled shuffle two inches to the left, or by a robust finger up from the frequently drunken others. If these guys were at the cricket or the footie they would have more respect. Never mind that sixteen talented hopefuls (and their crews) have put their all into trying to get into this prestigious event.

Decamping to the VIP section one fares not much better. The real A-listers are elsewhere but here so many young darlings with their crazy haircuts and teetering high heels seem more interested in their phones. The dull glow of mobile screens haunts the air like so many tiny green fog lights.

Looking beyond all this, one can patiently make out some short films albeit of fluctuating quality. You have to feel sorry for the judges whose decisions supervene the chattering mobile phone-o-sphere. How, for example, can one really compare Martin Sharpe’s  highly inventive art gallery-set animation Still Life with something like Steven Woodburn’s dark splattery horror spoof Stew? They are such different enterprises.

There were highlights on the night. Julian Lucas’s Charades about an over-eager team competing in a Charades contest showed moments of promise in the solid tradition of Aussie TV sketch comedy.  Similarly, Sydney rising talent Rachel Lane made a great contribution with her film L.O.V.E Insurance for the heart. All the women in the audience produced knowing laughs at her idea that if you checked out a new boyfriend as much as you check out a car you would think twice before entering into most of your relationships.

Special effects are expensive and most filmmakers don’t get to play with them much in their early days even with the cheaper technologies available now. They always strike a chord though, and there were some wonderful sight gags about the aging body in Don Percy’s wrinkly comedy Makeover. This seemed to be the crowd’s favourite on the night.

Tropfest has got a bit of a reputation for attracting cute one-gag scripts which do not tackle big or serious themes. Ex-soldier Tom Abood’s Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense about post traumatic stress disorder gave the lie to that but it suffered from being placed in this oddball context. In the end the winner was Matt Hardie’s Bamboozled. Opinions on the night varied between real admiration for the fine acting (Hardie, who starred as well, is NIDA trained and he took out best actor also) to an uneasy feeling that the film had more than a touch of the schoolboy smirk toward homosexuality. That could actually build into a mini-controversy which won’t hurt the PR machine at all.

Tropfest is always going to be an uneven night and one also knows that there are many fine films that didn’t even make it. However, on this showing (and with the SBS TV figures to add in) this shift to a dry and balmy December night isn’t a bad move at all. Whether we relish it or not, it’s here to stay and we will be all be back next year.

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