Portable Film Festival – Digital dreams

August 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, August 2, 2008.

Free, online and available to an international audience through laptops and mobile phones, the Melbourne-run Portable Film Festival is reimagining cinematic space, writes Dan Rule.

REGRET IS TOO STRONG A word, but Marc Furmie is more than willing to frame his decision to shoot his 30-minute, 2007 film Death’s Requiem on 35mm as at least a little naive.

“It was a real learning curve,” says the 27-year-old. “Back then it was really about the prestige of shooting on film, and in your mind as a young filmmaker, that was what set you apart from the other amateurs out there.

“I was kind of really gung-ho about spending my parents’ money and spending my life savings to shoot on film, instead of shooting digitally.”

It’s not as if Furmie’s film was a waste. The brooding, stunningly shot psychological horror film has screened at more than 20 film festivals in the US alone, plus Flickerfest in Sydney and last year’s St Kilda Film Festival, where it won an award for best cinematography. The film, which traces the fraught final weeks of a terminally ill comic book artist, has even been earmarked for financing to be developed and produced at feature length.

The Sydney filmmaker isn’t expressing scepticism about traditional filmic aesthetics, but rather its emphasis at the expense of wide distribution and viewer accessibility. It’s a sentiment that has seemed to echo throughout the independent filmmaking community for years.

Indeed, compared to their budget, aesthetics and success on the traditional festival circuit, shorts like Death’s Requiem are sighted by a scant few.

“Making a film is really about telling a story at the end of the day,” Furmie says, “and reaching the public with that story, which is something I’ve been longing to do.

“It can be pretty heartbreaking when your films are shown in little arthouse theatres for a couple of sessions during a film festival and no one rocks up.”

Death’s Requiem – which stars Jai Koutrae, Alin Sumawarta, Bruce Spence and Raoul Agapis – is just one of countless local international films that will screen online as part of the third annual Portable Film Festival, which opened yesterday and will run until the end of the month. Something of an unspoken alternative to MIFF, the Melbourne-run event includes film content of all shapes and sizes from 39 countries, including Iran, Taiwan, Estonia, Russia and Norway, as well as the US, Britain and New Zealand.

Billed as a festival that “works to liberate the filmmaking and film viewing process,” PFF runs entirely online for a potentially huge local and international audience. Its complete curated program is available for free download, to be viewed on laptops, iPods, mobile phones and other portable devices.

For program director Al Cossar, 29, PFF offers something of an antidote to short and otherwise non-feature-length films’ lack of public visibility.

“The online space is a huge opportunity to present quality, innovative films that just otherwise wouldn’t be seen,” Cossar says.

“We present films not only to a huge public audience, but a huge industry audience. Site film festivals only cater to their particular city in terms of viewers, whereas Portable can be viewed anywhere in the world. It’s a whole new way of thinking.”

This “new way of thinking” is one that Cossar believes encompasses changing notions of audience. Under the PFF model, viewers become active participants, rather than passive targets. “We think of the viewer as not the end of the distribution chain, but almost at the beginning,” says Cossar, who also works as a programmer for the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

“You submit to our festival for free, you watch for free, you download for free, but that’s not the end of the story. We encourage you to circulate that content to your friends, to share it, to engage with it and comment on it.”

The festival, founded by creative director Andrew Apostola and general manager Simon Goodrich in late 2005, has expanded in leaps and bounds.

Just two years after the inaugural 2006 festival managed to show 67 films, this year’s event will top 150, selected from around 550 submissions worldwide. The program is split into categories for feature film, short film, music video, animation, video blogs and films produced on portable devices.

There are several highlights. Young Canadian filmmaker Andrew McLeod’s wonderful Kodiak tells the story of a street-hockey obsessed romantic, while Pencil Face, from American director Christian Simmons, is an eerie, spookily stylised vignette. Brooklyn collective Mixtape Club deliver three stunningly animated and characterised music videos for bands Yeasayer and TV on the Radio, and the late hip-hop producer J Dilla.

Cossar understands advances in affordable consumer technology as central to the program’s diversity. “We’ve got films that have been at Cannes and Sundance and places like that right next door to bedroom video bloggers and people going out there and shooting on their cell phone and using consumer-based technology for new forms of storytelling,” he says. “It’s really opening up and democratising storytelling possibilities.”

Michelle Higa, of the Mixtape Club, agrees. “Online distribution combined with cheaper digital production tools lowered the bar for entry,” she says.

“If we had been starting out 20 years ago, we’d never be in the place we’re in now.”

But is a distracted, free-for-all online environment the place for film or a film festival? Are the comparatively low-resolution images and tiny screen sizes not a devaluation of the cinematic aesthetics?

Kasimir Burgess thinks not. The 27-year-old Melbourne filmmaker – who co-directed the hilarious short film Lone Rider with Edwin McGill for this year’s festival – draws a clear delineation between cinematic and online space.

“They serve very different purposes and they create a very different experience, each of which is valid,” he says. “I really don’t think that the advent of film festivals in the online space means that film festivals in the real world are going to die.

“The experience obviously isn’t as immersive online, but it’s often more personal and accessible. You can find films that you wouldn’t have otherwise and then you can maybe have a longer relationship with the film.

“People get excited and talk about technology progressing so fast that we’ll all be able to stay inside every day and not interact with a cinema or with a friend to go and see a film together. I don’t think that is going to happen, and if it did, it would be really sad.”

The Portable Film Festival runs until August 30.

www.portablefilmfestival.com.

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