A look at the legacy of short-film festival Tropfest

BY HEATHER GILL

Tropfest poster from 2007 showing cartoon faces sneezing

Tropfest poster, 2007

 NFSA title: 744987

Picnic blankets, eskies and – do we have enough cheese and cups? Since it began in 1993, Tropfest short-film festival has become a cultural landmark and social event where you share a picnic with your friends and participate in something big, yet intimate. Connecting with those in different cities and watching our stories and accents entertain us. We all become judges, discussing the strengths and merits of each film and who should win. Or what we would have done differently. Or admiring how a filmmaker has responded to the theme.

Tropfest offers a chance to see what Australians are producing and ponder future directions of an industry with which we appear to have a hot and cold relationship.

I know I felt a pang of sadness when I heard that Tropfest 2015 was cancelled, after seemingly going from strength to strength. I felt particularly for those who had worked hard to create a film and received the thrill of selection only to then not have their work screened. Thankfully we will now be able to come together and watch those films on Sunday 14 February 2016.

The NFSA collects documents and artefacts related to Tropfest, providing greater context about the development of the festival. For example, if we look back 15 years to Tropfest 2001, we collected entry guidelines; a VIP invitation; festival program; posters; a sponsorship and promotional prospectus as well as the trailer titled The Pitch (NFSA title 750371) featuring a young Rose Byrne and Joel Edgerton. A more specialist item collected by the NFSA in 2002 was a match made of resin on a leather thong. ‘Match’ was the Tropfest Signature Item (TSI) that year, and this item was made by Dinosaur Designs for VIP guests to use as entry into the Tropfest 2002 venue.

Poster from Tropfest film festival, 2000. Showing a cartoon ant holding a video camera

Tropfest poster, 2000.

NFSA title: 440933

I believe part of the popularity of film festivals such as Tropfest is that short films intrigue us, particularly as they can be so difficult to do well. They can be a format to experiment and learn in, to better find your film voice.

There are so many elements to a short film: devising a strong idea, crafting the story, choosing locations, finding the money, casting, meeting deadlines and relying on the support that your friends and family provide to help you through. One of my favourite pieces of advice on the Tropfest website was from Kevin Lim, the director of The Pledge for Mr Bunny (2013) who assures us that, ‘Everyone has 10 bad films in them. The sooner you get them out, the better. So stop procrastinating and start now.’

Once the film is shot, there still remains much to do. At one Q&A session I attended, a co-director declared that they would never choose to edit their film again. They felt they were just too close to the material and editing probably took at least twice as long as it would have if they had used the services of an editor.

Each year those who succeed in submitting their films to Tropfest know that it holds the promise of building a career that you are passionate about. For some finalists it can be a stepping stone into the world of filmmaking, but what does this really mean? Particularly as not all directors of short films are aspiring to make a Hollywood feature.

Here are some of the Tropfest ‘graduates’ in the NFSA collection; directors who have entered Tropfest and are continuing to create audiovisual works, a number of which are held by the NFSA, along with corresponding supporting materials such as scripts, posters and stills. The YouTube playlist below includes their Tropfest entries.

- Emma Freeman has worked steadily in television since winning in 2002 with Lamb (NFSA title: 526997). She has directed episodes of Love My Way, Offspring, Puberty Blues, The Secret Life of Us and, most recently, Glitch.

- Before Wilfred was adapted into a television series in both Australia and the US, it began life at Tropfest in 2002 (NFSA title: 526998), winning the prize for Best Comedy and Best Actor – Male.

- Damon Gameau won Tropfest 2011 for Animal Beatbox. His recent documentary film That Sugar Film (NFSA title: 1291693) became the highest grossing Australian feature-length documentary in the local market.

- Peter Carstairs, 2006 finalist with Pacific, directed his first feature September (NFSA title: 740987) in 2007, funded through the production company Tropfest Feature Program. September also gave Xavier Samuel his first lead role in a feature film.

- Director Matt Bird has been a three-time Tropfest finalist with 2011’s A Desperate Deed (NFSA title: 1461636), 2012’s Min Min (NFSA title: 1461640) and 2013’s Taser (NFSA title: 1461642). Matt also directed The Exchange (NFSA title: 1461644) in 2012, commissioned by Tropfest and APRA AMCOS for the 2013 Tropscore competition. He established Chesterfilm, a creative collective specialising in film and video production for television, cinema, DVD and the web.

So here is hoping for fine weather on Sunday 14 February 2016 as we enjoy a picnic and the opportunity to watch the latest selection of Tropfest short films. You can find screening details on the Tropfest website.