As Perth’s home-grown Revelation Film Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary next month, its dynamic director Richard Sowada shares some of his passions and fascination with the moving image.
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Revelation Perth International Film Festival opens on 7 July 2022 with more than 200 films and events across the city. Director Richard Sowada chats with Rosalind Appleby about the origins of Australia’s leading independent screen event and what viewers can look forward to in this year’s program.
Rosalind Appleby: Revelation originated in the basement back room of Perth’s legendary jazz venue the Greenwich Club bac in 1997. Today, the event includes over 200 international films presented at cinemas and bars across Perth, a streaming service with over 300 films ready to view, an XR conference and the annual WA Screen Culture Awards. How does it feel looking back at the legacy of what you initiated?
Richard Sowada: Well, it’s been a gradual process over a long time, but I don’t ever stand back and look at all the elements with a satisfied grin or pat myself on the back – although I’m super happy with what Rev does and the way it’s going. It’s really quite amazing.
Right from the start, it was about showing the industry, audiences and myself that things could be done differently, and you don’t need the established structures and established people to tell you what works and what doesn’t. I worked really hard to create a break for myself in the industry from absolutely nothing, and to tell the truth I still am. In the arts as an independent organisation or individual operating in a part of the industry which doesn’t really exist in WA as it does elsewhere, like screen culture, is a constant struggle for survival. It’s very tough.
It’s also a ton of fun to explore new territory – and the territory we traverse with Rev is not just new to us but new to the sector internationally. I can’t think of another film festival internationally that has its own fully fledged streaming service. But something like building that – which has taken seven years of work and completely self-funded – is a journey of exploration.
“How does that work?” is the question we ask, so we put one foot in front of the other and find out. As a result, we regularly get calls from film festivals and organisations around the world asking us how we do things. So, for me the satisfying thing is to transfer that journey of discovery to audiences and to filmmakers however we can. For instance, over the last five years we’ve commissioned 16 short films and six moving image artworks for galleries, we’ve produced four VR works and are producing two more as we speak. These are all with emerging filmmakers. Again, I can’t think of another festival internationally that’s doing anything like that.
Having said all that, I do sometimes look at my kids who are now around 25 and remember roaming around Freo in the early years sticking up Rev posters in cafes and bars and them passing me the posters, tape and Blutak or sticking them up themselves, then jumping on the back of the pram to go to the next joint and then after a long day sitting down at Culleys bakery and having a cup-cake each to celebrate our work. Those poor saps had just learned to walk! That’s an achievement for them and me still today.
RA: You receive over 500 films submitted annually from local and international filmmakers. What is the process of curating these into a festival each year?
RS: That takes a lot of time. We obviously watch every one, but we watch them in context of both the feature film program and against each other as individual short works. I feel that Rev is one of the few truly curated film festivals in the world – and one of the few that screens short films prior to features. So, we look hard at how everything goes together. It’s a subliminal thing for audiences, but it’s deliberate and that brings a cohesive sense to the festival where everything is bound together and related. So, we start looking at them in September right through until May. The other side of it is that we don’t hide our politics, ethics and personal opinions, so there’s a lot of subjectivity in there and we also like flying the social justice and equality flag high. We like giving a voice to the voiceless and championing risk, so that’s another defining factor in the overall selection process. Festivals internationally are a business and as they have become more business-like, they have become very risk averse because they need to make money or maintain their profile, which is why they all basically play the same things. We play some of those things, but we also play a lot of other kinds of things, which is why filmmakers love us.
RS: We don’t just work in the arts, we contribute to it through our commissioning of short works and moving image art and through our own productions of which we’re producing two films right now. So for us, it’s not just an ecosystem we reflect by showing films, but which we actively participate in and contribute to year-round. We’ve got skin in the game so we’re more than just interested, we’re creating. Seeing how others create and how they think is incredibly interesting for us, and if we’re interested, that makes us think that at least one other person might be, hence us showing these arts films. Getting inside the mind of artists is both scary and exhilarating, but it’s also really valuable in framing your own practice, so if by showing these films we can in some way contribute to the positive growth and development of art of all kinds in WA, we will.
These films are also often very personal and intimate. That’s a kind of film we like and that’s also why they’re there.
RA: What is particularly special about the 2022 program for you?
RS: It’s pretty special that after the utter devastation COVID has wreaked on the industry, we’re not only alive but stronger than we’ve ever been. To be here and have delivered two online festivals, six live festivals and major events and produced nine short works since 2020 is a major achievement in anyone’s language. This makes 2022 very special for us all. Rev might be celebrating 25 years, but we’re not stopping to smell the roses and celebrate past success, we’re diving headlong into the future, and I think the 2022 program has that propulsion. I think the program is incredibly energetic and just vibrating with creative power waiting to be unleashed now and into the future. There’s so many discoveries not just in film craft but in thinking in the program and it’s incredibly well rounded and mature. It’s like the lid has been lifted off a new wave. I like it a lot.
RA: Borders are open and the Festival features a stack of interstate and international visitors. Who should we watch out for?
RS: Yes, there’s quite a few people making their way over. The team behind the awesome short film Bunker: The Last Fleet will be there from the east – that film is a killer! Likewise the makers of the great comedy Hatchback will be there. The makers of our opening night film and SXSW smash Sissy will be in the house and two of our favourite up and coming Aussie indie filmmakers Platon Theodoris and Matthew Victor Pastor will also be attending. Those guys are going to be big. It’s great being able to host them and others – they are all a ton of fun and their films are just fantastic.
RA: You’ve been head of film programs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and involved in various film festivals around Australia. What is it about the moving image that appeals so much?
RS: It’s just so free. I love every aspect of it. I love backstage. I love production. I love talking about movies. I love writing about them. I love analysing the sector. I love the history. I love experimenting with forms. I love the power films have over audiences. I love the psychology. I love the people. I love the technology – analogue or otherwise. I love handling actual film stock. I love the projection rooms. I love being on tour. I love rigging screens, projectors and PAs. It’s all just so great and a ton of fun. I’ve had the best time and met the most amazing people and spent a lot of time with them on the road and made life-long friendships. There’s no money in it and it can be a life-long creative and financial struggle, but my god it’s a blast. No day is the same. When I travel and have to fill out a travel declaration or say what my occupation is, I just write “Showbusiness”. That’s it. It always makes me smile.
Pictured top: Festival director Richard Sowada is the director of the Revelation Film Festival. Photo supplied
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