The joy of short films


Gympie’s Heart of Gold short film festival

The phrase most often heard during a four-day short film festival is that film-making, in particular short films, is a ‘labour of love‘.By that, the film-maker means he/she/they did not make a bean out of it – in fact probably lost money.

Gympie’s Heart of Gold International short film festival was held last weekend after a two-year hiatus through the Covid pandemic.

Festival director Jackson Lapsley Scott waded through 914 short movies from Australia and around the world to end up with a 170-film programme. We arrived at noon on Friday so despite the late start (the festival opened on Thursday night), we did well to sit through 32 movies, including two sessions under moonlight in an arena at the Gympie Showgrounds.

We’d been to this festival previously and found it most entertaining and absorbing. The joy of watching short films is, if you are not enjoying it, there’s only 10 or 15 minutes to sit through. Some of the films were really short. The endearing Irish animation, Gunter Falls in Love, runs for just two minutes. Gunter is a pudgy pug who falls in love on Christmas Day. The story is almost entirely conveyed with eye movements and sight gags. I’m not such a fan of animated movies, but at this festival there were some outstanding examples of the genre.

Some combine live action film with animated characters – this was first done to effect in 1988 with the acclaimed Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Who could forget the curvaceous character Jessica, who tells horny Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins): “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way!”

Wildebeest is a 20-minute film about a middle-aged couple who go on a trip of a lifetime safari only to be left behind with the wild animals in the South African savannah. This somewhat raunchy satire is darkly amusing. There were others that caught my attention – an Australian animation (Reboot), about an out of work skeleton actor whose famous old movie is being re-made using digital technology.  Skel’s not giving up without a fight.

Festival director Jackson Lapsley Scott’s name cropped up in a couple of movies as ‘executive producer’. I asked him did that mean he put up the money?

He explained that he had worked with Screen Queensland to help produce the movies, Thea Goes To Town and The Moths Will Eat Them Up. His role was to help facilitate script development, oversee budgets and be involved in other producer roles. Each film was allocated $50,000, which is quite generous in that some independent shorts are made with a $500 catering budget and a team of volunteers,

“With that sort of budget you can pay people properly. Fifty thousand might sound like a lot of money for a 12-minute film, but it can disappear very quickly.”

The Heart of Gold Festival was staged this year with the help of a $180,000 Federal Government RISE grant.

The Federal Government invested $200 million in the RISE programme to help arts organisations rebuild after Covid setbacks.

Jackson said the grant was vital to organising this year’s festival at a time when local sponsorship had dwindled due to the negative effects of Covid and floods and volunteer interest needing to be rebuilt. The grant also meant the festival could stage some free events to engage the local community.

“We probably would have been dead in the water or a very different looking festival without it,” he said.

“The grant allowed us to appoint people to paid positions and start rebuilding the festival after two years off.” 

Fortunately, audience numbers this year were higher than usual. So although the budget is yet to be finalised, safe to say HOG will be back in 2023.

“We were expecting numbers to be lower because of the way audiences responded to Covid,” Jackson said. “We were very heartened by the response.”

Heart of Gold took some short films on the road in late June to promote the festival, visiting Maryborough, Toowoomba, Pomona and Maleny. Jackson said the promotional tour was successful, so is planning to do it again next year and extend it to seven locations.

This year, the festival moved from its traditional home (the Gympie Civic Centre) to the showgrounds, making the most of the extra space, staging live music, an outdoor cinema, talks, workshops and podcasts.

The festival was not without some hiccups, including a savage storm on Thursday evening which brought strong winds, rain and hail. The storm damaged some of the festival’s outdoor tents and equipment and there was a blackout. But someone found a generator and a battery-powered PA, so the show went on!

The motivation for film-makers entering movies in a festival like Heart of Gold is that films are seen by a new audience and some are nominated for awards, judged by a panel of experts. Apart from cash prizes, winning awards brings street cred in the cinema business.

While there was a strong contingent of Australian films, there were worthy offerings from around the world. This year Heart of Gold introduced an audience’s choice award (won by The Invention).

This endearing 18-minute Irish film focuses on a Belfast lad who hatches a plan to steal cigarettes (for a good cause).

My favourite was Where is my Darling, a documentary about a homeless man, Lanz Priestley. Lanz organised distribution of bottled water during the drought to remote settlements in New South Wales. A charismatic character, he built up Dignity Water just using his mobile phone and a Facebook page.

Heart of Gold is one of 25 or more film festivals held in Australian cities and towns but is billed as the country’s biggest rural festival. It’s been going for 16 years, albeit with an absence during three of those years.

It’s plain to see there is no shortage of material. Heart of Gold’s brief is to find films that are positive and uplifting. But as Jackson said, post-Covid a lot of filmmakers focused on the darker side of life so it was difficult to find a balance.

The Best Short Film award was won by Like The Ones I Used To Know (Canada) directed by Annie St-Pierre. This is a bitter-sweet tale of a recently divorced man who visits his ex-in-laws on Christmas Eve to pick up his children.

Best Australian film, What Was It Like, was directed by Genevieve Clay-Smith. In this documentary, eight film-makers with intellectual disabilities interview their parents about what it was like when doctors delivered their diagnosis.

Which brings us to the question – where can you see movies like this if you don’t go to film festivals?

Many are available (free) on internet video platforms including YouTube and Vimeo. A link to the aforementioned Wildebeest is included here (don’t shoot the messenger!)

I’m wondering what it would take to convince the big cinema chains to reinstate the tradition of ‘shorts’ which used to precede feature films? It would be handy too if the big chains paid to screen the shorts, deriving much-needed income for independent film makers around the world.

Until that happens, the independent short film makers get by through applying for grants and asking sponsors and supporters for money. Many of the short films we saw stated in the credits that the film could not have been made without crowdfunding through the likes of Pozible, Go Fund Me and Kickstarter. As long-standing FOMM readers may remember, I canvassed the topic of crowdfunding back in 2015, as it was emerging. Good to see crowdfunding still supporting independent movies, art, theatre and music.

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