St Kilda Film Festival Chalks Up 30th Milestone

A scene from Christopher Frey's St Kilda Film Festival short, Explosions
A scene from Christopher Frey’s St Kilda Film Festival short, Explosions

The venerable smorgasbord of all things short and filmic, the St Kilda Film Festival, launches its thirtieth outing at the majestic Palais this Thursday night.

The foremost festival of its kind in Australia, over 600 hopefuls sweat blood and tears to be a part of this year’s hottest 100.

Festival director Paul Harris, who’s been in to top job for thirteen years now, unlucky for some, is the man with the unenviable task of whittling them all down to the very best this year has to offer.

“Basically, the good films go straight in, the bad go straight out,” he says. “But most films don’t belong to either category. There are some films which personally I might not enjoy, and I show them to other people and look at them over and over again.”

Above all, he looks for a clarity of voice that expresses something personal about the filmmaker’s experience. “You have to be captivated, delighted and astonished, rather than being able to guess what happens next, or watch films that only make you feel more jaded because you’ve seen so many similar ideas.”

Another big tip for those wanting to compete next year is to focus on the mandate. “If you want to stand out from the crowd, make sure you’re making a short, and not a feature trapped in the body of a short. Most short films I see are about 15 minutes, but if you can make one around five and make people respond, they’ll feel ‘wow, what was that.’”

Harris sees the short film industry in Australia, and it’s premiere showcase in the St Kilda Film Festival, as a vibrant training ground for future feature directors, honing their skills, and it’s also a forum for up to 50 industry experts offering their advice for free.

“You have to learn your craft by going out and making mistakes, and being smart enough not to repeat them,” he says. “You have to be very economic and succinct. Working with limited resources is no reason to limit your imagination.”

Harris gets irked by a perceived snobbery over short film, with what he coins the spinach theory. “People involved in the film world who see these shorts always say how amazing they were, like they were expecting a bowl of spinach. As if they won’t enjoy the taste of it, they’ll just get through it. The reality is they are very entertaining.”

He points to directors like David Lynch and Wim Wenders who repeatedly come back to the short form. “As you ascend the ladder, you will have producers and investors breathing down your neck. With shorts you have a lot more creative freedom.”

Christopher Frey, based in Melbourne’s western suburbs, has not one but two offerings in this year’s festival. Explosions, a silent film set to classical music he composed himself, will debut on opening night.

The simple premise of this six-minute slice of the surreal sees a young girl trying to escape and inexplicable loss of gravity as various inhabitants of her suburb float off into the night sky.

“I had this abstract image in my mind of feet floating past a streetlight,” he says. “I have no idea where that came from. There was a thematic drive behind it as well; I wanted to explore the concept of a non-violent, transcendental explosion.”

Frey says the film industry is going through the same kind of democratisation process that has transformed the music business over the last 15 years or so, with the availability of affordable technology meaning it’s easier than ever for directors to shoot guerrilla-style and edit on their laptops at home.

While that’s great news for budding filmmakers, it can make for a crowded scene. Frey says the exposure of Explosions screening on opening night is a big win for him, and has already led to approaches for other projects.

“Exposure is the most valuable thing,” he admits. “It’s hard to have your film cut through.”

His second short this year, Sudden Night, was written by his sister Lynette. A poet and an academic, she’s crafted something of a ghost story.

While Frey admits he once saw short filmmaking as a stepping-stone to features, he’s revised this opinion over the years.  “It’s an incredibly difficult format to work within. In some ways, I’d maintain more difficult than a feature film. It really requires that brevity, and you need to be very cogent and concise to be able to tell any kind of cohesive story in that short amount of time.”

Stephen A Russell

The 30th St Kilda Film festival from Thursday, May 23 to Saturday, June 1