Art, Featured

American Essentials Film Festival: An Interview with Artistic Director Richard Sowada

May 9, 2017

Now in its second year, the American Essentials film festival will again deliver the very best of independent cinema from the US straight to our doorstep. Both a celebration of the stone-cold classics and a space for discovery of America’s brightest new filmmaking talents, the festival presents an eclectic range of films to please all cinematic palates. Opening on May 11 with Mike Mills’ latest, Twentieth Century Women, the festival will also present centrepiece feature Becoming Bond, a documentary exploring the rise and fall of Australia’s own George Lazenby. Featured strand ‘Masters & Masterpieces’ returns featuring classics like Eraserhead, Barfly and Annie Hall as well as documentaries on the inner-lives of Lynch and Bukowski themselves. I recently conducted an interview with Artistic director Richard Sowada to discuss this year’s incredible event.

Hi Richard. Perhaps you could start by telling me about the history of the festival? Why the focus on American Independents?

Well, I love American cinema – independent or otherwise. Its film traditions run deep and have so many layers. In the case of independent cinema these broader traditions are strongly evidenced in the work overall which gives them to a sense of place, continuum and a purpose. I like that. I also like the high-levels of experimentation. It’s always been an adventurous space and the adventure is absolutely fascinating to me. In this there are surprisingly so many excellent undiscovered works that just don’t reach these shores – even in a film festival context – with American Essentials we try and bring them to the table.

I know the festival is playing nationally but apart from showing at The Westgarth, can you reflect a bit on the relationship between film culture in Melbourne’s Inner North and your festival?

Interesting question. In the early 90s I was manager of the old Valhalla there on High St. I love that building and spent long days and late nights there. The tiny projection room, the absolutely committed projectionists, 24hr science fiction events, Blues Brothers and Rocky Horror, Double Take, Pandora’s Box with a live score, Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder in Double System 3-D all were amazing experiences in that incredible auditorium. There was also all manner of action in there too once the doors were closed late into the night. In programming terms I do look at the Westgarth with a different eye. Perhaps it’s still my old Valhalla eye at work but I feel we can most certainly push things a little further there.

What impact do you think American Essentials has had on the film community since launching last year?

The 2016 program had quite of lot of experimental and essay films in it, which are very unusual to find on commercial arthouse screens. They’re hard to see even at the big film festivals also. It was a brave program in that way and filmmakers need to see those kinds of films for their own creative health and cinemas need to have them to demonstrate that there are actually other perspectives and other approaches. From the fest last year we had about 4 films that went on to screen or do seasons elsewhere which is brilliant – and we have some discoveries in this year’s program that will most certainly do that. 

What do you think sets American Essentials apart from other national/local festivals?

I like to think it has a discernable editorial approach. I’d like to think it has a personality and moves beyond just being a showcase of excellent films but is concept that works in its own right – like a visual essay.

What is your personal philosophy for the festival? How would you define its identity/do you have feel you have a key demographic? 

When programming I don’t think about demographic. I program to a way of thinking rather than a kind of person. Age, income, postcode don’t come into it. I like to think that people can see the individuals that stand behind the festival including the filmmakers. This I think gives the event a personality and a sense of actual conversation. If I like the films someone else out there must too. I’m talking to that one person.

You write a fantastic blog, (that I would highly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in film), concerning the festival industry and it’s ever-changing landscape. As festival patrons and cinema-goers, what are some of the biggest changes we’re facing and what can we do to ensure the Australian film industry stays healthy?

Thanks for the kind words. The landscape is indeed changing very fast. There’re two elements here – internal and external. The external forces of change are the same ones facing the broader commercial domain – Netflix and Amazon. Their buying power and distribution outlets have utterly revolutionised the sector. Access to festival bread and butter titles are simply not there. That will have a significant financial and creative impact on festivals. Where a festival title had a year on the circuit, the core titles now only have a matter of months. That makes the A-List festivals still a fertile place for trade but much of what lies underneath is simply not important any more to this new model.
On the other hand events that are more tailor made like Sitges, Chicago Underground, Slamdance, to a degree SXSW, my other life in the Revelation Perth International FF, are in a good position. These are identity driven events with a high-level of personality and editorial comment. They also look in different places for their programs outside of the A-list events. That tailoring will turn out to be a great asset. Internally, I feel festivals globally need to rethink what they are and why. There’s a bit of an identity crisis looming, I feel. For Australia I think it means we need to back and encourage high-risk and high concepts. We need to forget about old notions of territoriality in film distribution and embrace global business practices.

Can you talk about your programming methodology? What do you look for/value in films? What sort of things do you consider when bringing a program together – what is vital?

A film or filmmaker that understands their traditions is top of the list. You see it straight away and that respect is a kind of buttress for the new work. It gives it an architectural strength and perhaps subliminally gives audiences a foothold, which with new work is important. 
Often what will happen is a kind of tone will emerge among a number of films – magical realism for instance is something that’s been growing but is suddenly very big. So I try and figure how to harness that and how it links to the continuum. That link to a continuum then may suggest the nature of the retrospective program.
In this program for instance a very strong literature and art sense emerged – more specifically Lynch, Bukowski, Maupin, Warhol, Fisher. Those ideas and associated programming alone have 8 titles in the program and the sensibility flows to others. Columbus, Are We Not Cats (which has a lot of Lynch in it) flow into that art and architecture zone so suddenly we have 10 films that are related. Outside of that we have four titles that cross over with high documentary and fictional commentary on activism and agitation- All Governments Lie, American Anarchist, The Bomb and American Pastoral. So suddenly we have 14 related titles and a very discernable flow. The other elements of the program fall in around that and there it is.
Ultimately though it’s about how well do these films use the power of what’s available to them – script, screen, performance and sound.

The Masters & Masterpieces section really sets your program apart. Why do you think it is important to program classics?

You have to have context and demonstrate the continuum. It gives the new films more meaning and encourages audiences – especially new ones to dig deeper.

And what are some of your personal highlights from this year’s lineup?

I’ve really tried to give the lineup as much dynamic movement as I can. I wanted very much to take advantage of great sound and presentation capability and fill the screen with propulsion. Nothing really stands still and there are very few titles that run over the 100-minute mark, which in itself is an interesting trend generally. I feel really connected to all the works but I think Columbus is really excellent. High-quality, very mature filmmaking. Are We Not Cats is very cool and very well designed. I love Becoming Bond. That is just so funny and George Lazenby is a riot. As far as more experimental things go The Bomb is incredible. I love found footage, I love symphonic documentaries and I love atomic test footage (weird I know) and that film is utterly overwhelming. It’s huge. The Bukowski documentary You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski is really great too – it’s so simple and he’s so interesting…and look you just can’t go past the David Lynch documentary The Art Life on a double with Eraserhead is a perfect cinema experience.

Final question: What are your hopes and dreams for the festival, how do you envisage it will change/develop 5 -10 years down the track?

There’s a lot of experimentation still to come as we experiment with context but I’d really love to see the program go out to some more far-flung locations and integrate visits from filmmakers and performers that we simple weren’t able to do this year. That direct contact is really important so in conversations and masterclasses would be our next big move. I think we can feed into creative output in Australia and work toward establishing lasting relationships with other film festivals, producer’s creative types.

With a lineup not to be missed, The American Essentials Film Festival runs from May 11-24 and screens at The Palace Westgarth, Astor & Como cinemas. Tickets can be purchased here.

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