The phrase ‘film festival’ usually conjures one of two images; there is the picnics-in-the-park, champagne in plastic cups, big screen under falling night scenario on the one side, and on the other, the Palm d’Or, Hollywood, red carpet and celebrities gracefully melting under too much pristine makeup and a barrage of flash bulbs scenario.
The Byron Bay Film Festival defies these stereotypes and, like so many things that bless the Byron Shire, walks it’s own thankfully unique path.
In this, its eighth year, the Byron Bay Film Festival hosts over 200 films from all over the world, encompassing a diverse variety of genres, from short film to feature length, and traversing a myriad of topics. Surfing, of course, plays a part in the lineup, but it is a small proportion of the subject matter, alien artefacts, roller derby, social struggles, spiritual journeys and drag racing just a handful of the far-flung sources of inspiration for the international collective of independent filmmakers. But there is an underlying theme through all of these films that unites them, and it is this theme that makes the film festival so wonderfully and quintessentially Byron.
These films make you think.
“There are a lot of very conscious thinkers in this area,” says festival director, J’aimee Skippon-Volke, “and we program our films accordingly. One of the things that interested me about the film festival in the very beginning was the idea of creating an event that really celebrated Byron’s ethos and ethics and what people really care about and want to be involved in.”
This isn’t to say that every film is about Byron Bay, or even some of our cherished clichés – whales, hippies, fire jugglers et al. The Byron mentality is of sustainability, spiritual growth, free thinking, an anti-establishment mindset that defies the dogmatic prescriptions of society at large and it is shared, in isolated pockets, globally. ‘Open Your Aperture’, as the festival’s tagline proclaims, the aperture of your eyes, your mind, and your heart.
“Because we have very little funding from government bodies or big corporations, and because as a team we hold a core integrity, we very much get to beat our own drum,” reflects J’aimee. “Other regional film festivals and events in Australia are being funded by mining corporations, but we’ve got the Australian premiere of Gasland 2, telling the other side of the story. One of the reasons we got that film was because Josh Fox, the director, recognised that we need the support of having a film of that level coming to the festival, as well as recognising the community here and how active they have been on the CSG issue.”
Through both their hard work and a dedication to their beliefs, J’aimee and her team find little need to source films, having developed a reputation indicative of the Shire’s mindset, attracting almost a thousand submissions this year alone. With only a finite number of places available, J’aimee is faced each year with the challenging task of picking one world-class film over another for inclusion in the festival program. “The main thing I’m seeing is an increase, not only in the number of films submitted, but in the quality of those films,” says J’aimee of this year’s batch of submissions. “There were many films I had to reject that I would have screened if only we had a larger audience base or more time and space in our program. That’s a really good sign, that we’re rejecting films that are just great and there’s no reason whatsoever to reject them other than that we’ve exhausted the program.”
Despite limited financing and being an event built on volunteer hours and community generosity, the Byron Bay Film Festival is world-renowned. This isn’t amateur hour at the local village hall, the calibre of films and documentaries second to none and many directors choosing Byron Bay as the destination of their Australian premiere, alongside the upper echelon of global events.
“We’ve done so well with the filmmakers really loving their Byron Bay experience and what it means to them that we have directors who are on the top tier of the film circuit, doing Berlin, doing Venice, doing South By South West (in Austin, Texas), who want to give us their Australian premieres,” says J’aimee.
Having been born into film and television, her father being an integral part of Reg Grundy’s Grundy Network and working in the industry directly for many years, both here and in London, there is a hint of bitter-sweet in J’aimee’s role as event director. But, despite an inkling desire burning within her to create her own films, she has a selflessly motivated outlook upon the festival.
“I could make one film that might possibly be really good,” she muses, “or we could be a platform for all these filmmakers who I know are really good. That’s probably a more important way to use our skills base and our talents at this time.”
Her open-mindedness is a gift to the both the Byron and the international film communities, allowing a forum to present a wonderfully creative range of movies and documentaries that induce self-examination and reflection in their audiences. Films can be pure escapism, from ourselves, from the world around us, from reality itself, or they can be a nudge in the ribs, a call to action, a method of education that is a joy to receive. The Byron Bay Film Festival is as much about enlightenment as it is about entertainment and, let’s be honest, isn’t that exactly as a Byron Bay film festival should be?
– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Feb 12, 2014