Tropfest: Where Aussies go big on shorts
For the premiere screening of his 1993 film “Surry Hills: 902 Spring Roll,” director John Polson wanted an appropriately modest venue and a low-key event. The film, after all, was just nine minutes in length, hardly worth the trouble and expense of renting out an entire theater. So Polson got permission from the Tropicana Cafe, an Italian eatery on Victoria Street in the Darlinghurst district of his native Sydney, Australia, to set up a TV in the corner where friends could watch the movie.
To Polson’s delight, a huge crowd – 200 strong – turned out to view his creation, a mock on a food-delivery service shot in the style of “Cops.” “I was so caught up in the spirit of the night, I announced that the next year I would hold a festival at the Tropicana, and I wanted people to make their own short films for it,” he said.It may have been the celebratory atmosphere that caused Polson to speak up, but he had sound reasons for urging other aspiring filmmakers to get busy. Among his circle of cinéastes, talk was more prevalent than production.
“A lot of people were complaining they weren’t getting a break,” said Polson. The festival, which Polson did, in fact, institute the following year and named Tropfest after the hosting cafe, “became a vehicle for people who were just sitting around talking about films and became a platform for people to show what they could do.”Over the ensuing decade, Tropfest has become nothing short of a national event. The 2005 festival – now known as Sony Tropfest, an indication of how it has grown – drew a crowd of 150,000 to the Domain, a park in downtown Sydney. The program of 16 films – all world premieres, and each one made specifically for Tropfest – is also beamed to a handful of other Australian cities, where attendance goes up to 15,000. And while Tropfest long ago outgrew the Tropicana, Polson hasn’t forsaken his roots: Tropicana is among a handful of Victoria Street spots that are reserved by diehards months in advance for Tropfest night, held in late February toward the end of the Austral summer.”It’s like a rock concert,” said Polson, who appears at Aspen Shortsfest Sunday, April 10, with Australian Cool: The Best of Tropfest, featuring films from Tropfests past and footage of the festival. Making it truly resemble a rock concert is that Tropfest includes bands playing in the afternoon and plenty of drinking leading up to the screenings. Tropfest rivals the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras as Australia’s biggest annual event and is the largest short-film festival in audience size.
Tropfest also surely ranks as one of the odder festivals devoted to short films. Films can run no longer than seven minutes. They have to premiere at Tropfest. And in the most singular stroke, each film must contain the Tropfest Signature Item – the TSI in Trop-speak. Past TSIs included a pickle, a teaspoon and a coffee bean; this year’s item was an umbrella, in homage to last year’s rain storms on Tropfest night. While Tropfest is marked by its sense of humor – the majority of the films, following in the footsteps of “Surry Hills,” are comedies – the innovation of the TSI is not merely a reflection of the Australian sense of humor.In 1995 – when Tropfest had grown to a few thousand people cramming Victoria Street – “I realized people were using Tropfest as a forum to pull out their student films from two to three years ago,” said Polson. “But that wasn’t my idea. My idea was to stimulate production. This was about having 16 premieres on one night. The TSI was the best way to stimulate that, not to just pull something out of the closet.”The 39-year-old Polson’s soft spot for short films dates back to the days when he was just watching films, not making them. The most memorable part of seeing “The Wizard of Oz” on the big screen as a child wasn’t the moment when black-and-white Kansas gives way to the Technicolor of Munchkinland, but “The Red Balloon,” the French short that preceded the movie and became Polson’s favorite film. Polson began his career as a teenage actor, but used the money he earned acting to make short films, seven in all, which showed at festivals around the world.”Short film is such a unique format,” he said. “It’s not a short feature film. It has its own charisma. There are creative concepts that can be encapsulated in seven or five or even two minutes that you can’t capture in any other medium.”
Unlike the United States, Australia, in line with Europe, had a strong tradition of short filmmaking. But by the early ’90s that tradition had faded. Just as shorts were reaching an ebb, the technology for making films became infinitely more accessible. Polson credits this combination of factors to the shocking popularity of Tropfest.”Tropfest came along at a fortuitous time, when people were experimenting with new digital technology,” he said. Tropfest has bolstered the interest in filmmaking, as evidenced in the 792 submissions, almost all from Australia, received this year.While the 16 finalists cover all the stylistic bases, Polson says comedy is the backbone of Tropfest. Most of the dozen films to be presented in Aspen are comedies, including the reigning champ, “Australian Summer,” which Polson describes as “a drama with some funny lightness.” Humor, says Polson, runs deep in the Australian character.
“Clearly the [Australian feature] films that have done well the last few years – ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’ ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ – there’s a kind of sense of humor that’s a product of the carefree nature there,” he said. “Australia, and New Zealand – they’re cosmopolitan places, but they’re separated from the world and it’s not a big population. That shows in the sense of humor on the street and on the screen. The cliché is quirky, but it’s kind of true.”And when the audience is not a few dozen in a dark, hushed theater but 150,000 partying Aussies in a huge park, comedy tends to play particularly well. “It’s a great way to grab their attention, by making them laugh,” said Polson.Surprisingly, running a festival that spans a continent and draws a good-sized city into the Domain isn’t Polson’s main job. Though he still serves as Tropfest’s creative director, Polson has landed his dream position, in the director’s chair on the set of feature-length films. Since his feature debut, the 1999 dark comedy “Siam Sunset,” he has directed two high-profile projects: 2002’s “Swimfan” and this year’s “Hide and Seek,” which starred Robert De Niro. Both of those films happen to be thrillers, a genre Polson loves – “It’s a lot of fun trying to scare people, freak them out, scare not just their bodies, but their minds,” he said – but he has his eye on other genres, perhaps comedies or political thrillers.
And Tropfest remains a labor of love of a different sort. While the trip to Aspen is the first time Polson is taking Tropfest on the road, he is in discussions to export the concept to New York, where he has lived for the past four years. The aim is not only to draw crowds of American film fans, but to stimulate filmmakers as well.Tropfest, he said, “started as an accident. But it’s something I embrace and would build any way I can. It’s not all about me, which directing can become. This is a platform for other people.”
Australian Cool: The Best of Tropfest is set for Sunday, April 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.Sunday, the closing day of Shortsfest, also features the “ScreenPlay!” family program at the Wheeler at 3 p.m.; the awards ceremony at the Mountain Chalet at 4 p.m.; and screening programs at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale and the Springs Theatre in Glenwood Springs at 7 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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