Revving up out West

June 1st, 2005 Film, Film Features, Filmink

Now in it’s eighth year, the Perth-based REVelation Film Festival has been called ‘one of the most important festivals in the country’ by the ABC. Drew Turney talks to director and founder Richard Sowada about how REVelation has become so influential while still thumbing its nose at The Man.

Western Australia is a far flung place. The first thing locals tell you is that it’s the most remote capital city in the world. In an area that could encompass most of Europe within its borders but hasn’t enough people to fill a single major European city, the arts is always going to do it tough, despite a very literate and dedicated independent film audience.

‘Perth is a hard place for something like Rev,’ admits festival director Richard Sowada, ‘so it’s perhaps taken a little bit longer than I would have hoped for it to get to this stage, but its development over a longer period has also enabled me to suss things out in a considered and thoughtful way. Being big was never the aim though, and still isn’t.’

It seems Sowada and REVelation have had influence — if not a distinct sense of ‘big’ — thrust upon them. And the reason seems to be the undercurrent of frustration with the commercial system (from studios right down to exhibitors) felt by both audiences and Sowada himself.

‘Starting REVelation was a reaction to my feelings about the industry,’ he says. ‘I tried to enter the distribution and exhibition scene but found it way too conservative and restricted. I did some work for the Melbourne Film Festival and was suddenly exposed to a range of films that really knocked me out and made me ask myself ‘why don’t we see films like this?’ people ask me that all the time, so I didn’t think I was the only one who felt that way.

‘So I started working with a few underground films and ideas in bars and clubs, curating my own programs and getting a real sense of how to put together and promote them. That developed into REVelation, and the principle has always been total independence. Rev doesn’t generally work with distributors, as that sector represents one of our major industry problems. Should all the venues collapse in a heap, we’d be as comfortable in bars as we would in the cinemas. It was really about ‘hey, I don’t need established structures to show movies’.’

REVelation is truly the voice of Sowada and many like him in action. It’s not about the jittery politics of making films, bloodthirsty pursuit of the bottom line or maintaining an industry status quo. In Sowada’s own words, REVelation wears it opinions on its sleeve. He’s still not convinced about the label ‘alternative’ though.

‘The notion is an interesting one,’ he agrees, ‘Who labels something ‘alternative’? REVelation would be turning people away on Monday nights in the middle of winter. I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find any cinema doing the same level of business in Perth, or anywhere for that matter. So I guess the ‘alternative’ is in doing more commercial business yet being labelled ‘niche’.

‘I love discovering movies and giving audiences the same opportunity. So yes, it’s a conscious decision to exhibit works that often fall outside what we would ordinarily see. And part of the reason for that is because it’s important to us to demonstrate that films (such as documentaries) that are believed to have no commercial legs actually do. I’ve got nothing against other forms though, I love big screen movies of any kind.’

Testament to the importance of Sowada’s intentions for film in Australia is the creation of the first REVelation Screen Conference. Being pushed as a welcome alternative to the usual round of industry gabfests, the REVelation website describes the Conference as somewhere for those tired of discussing ‘what are they buying?’ rather than ‘what are we making?’

‘I’ve been involved in a range of industry conferences and I think there are some serious problems with these too,’ Sowada says, explaining the reasons behind the conference. ‘There’s simply no attention paid to critical or intellectual rigor, which I think is visiting itself on the creative integrity of works. I find it odd that the industry is in such poor creative shape despite the fact there are major screen conferences run by peak industry bodies dedicated to the creative health of filmmaking. Something’s wrong somewhere so we’re focusing on creative rather than business imperatives.’

So after eight years redefining the cultural landscape of WA and weighing in across the country to help shape the language of film festivals, REVelation shows no signs of slowing down.

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