John L. Simpson talks to SBS Film about the biggest year yet of his young festival.
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26 Jul 2012 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 26 Jul 2012 - 12:28 PM

In the last two years, Indie Gems has countered the lack of alternative cinema in Sydney's west by presenting a film festival program filled with unique, low budget Australian films. The festival was created by Australian producer and distributor John L. Simpson (The Jammed, Mother Fish, Men's Group). Born and bred in Sydney's north-west, Simpson recognised that a void existed in the state's festival landscape, both for viewers and filmmakers.

“Indie Gems has always been about independent filmmakers and connecting them with an audience [via] films that not only entertain but make you think and reflect on life.” he tells SBS Film. “After the first two years of focusing on Australian films we were keen to embrace international filmmakers, as we recognised that indie artists are part of a global family.”

The international titles selected are Amit Rai's Finding Gandhi (aka The Road to Sangam), an Indian road movie examining prejudice and tolerance, and Piotr Uzarowicz's US-backed Serbian documentary The Officer's Wife, a recounting of a dark, murderous time in Eastern Europe's recent history.

Four feature-length Australian films will screen this year: 10 Terrorists, a black comedy and long-awaited follow-up from the director of The Jammed, Dee McLachlan; Jeremy Stanford's one-last-shot rock'n'roll dramedy, The Sunset Six (pictured, top); writer/director Martyn Park's chilling riff on memories and the supernatural, Isolate (featuring the Los Angeles Fear and Fantasy Film Festival Best Actress winner, Jacinta John); and Bathing Franky, a complex, bittersweet, fantastical mother-and-son story from debut director Owen Elliott.

Local short films are also well represented, with two full strands of eclectic works ranging from animation (Cedric and Hope; Big Buck Bunny) and web series (Henry & Aaron's Perfectly Adequate Christmas), to dark genre films (Perished, fresh from its Sydney Film Festival premiere) and examinations of the immigrant experience (Inheritance; Donydji; The Lebanese Wallet).

In a bold move, Simpson has combined his producer and festival director roles and will test screen a work-in-progress, Simon Barker's psychological thriller Bedlam. Though it's an accepted practice at international festivals, it's rarely employed here because a lot is at stake. Should a film fail to impress, even in rough-cut, countering bad word-of-mouth can be tough. Simpson is confident that his film will hold up to early scrutiny and his audience is savvy enough to understand this stage of its life cycle.

“Australian film lovers usually get to see festival films in their final, locked off state. It's great to remind us all that filmmakers go through a process and consulting the consumer is not only a cool thing to do but also very beneficial,” he says. “Films are unique products driven by passion and a desire to connect with an audience – testing is a crucial part of the process, particularly in terms of marketing.”

Simpson's strike rate as a producer of non-commercial material is admired by many industry professionals. He takes the responsibilities of being a figurehead for indie Australian cinema very seriously and has chosen to honour one senior industry figure with Indie Gem's Mentor of the Year Award; the honouree will be revealed at the closing ceremony on July 29.

“Emerging practitioners in the film business need wise and generous folks to shine a light on the path. It's a tough game, but if you have someone in your corner, it can make all the difference,” says Simpson. “I know that I have been supported and mentored by some amazing individuals and organisations, such as SPAA and the AFI.”

Indie Gems takes place at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta from July 26-29. Visit the official website for more information.