The popular regional festival continues to embrace its laid-back, humanistic origins.
1 Feb 2013 - 3:20 PM  UPDATED 1 Feb 2013 - 3:20 PM

The number of regional film festivals has soared over the past 20-odd years, both here and abroad. Inspired by the tremendous success of the remotely-located Sundance Film Festival, local councils with an eye on tourist dollars have partnered with passionate film societies to establish events that have become synonymous with their community

The Byron Bay Film Festival (BBFF), the 7th edition of its 10-day schedule launching on March 1, is arguably Australia's most successful regional event, an honour that festival director J'aimee Skippon-Volke views as a tremendous responsibility.

“Our founding principals were to support Byron's film industry, using film to reinforce our unique cultural identity [and] to be a platform for talent and filmmakers at all stage of their careers,” she tells SBS Film.

“The Northern Rivers is the largest hub for filmmakers in Australia outside of a metropolitan area and so we seek to create opportunities to highlight this core creative industry,” she says. “We bring opportunities for locals to have their work profiled on an international platform in their own backyard.” In 2013, coast resident Cathy Henkel will screen Show Me the Magic, her insightful look at legendary Australian cinematographer Don McAlpine.

Byron's reputation as a travel destination helps the festival to overcome the tyranny of distance that can affect the attraction of festival guests.

“Last year we had over 50 percent of our Australian films represented by cast or crew and we've started to see international filmmakers collaborating with our local filmmakers after meeting at the festival,” says Skippon-Volke. “Byron is a town which struggles to cope with its own popularity; in the peak season, [locals] are outnumbered, sometimes 5-to-1. Many of our filmmakers have been going through the international festival circuit and we're really proud of the fact that they let us know that we've really managed to give them a unique, laid-back experience.”

Unlike Sundance, which many feel has sacrificed its indie credibility in favour of Hollywood dealmaking and networking, Skippon-Volke refuses to entertain the notion that over-corporatisation of her festival will eventuate someday. “Our event definitely aspires to become a destination-based festival where filmmakers can do business but achieving that goal won't necessarily mean we'll have sold out. [We will achieve that] by continuing to select thoughtful films over obvious formulaic Hollywood fillers.”

The program continues to reflect the deeply humanistic ethos that the organising committee has adhered since the festival's birth. “We put together a very diverse and contemporary program, which features films from usually about 35 countries,” points out Skippon-Volke, adding “social justice and environmental activism feature strongly in our documentary strands.”

While several of the festival slots are still being finalised at time of writing, confirmed features include: Elemental (pictured), a triptych of man-vs.-big business true stories from co-directors Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee; the world premiere of Australian director Akmal Saleh's Pharoahs vs. the Egyptians, a chronicle of the ex-comedian's journey to Egypt and the role of the social media-led youth in the 2011 uprising; leading Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Bing's account of a poor family's struggle in remote China, Alone; and director-composer Gary Tarn's vast, Malick-like interpretation of Khalil Gibran's hugely popular 1923 novel, The Prophet, featuring narration by actress Thandie Newton.

BBFF this year has adopted the tagline, 'Open Your Aperture'. Says Skippon-Volke: “We are using film to encourage people to step outside of their comfort zones and widen their vision.” The slogan dictates that selected films explore the facets of our existence that don't often emerge in modern filmmaking. “It is a challenge,” admits the director, who has curated the event for all of its seven years. “We only invite in a few films and the majority of the films we screen find us.”

One of the most eagerly-anticipated screenings will be the Australian premiere of Alonso Mayo's The Story of Luke, featuring Lou Taylor-Pucci as an autistic teenager seeking romance. Already a festival hit in the US, it fits well with Skippon Volke's aims and ambitions in 2013. “We screen over 200 films and don't really 'theme' the festival as such, but this year we are encouraging a message of empowerment. I have noticed trends over the years and at the moment it's like films are giving voices to social movements where an issue has 'come of age' as it were. If there is one message I am clearly picking up on it is that of positive change.”