Celebrating films about social justice and community action, the young festival aims to engage audiences with the issues beyond the screen.
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18 Mar 2014 - 10:36 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

In the last decade the Australian film festival scene has become as overcrowded as a pet shop window full of puppies. It takes an incredibly brave and optimistic person to open yet another new event, given the calendar scarcely has a spot not claimed by at least one and often two or three of the critters.

But then the Reverend Bill Crews, the force behind Sydney’s Big Picture Film Festival, is nothing if not a bold individual. This is a man who, when he’s not launching film festivals, is putting across his views about social justice to listeners of right-wing shock jock station 2GB; heading a charitable trust named after him aimed at relieving international poverty and disadvantage through entrepreneurial projects, as well as a homeless youth charity, The Exodus Foundation. And still he manages to finds time to carry out his duties as a minister of the Uniting Church in Sydney’s Ashfield.

After that introduction, no-one should be surprised that his Big Picture event, screening for its second year in downtown Sydney and for the first time in the southwestern suburb of Liverpool, is big on social justice issues. This year’s event, which last year programmed documentaries only and has now expanded to include fictional features, is fit to burst with the world’s wrongs, from genocide and slavery to animal welfare and the ugly effects of US gun culture and the iniquities of that nation’s legal system.

The main difference between this and other annual events such as the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, though, is that BPFF is going out of its way to spur its patrons to social action. Taking a cue from the Al Gore climate change doco, An Inconvenient Truth, which was conceived in part as a campaign kick-starter, the festival encourages its patrons to get up, get into it and get involved with the various issues.

Most screenings will be followed by panel discussions, and these will focus less on the filmmaking aesthetics and more on the content, with guest speakers drawn where possible from different sides of the political spectrum.

“It’s a lot better than a sermon – it gets people off their bums to get involved,” says Crews, whose light bulb moment came a couple of years ago when he put on a screening of a doco on refugees, Burmese Dreaming, “and all these people came. Afterwards I was talking to all these people and I thought, ‘wow!’ I talked to [former High Court] Justice Michael Kirby and [film critic] David Stratton and asked how a film festival like that would go and they both said it was a good idea.” Stratton recommended US-born, Sydney-based film critic Eddie Cockrell as a program director “and then boom, films just fell out of the sky.” (In addition to his work for US trade paper Variety, Cockrell also works as a freelance and reviewer for SBS Movies.)

Crews says last year the festival “just took off. What we found was 18-39 year-olds lapped it up and they are the group that are hard to get involved in anything. They are not joiners, they are issue-oriented.”

Asked about plans to launch in other Australian cities, he promises “we’ll expand” without naming dates or details. That might be because in the meantime he’s more focused on getting a version of the festival established in London next year. Coming from anyone else this might hopelessly sound pie in the sky, but Crews, whose charitable trust has a firmly established international presence, is used to thinking and acting big and already has been visiting the UK to make this happen. Citing his interest in anti-child trafficking campaigns, he says “there is far more interest in those issues in London, and for most of the world, London is one flight away.”

But aren’t there are already human rights fests operating in the UK and US? Ah, says Crews, “this is not strictly human rights. What we do is to present the issue in a way that gets both right and left wing people there. I have had a lot of people from the Conservatives in London, which surprised me, they said ‘this will show the Conservatives do have a heart.’”

Aware of the danger of preaching only to the converted, Crews says his radio talkback show has given him insights into how to reach people who might not appear natural allies. “You need to argue your case and people you think are your enemy are not necessarily so. You personalise it and you argue it.’ For example, he continues, if you talk about asylum seekers you hear hostility, but when you talk about Ahmed whose family’s lives are threatened, then they can relate to it. “A lot of these people have never heard the other side of the argument, and it’s the same with the ABC [audience].”

Programmer Cockrell is adamant there are sufficient strong titles being made and not screened widely elsewhere to justify another film festival. One obvious programming coup is Cambodian hybrid documentary The Missing Picture, an Oscar best foreign film nominee. Cockrell reviewed the film for SBS Movies after it screened at the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival. This powerfully moving meditation on what it was like to grow up on Pol Pot’s genocidal killing fields employs a unique mixture of voiceover, propaganda film (no other contemporary footage exists) and reenactments using clay figures.

Another high profile title is opening night film Belle, a handsomely produced, slavery-era UK story starring impressive newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a ship captain’s illegitimate, bi-racial daughter, raised in an aristocratic family. It “embodies the balance of social justice issues and entertainment values that we’re looking for.”

As a working critic, Cockrell says he sees “an awful lot of movies which but for a little but of luck and fate would have had a much bigger presence than other films that are as good or not even as well made.” Among the more obscure titles deserving wider recognition in Cockrell’s view is Blue Caprice, about the anonymous snipers who terrorised Maryland and Washington DC in 2002.

BPFF’s advantage over larger festivals is that it’s a “boutique event, where we want to handle each film individually in a way the bigger events can’t do. We’re only showing 17-18 films, we’re able to work with filmmakers and the ethnic press to make sure we reach individual communities and have panel discussions for a majority of the films that have representatives of issues, of all the communities.

“Most of the filmmakers we’re dealing with have sophisticated online presences now,” he says, citing two of the program’s US documentaries, No Evidence of Disease and If You Build It. “The filmmakers have done a lot of our work for us. The aim is attracting people who go home and fire up their computer and find a framework that calls out, ‘here is what I can do to make a difference.’”

Asked about the danger of a social issues festival becoming dull and worthy, Cockrell has a ready-made answer. “We do want to create an atmosphere where people don’t feel they are coming for their nightly dose of cod liver oil. We want people to feel they will see films that are entertaining, e.g. Sneezing Baby Panda, which originated in a YouTube clip that went viral and is screening in BPFF as a family matinee. We’re not all Sturm und Drang and not part of the Rain Man syndrome, where Dustin Hoffman is autistic at the start and autistic at the end of the movie. We balance despair with inspiration.”

The Big Picture Film Festival screens in Sydney, March 19-29. Visit the official website for more information.

Pictured: Blood Brother.