Lynden Barber visits Tasmania’s Breath of Fresh Air and compares it to Sydney’s recent Cockatoo Island Film Festival.
16 Nov 2012 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 19 Nov 2012 - 2:30 PM

The last few weeks have seen two relatively small yet ambitious new film festivals staged in Australia. The first, Sydney's Cockatoo Island, suffered a very public fiasco on its opening night when more people turned up to see P.T. Anderson's The Master than there were seats – a cock-up publicised in embarrassing detail in the next day's SMH.

The second was the second edition of Tasmania's Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival (BOFA), which saw a roughly 70% increase in audiences over its inaugural 2011 event, a result achieved despite a cut in the number of screenings by 25% over the same period.
Both the NSW and Tasmanian festivals are essentially weekend-plus festivals (which at this stage of development makes sense – golden rule: start small then gradually expand), Cockatoo launching on a Wednesday and BOFA opening on a Thursday and both running until Sunday.

But while I struggled hard to discern any rationale for the existence of Cockatoo beyond the need of local authorities to find a use for a derelict former docklands site on Sydney Harbour, nobody needs look hard to see that BOFA has an obvious community to serve. That there is no annual film festival in Tasmania and no specialist independent or art house cinema beyond Hobart's State Cinema alone tells you an annual festival is long overdue. The organisers' emphasis on the inclusion of new media also gives it a point of difference with many of the bigger festivals on the mainland.

The festival this year expanded to Hobart's MONA and State Cinema. I visited its base in Launceston for three days but quickly saw it was already attracting significant audiences for at least some of its screenings in its second year. The first screening I attended, retirees drama And If We All Lived Together starring Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin, attracted 200-plus on a Friday afternoon. Compare this to the 35-40 viewers attracted to each of the two Cockatoo screenings I sat through on a weekend afternoon. (To be fair, there were other sessions overlapping, but that's still a weak crowd size.)

BOFA has an obvious advantage in the form of an attractive screening hub around the Tramshed Museum. This spacious and stylishly designed arts and museum precinct on the edge of town includes a couple of screening theatres, a planetarium (where I greatly enjoyed Lynette Wallworth's underwater-themed installation, Coral Rekindling Venus) and a meeting room for talk sessions.

There's also a spacious festival hub that, like similar clubs at the larger festivals, acts as an informal meeting space, with snack and drink counters, that can also transform into a suitable venue for public sessions. On the Friday a group of schoolchildren was bussed in for a demonstration of Founders and Survivors – Storylines, a web-based project by Hobart's Roar Film on a theme of convicts and their descendants. And on the Sunday I sat on a panel alongside former Age columnist Catherine Deveny, GetUp! campaign manager Paul Oosting and Melbourne feminist Karen Pickering for a discussion on the theme 'Social Media does more Harm than Good,' chaired by the St James Ethics Centre's Simon Longstaff and framed as a Geoffrey Robertson-style hypothetical. This was uploaded live and is to be broadcast at Melbourne's Federation Square.

A further element is the handing out of annual 'BOFA Devil Screen Awards' – basically a good excuse to persuade some high profile names to attend. On hand to accept theirs were director Robert Connolly (Balibo), screenwriter Andrew Knight (Rake, Jack Irish) and actor Jimi Bani (Mabo) among others.

So what of the film program, curated by guest artistic directors Rowan Woods and producer Trish Lake? Since I'd seen some of the feature highlights, viz. Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Giants, I veered towards arts documentaries. I especially liked Side by Side, an exploration of the digital revolution in film, which worked in spite of Keanu Reeves's presence behind the clipboard, and the Paul Simon-Graceland doco, Under African Skies.

The brilliantly edited Crossfire Hurricane, which only recently premiered at the London Film Festival, is more of a blast than any official Rolling Stones's doco (i.e. produced by Mick Jagger) has any right to be. Its fabulous footage from TV, newsreels and earlier films, including Gimme Shelter and the legally long-buried (by the Stones) Cocksucker Blues, came laced with unexpectedly tart contemporary from remaining and ex-band members.

Inside Out: Anton Corbijn, about the revered Dutch rock photographer turned film director, was frustratingly one-dimensional, perhaps because its director, Klaartje Quirijns, was too close to the subject to ask the requisite probing questions and also because she seemed to take his formidable technique for granted. As an at least partial illumination of the very private Corbijn, it was worth seeing, but what a pity we didn't discover how or why he turned to photography in the first place, or learn something of his ideas about style and technique. A sequence of Corbijn meeting with the mega-scary Metallica and mega-scarier Lou Reed to show them the results of a photo session was fascinating almost in spite of the filmmaking.

There again, the free official closing screening of Girl Walk/All Day, a 45-minute dance piece filmed in New York's public spaces was more than enough compensation, with the elastic-limbed young dancer Anne Marsen emerging as an astonishing cross-discipline performer. Particularly adorable were the commuters walking past or sticking their heads in books as if her extraordinary routines were nothing unusual. Only in New York! See here for the Staten Island Ferry sequence, with free links to the remainder of the film underneath.

BOFA stands a good chance of becoming a valuable permanent addition to the cultural life of Tasmania, though to get there it needs to address a couple of issues, the first being technical hiccups. A documentary by local filmmaker Damien Lay, Semi Colin, wouldn't play and fixing the issue took almost half an hour, though the situation was handled professionally by Trish Lake. The previous day the Stones film screened with a major glitch making it almost unwatchable for nearly 20 minutes before anyone from the festival made an announcement. I missed opening night, but apparently there were issues with the sound of Julie Delpy's rom-com, 2 Days in New York. This can happen at any festival (I write as someone who's been at the receiving end of festival-goer frustration at technical problems – you start looking for a place to duck), but BOFA did not appear to have protocols in place to ensure quick intervention by festival spokespeople. I had to leave the screening myself to urge a volunteer to urgently contact festival staff.

The second issue lies with the festival's name: 'Breath of Fresh Air' has to be explained. Nobody outside the event knows where it is, nor what it's getting at. And while the organisers are laying so much emphasis on not being a conventional film festival but a contemporary screen event taking in film, television, multimedia and digital media, it's kind of confusing to see that it's nonetheless conventional dubbed a 'film festival'. Re-badging itself as, say, Screenfest, or Festival of Screens, would not only be more accurate but play up its obvious point of difference.

Lynden Barber travelled to and stayed in Launceston courtesy of the Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival.