Curator Richard Sowada talks Essential Indies

Addy Fong talks to the curator of “Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now” festival, Richard Sowada, about what we can expect from the festival:

Firstly, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about the Essential Independents American Cinema film festival that’s happening now. I think the definition of American Independent Cinema’s quite vague depending on how it’s defined. How do you define what American Independent Cinema is?
Yeah it is a little bit vague and it really depends on personal interpretation in many ways. A lot of people would immediately think, ‘Oh, it’s got to do with budget, low budget, made without the backing of a studio’ but I take a little bit of a different approach, a broader approach to it. To me, it’s really got nothing to do with budget. It’s really about the way filmmakers approach telling their stories and the craft.

It’s not about making a film on a credit card or borrowing money from your family. It’s about telling stories in interesting and different ways that wouldn’t occur to studios, different to thinking about ‘how much money can we make and how much popcorn can we sell’. It’s really about how can we connect with audiences in a manner that is true to the story and true to the characters, which is a very different approach to what we would ordinarily consider to be Hollywood films or studio films. It’s about a different thing altogether and sometimes you get people saying, ‘Don’t you have enough American films?’ Well, we have a lot of American films but what we see at the movies generally is a completely different industry to what we’re talking about with independent cinema. So, to me that’s what it is, it’s not about economics, budgets, studios or anything, it’s about ideas and it’s about a different approach to communicating those ideas to an audience. That’s independent.

That’s pretty interesting because I was reading how it was quite prominent in the 80s, 90s, I’m not too sure. I guess with home video and video on demand… How do you think contemporary filmmakers deal with technology such as YouTube, Kickstarter, and how does this play into Independent Cinema?
I think it’s really interesting from my perspective and someone else interested in film might have a completely different perspective, but to me the independent sector goes right back to experimental films of the 50s, just after World War II, when cameras became much more accessible to filmmakers. Lightweight 16mm cameras became able to be used by anyone who could find one. In much the same way digital cameras and phones can be used by filmmakers or creative people now. So it goes right back to then, but the analogy between digital technologies and YouTube and those type of outlets they’re actually not too different.

The independent sector and the Arts in general is part of a continuum. It doesn’t just happen at a point and it’s not just invented at a point, it develops over a really long period of time. Cinema also doesn’t just happen on its own. It’s intertwined with music and it’s intertwined with fashion and it’s intertwined with photography, so all these things are all part of it and it is part of these other things. It’s a really broad movement of a way of thinking and a way of doing things.

With the accessibility of media now, let’s say through YouTube or whatever, there’s probably more things being made but it doesn’t mean more better things being made, it just means there’s more stuff. When I look at independent cinema and the access that people have to making things, there is more stuff but I think there is still the same amount of good and interesting stuff and even though things like YouTube and Vimeo allow people all around the world to connect to things in a very immediate way, back in the day before those electronic outlets were there, filmmakers were still finding ways of showing their films to audiences all over the world in a very different way. It’s a much more manual way like with 16mm and 8mm projectors, which is how I started out, showing movies with those old analog technologies, but you can still reach people, and you can still reach people in places outside of the traditional places that they would see movies.

I started out showing films in bars, clubs, and warehouses and all kinds of places which films were not known to be shown at, but they looked good, they sounded good, the experience was great. It was a really good interaction between me and the audience. It hasn’t just started in the 80s and 90s, it started a long time before than and digital technologies allow filmmakers to blast out to a much bigger international audience but those kind of ways of getting your message out have always been there for the independent thinker.

You’re talking about projecting on 16mm and also running film screening events, I read that you’re working at ACMI is that still the case?
To a degree, I haven’t been working at ACMI since August. With experimental cinema there was a movement called Expanded Cinema and that was where you had projectors in the room and you manipulated the image and manipulated the sound. We used to do that on occasion at ACMI, but it had a very strong curatorial approach, so the films were always put in some kind of context against other films, very much like what this Essential Independents program is. It’s about not just a single title but it’s about how that title interacts with the other titles in the program, so they’re all kind of interlinked.

We used to do that a little bit at ACMI but the event type screenings, if you wanna go back to the 60s were called happenings, those happenings I have done since the late 80s. They’re extraordinarily successful, people love them and they’re lots of fun and it’s just a different experience altogether. I think that with this Essential Indies program what I tried to do in the way that it’s put together is, the projector’s not in the room with the audience but I like to think that the experience is there that people can see not just the individual films but people can see the filmmakers behind the film, that people can see my idea, my perspective of how they all link together behind the festival so they get a sense of personality of not just in individual films but of the program as a whole that there’s a reason for these things to live in the creative world.

Richard Sowada - Head Shot(1)In what way is it how you’ve programmed/curated the festival? When things are shown during the festival?
It’s really about the titles themselves. You can go out into the marketplace as a film festival director or someone programming or a cinema programmer, you can go out to the Cannes Film Festival right now and talk to all of the sales agents, read all the trade publications, and you know what the big films are. If you’re programming a film festival you can say ‘I’m gonna have this film, this film, this film and that film’ and you can go out and get them and you can put them in your film festival. That’s programming and that’s different to curation. I could have done that but I didn’t. What I did was I looked at some of those films, obviously big films that I thought ‘this could really work and I think audiences would really respond to these’ but with some of those titles I actually pushed them away. Not because they weren’t good films but because it’s like when you make a movie, if you’re shooting a movie you might shoot the best scene, the most beautifully shot scene that you have ever shot in your life and that you will ever shoot, but if it doesn’t bear a purpose to the story that you’re trying to tell you have to cut it out and you have to edit it out, not because it’s bad but because it doesn’t tell the story properly. That happened a lot with this program, where I saw a lot of good films and I thought, ‘Far out, that is a good movie’ but once you start to interpret the creative mood of what is going on in, not just America but in the world, and that film doesn’t fit the story you’re trying to tell then you don’t put it in.

It’s like curating an Art Show or a Photographic Exhibition, photographers or painters can have dozens and dozens of work of which they’ve done which are very good and which represent certain periods of their creative life but you don’t show all the work. You show the works that are important to the perspectives that you want to portray and that’s how something like comes together. It’s not, it’s a good film it’s in, it’s how does this relate to all the other films but not just all the other films in the program but other films from let’s say France, Britain, Australia, how does this film have meaning against everything else in the world. That’s basically it and that’s how a program like this comes together.

Did that influence what films you choose for the retrospective, the Essential Originals section of the program?
Yes, that’s an interesting one because it’s dictated too by a number of factors. Firstly, it’s what we were just talking about, how these films work within the overall tone of the program as a whole, then it comes down to in some respects the availability of those titles. One of the beautiful things about the digital age that we live in is that we’re exposed to a lot of titles and films from filmmakers and films that we just have never been able to before. One of the downsides is exactly the same thing, there are films until recent times that were only available on 35mm and standard definition VHS.

In the changeover from the analog to the digital which has really only been 6 or 7 years in cinema, there’s a whole lot of films that don’t exist in the digital world, that only exist in the analog world, and those analog films that exist in that other planet are not able to be shown. There are many titles, a number of titles, that I wanted to show which couldn’t make it in to the program because they simply were not available in a digital context but having said that the films from the Originals section were pretty well as I envisaged them to be from the beginning. They are the films and the filmmakers that I earmarked as being key to the continuum of independent cinema that we see today and most of them are still working in the industry at a very high level. Kelly Reichardt’s got a brand new film out which is doing the film festival circuit which is being released through Sony Pictures a big title, Kathryn Bigelow’s obviously working at a very high level, Jim Jarmusch’s got a brand new film at Cannes right now, and so it goes. There was a couple of others in there that I wanted to put in there like Steve Buscemi’s title Trees Lounge I wanted to put in there but that was one of the ones that was just simply unavailable. Richard Linklater of course is still working really actively in producing some amazing films and Slacker was a little bit of a hard one to get hold of actually and I had to go directly to his office to get hold of that one!

The section that I’m most interested in, in relation to the program, is the Essential Experiments section. Can you tell me how you went about choosing those films, what was the experimental part was it a technology thing? What was the criteria for Essential Experiments?
That’s a really interesting question, I’ve noticed again this comes down to trying to interpret what is going on creatively in the world, in world of cinema at the very least, and the last 18 months in experimental cinema has been amazing there has been so many good films, mostly short films, but so many experimental documentaries for instance, some of them are from America and some of them are from elsewhere. If I had a broader spectrum with this program for international cinema, you could program an entire 30 film program out of new experimental or hybrid feature films and hybrid documentaries right now around the world, you could do a really good one actually. I felt that pressure really early on in representing experimental cinema and experimental ideas strongly in this program and one of the really interesting things about putting a program like this together at a commercial independent film chain like Palace is that these kind of films they actually don’t make it to the screen even in a film festival context, even with film festivals not just a little commercial independent sphere so I totally take my hat off to Palace for giving me enough rope to experiment with films and to see how audiences respond to them.

Experimental cinema is a very subjective thing and it’s a very personal aesthetic as to how people respond to it. With experimental cinema or cinema that experiments with ideas, I wanted to give people that have not seen these kind of films before a foothold on them. I wanted people to feel comfortable with them to start with to be able to come along thinking, ‘Oh my god this is going to be something that I can get a grip on, something that is open to me to be able to understand but still really challenge the way that I understand what storytelling is about and what using moving image is about.’ I tried to take a really sophisticated approach with them and like a proper gallery based visual art approach each one of these films could screen in an Art Gallery if you wanted them to, they are of that kind of nature of being an installation if you want them to be, or a film cinema experience if you want them to be. The criteria was there.

I wanted really good vibrant picture, big screen picture, I wanted really good vibrant sound, really solid engrossing enveloping sound that really wrapped people in. I wanted the film to be visually striking so that even if you didn’t quite get a handle on the story you could really fall into the picture and get a real, get into the rhythm of the film which is what these are about in many ways. They’re very rhythmic and they’re quite musical in that respect, although they’re not films about music, and they’re not music-based films, but they have a real sense of rhythm in their image and in the way that they’re put together. If people are comfortable with watching cinema that experiments, if they’re able to relax in the cinema environment which they’re familiar with, just let the film flow, then they would expose themselves to something that they have may never experienced before at the cinema. If I can do that with just a few people and change their perspective of what cinema could be, than this whole adventure with this program has had an impact. That’s kind of how I approached that side of things. I’m really happy with those experimental films and I think it really worked, but the experimentation goes from that quite Visual Art end and translates right through the other films in the program as well into like the Essential Originals. Kelly Reichardt’s film is very experimental and into the features and into the documentaries, you go from those pure experimental moments and they filter out into all the other elements. So that’s kind of the circular curatorial process… that those experimental films have a relationship to the feature films, the originals, and the documentaries as well and vice versa because the experimentals… some of them, two of them… are also documentaries so the flow is complete.

So you’ve sectioned off the program into segments but it has a sort of overall link?
That’s right, so basically what it is, the way the program is structured is that I wanted it to have a little bit of comic book sensibility in many ways. I wanted it to have like a book sensibility, like chapters, chapter one, chapter two… so chapter four is not a chapter unless you read the first chapter of the book which is another part of the program. That’s not to say that any part of the program comes before the other in the journey but each chapter has a way into the next chapter and has a segue into the next part of the program, so you can choose any way that you want to navigate the story, but they all relate to each other.

I really wanted to program each of those chapters like a comic book to really zing, to have power and to have colour, and to use the big screen and to not be shy about just being big and using the quality of cinema. I’m just racing through all of the films in my head now and I don’t know if there’s actually a film I would call a small film. They’ve either got big ambition, big ideas, big screen, big sound, big colour, they’ve all got I guess if you boil it down to a single word, they’ve all got ambition that’s what they’ve got. I’ll boil it down to another single word too, honesty. They’re all really honest films none of them pretend to be anything except what they actually are.

I’m interested in the opening night film and how it deals with homelessness. Did you choose it because of the theme or was it because of the acting or the story? I was just wondering whether issues of homelessness were quite…
There’s a few things with that film, the opening night film of any festival or any program is absolutely the hardest one to choose. Maybe it’s the one you agonise over. That’s the one I held off on until the very moment that the artwork had to go to the printer. I was really like, I have to choose the right film and the elements with that film fit with the overall program so completely. With all due respect to other film festivals around the world, not just in Australia, there’s often a disconnection between the opening night film and the time you want to fit during the festival and there’s a lot of compromises made with the opening night film. It’s gotta please sponsors, it’s gotta be appealing to a broad audience, but I don’t really worry about that so much.
The core as to why that film is at the front is Richard Gere’s performance is amazing. It really is amazing and to me that’s an absolute surprise because I’m not a big fan of his and I never was, but I am now and he is incredible. His command over the art form of acting is really something to look at. I thought, ‘Wow that’s a real surprise’ and if the audience is as surprised as I am I hope that that surprise translates into every film in the program and that they trust the selections.

Technically it’s a very accomplished film and stylistically it really harks back to those 1970s, early 70s American Independent films like Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Shadows and many of the other films in the program which are set in the streets. They have long telephoto lenses where the characters are way down the street or everything that’s going on in the street of New York is going on and it’s not constructed and it’s not streets blocked off, police holding people back or whatever, it’s the actors on the street in the moment. That is something that is really surprising about that film, because you don’t see films like that made anymore, or well often, it’s controlled especially with big stars. Richard Gere is still a big star so it’s surprising in kind of a way too, the style of it is both fresh and it’s also very respectful of the traditions of independent cinema. Also, it’s a fucking good story. It really works as a movie in it’s own right. Forget about it all, forget about Richard Gere, forget about Oren Moverman the Oscar nominated director, forget about anything. It’s a really good story and it’s told really, really well and that’s why it’s there.

So film festivals are quite difficult to run. We were talking earlier about online media such as streaming. It’s hard to market people to come to festivals. What are the challenges of running film festivals?
The world of film festivals is a very competitive world there are not a lot of good films in the world. In just a region in the United States there is only a certain number of good films. In terms of how a film festival survives with all the alternatives is, this is the way I look at it, like I said before, I could go to Cannes Film Festival or Berlin or Venice and go ‘that’s a good film I’ll put that in my film festival’. I could do that, that’s not a hard thing to do. The hard thing to do in art and in music and in literature and in film whether you’re making film or whether you’re showing film like I am is ‘meaning’.

What is the meaning behind what it is that you’re doing? The world is so devoid of meaning because business is about making money and it’s about making money at all costs. It’s not about having an opinion, it’s not about doing something necessarily that contributes to intellectual and community art of the community, it’s about making money and to me if we stop thinking about making money and start thinking about how you can actually make real connections with real people and have an opinion, which I guess is what it is behind what I’m doing here and what I’m doing with other things is like ‘This is my opinion what’s yours?’ That’s the question I ask of the audience and is the thing that allows art in any form to survive. ‘This is what I think and here is what I mean what do you think?’ If you don’t have that editorial personality or that editorial approach, where you can look at the world in a very particular perspective and crystallise everything and say, ‘Here is my perspective, I wanna hear what your perspective is’, that is meaningful and audiences really respond strongly to it. Because it’s really hard to find meaning in things that happen now.

Does that mean that the way that film criticism is approached shouldn’t be specific to an individual film but judging it as a kind of overall?
Look, yes and no. As a critic you have to look at the individual components and you have to look at its strengths, even just looking at the strength of a particular film you’re doing so with a lens of the films that you’ve seen and other things that are going on. ‘Is this film valid in the way it portrays gender?’ is one thing and your only guide to that, there’s two guides. One is personal opinion and the other is, ‘are these films that have dealt with gender?’ which gives you the degree of whether this film in particular is dealing with it in a way that you feel to be honest and correct. So the critic is placing it in a kind of context to other films. As a film festival curator, you have to look at the broader spectrum, you have to look at the continuum of work from individual artists and as a collective and you have to make a valued judgement as well. It’s a very personal and subjective opinion and people get really angry with you but you know what, bad luck.

It’s interesting because it’s like a curator, programmer, sees the overall message of the film and film program as a whole and then you get criticism from viewers seeing films from their own personal opinions, experiences, and the context that they judge it from.
It’s a very personal experience and you get a lot of angry filmmakers contacting you after you don’t select their film. They all say to you, ‘Look, you don’t know what you’re talking about, your head is up your arse, you wouldn’t know a good film if you fell over it, this film has screened at blah and won this award and that award.’ And you say, ‘that’s fantastic, congratulations, all the best to you and I hope you have every success with your film, but unfortunately I’m not saying your film is bad or not good, I’m saying that your film just doesn’t work with these films. It doesn’t tell the story that I want to tell. Best of luck with your picture, I hope you win an Oscar.’

You can’t please everybody, people will look at this program and look at the New York program and go ‘Why isn’t Manhattan or Taxi Driver in there? Why isn’t Annie Hall in there?’ But you have to really just tell your own story and hope that people respond to it in the same way that you have.

Like tough skin and standing your ground? Is that what you’ve found you’ve had to do?
You have to have an opinion, and this program is my opinion of the American Independent scene now and my opinion of the American Independent scene of a few years ago. That’s not to say that’s not the only opinion, it’s not the story of independent cinema but a story of independent cinema. There are countless other stories and this is going to be an annual event and so there will be other perspectives. The only way that I will know a great perspective is to talk to the audience about it and hear their opinions, which I am completely open to. Like I said, this is not the story but a story.

Like feedback after the festival about what people think?
Yeah, ultimately if people want to experience the slice of, take the word ‘American’ out it, a slice of independent cinema, there’s a really good survey of what’s going on in the creative world, they’ll find something somewhere in there and go ‘I never knew that’ or ‘wow I didn’t expect that’. When I’m putting the program together that’s ultimately the reaction that I think about. I want people to think: ‘I never knew, I didn’t expect that.’

Thank you so much for talking to me. I got a lot of insight with your answers so I’m really happy!
[Laughs] Great. Well I really enjoyed the chat I hope to see you at some of the screenings!

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now takes place in the following cities:
Tuesday 17 May to Wednesday 1 June – Sydney
Wednesday 18 May to Wednesday 1 June – Melbourne
Thursday 19 May to Wednesday 1 June – Brisbane and Canberra
Thursday 26 May to Wednesday 8 June – Adelaide

See the full programme and find out more here:



Interview by Addy Fong.