Tropfest, Amateurs Need Not Apply

by M.J. Hearle

I watched the Tropfest telecast on Sunday night and was struck by just how professional most of the shorts looked. Recognisable actors from TV, slick camera work, orchestral scores, top notch sound mixing, special FX and stuntwork were the norm not the exception. Thankfully, all this technical polish was at the service of some pretty great storytelling. Most years, Tropfest is a bit of a mixed bag with one or two genuinely effective shorts, plenty of middling efforts, and a couple of headscratchers but this year the finalists were uniformly strong. My favourite was the surprisingly emotional zombie film, CargoWho would have thought you could mine fresh material from such an overexposed monster conceit?

Despite the high standard of Tropfest flicks, I was left feeling a little disappointed. Something was missing. The first time I went to Sydney’s Domain to watch Tropfest was in 1997. The sixteen finalist films were largely shot on off-the-shelf camcorders, featured bad sound and even worse performances. Yet, they were charming and a couple of them were even ingenious. The poor production values certainly didn’t detract from the experience. They felt hand-made and personal. These were movies anyone could have made so long as they had a decent idea and a couple of mates they could rope in to helping them out.

I left that first festival feeling inspired to make my own Tropfest film. My film turned out pretty rubbish (the ‘story’ involved a couple of flatmates making a friend dance for beer) and suffice to say I didn’t make it into the final sixteen but that didn’t matter. The act of making the film with my friends was such fun that the process became the reward, not the end product. This is what was so great about Tropfest. It didn’t matter how good your movie was, just that you were making one. And if you were talented enough maybe you’re DIY film might end up being screened in front of 100,000 people and you’ll get a chance to shake hands with Russell Crowe or Samuel L. Jackson.

As the years went on, I watched the Tropfest finalists become more and more polished. Advertising agencies and production companies began entering work, professional actors cameo’d in their mates movies almost guaranteeing a spot in the final sixteen. The movies started looking better and sounding better but something was lost along the way – that DIY spirit that infused the earlier years. I can’t imagine a young person watching the Tropfest finalists last night and thinking to themselves they could go out tomorrow and shoot something of commensurate quality. It wouldn’t be possible without a couple thousand in the bank and friends in the industry willing to donate equipment, time and expertise.

Today, Tropfest seems less of a launchpad for struggling outsiders than it is an opportunity for film students and ad-land creatives to get a leg-up in the industry. Hopefully, next year the Tropfest organisers will remember their roots and not feel bashful about putting up someone’s backyard cinematic endeavor next to the more polished fare. The audience doesn’t mind if the seams show, if the acting is atrocious, or if the music score is supplied by a toy piano. All we care about is whether the film makes us smile. Think. Feel.