Films showcased at this year’s Atlas Awards International Film Festival include works whose collaborative production methods, uncommon subject matter, and experimental presentation set them apart from the mainstream. This year’s art films, experimental films, and collaborative films expanded boundaries of expression and challenged traditional methods in film production with experimental writing and imagery, shocking themes, and innovative democratic film collaborations.
Two films this year expressly transcended traditional hierarchies of film production with collaborative casts and crews: Rites of Passage and Juvenile Justice: The Road to Reform. Rites of Passage is a groundbreaking, feature-length drama from Australia made collaboratively with a group of young people who dive below the surface of their often tough exteriors to reveal what’s going on inside. According to the film’s opening, ‘This film has been made according to 10 principles’.
One: The making of the film should assist people living with hardship to build new futures
Two: All key actors must be amateurs and live in the community where the film is shot
Three: There can be no traditional script and there should be more than one story line
Four: The story lines must be developed with the actors, drawing on their life experiences
Five: If an actor fails to turn up, the shoot still goes ahead, creating a new direction for the film
Six: The film must be shot in real locations in the community
Seven: The key actors and the production team should all operate cameras, sound, lighting and other equipment
Eight: Every scene should be shot with different types of cameras and in different styles
Nine: All the credits must be in alphabetical order, with no-one credited as writer or creator
Ten: The first screening must be held in the community where the film was made
These principles situate Rites of Passage in an experimental and socially-aware context — aware of the difficult realities of the environs from which it has emerged and committed to combating injustice with art. This is a work that is highly concerned with its relationship to the community that created it and is unique for being a production of its community. It is filmed in the Illawarra, a coastal region south of Sydney, collaboratively with members of that community over a period of three years, during which time the young people whose stories and work make up the film literally grow up before the camera.
The film ‘was conceived as a community project’ by Beyond Empathy (BE), whose mission is to ‘[use] the arts to influence change and enrich the lives of individuals and communities experiencing recurring hardship’. Based in New South Wales, Australia, the organisation’s focus on communities of the same region in Rites of Passage — the Illawarra, the suburbs of Berkeley and Warrawong — demonstrates the organisation’s local approach to change and to breaking cycles of poverty with inclusive artistic projects which contest the narratives and realities of disadvantage with ongoing processes of artistic transformation. The film’s commitment to an inclusive, community-oriented process of artistic creation whose activity and output work for social justice sets it apart: The process of democratic creation becomes itself part of the marvel of the end result.
It was a turbulent spring of 2015 as protesters and rioters took to the streets of Baltimore expressing their frustration with the justice system. Fifty miles away, seven high school students watched the scene unfold and asked themselves why it happened, creating the collaborative documentary short Juvenile Justice: The Road to Reform. The film explores the factors that lead to this situation and what can be done to make our youth safer in the communities where they live.
The seven high school students that conceived, produced, and directed this documentary — Kaleb Dagne, Noah Dagne, Kendall Delille, Mussie Fitsum, Yonatan Mengesha, Kidus Michael, and Nickson Minja — are members of Gandhi Brigade Youth Media, an after-school programme in Silver Spring, Maryland, dedicated to ’empower[ing] young people in the Washington, DC region to use multimedia as tools to promote community building, multicultural understanding and the common good’. In addition to securing interviews with important newsmakers like Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, the film’s directors feature interviews with their peers as well as their own views on the problems and future of criminal justice for young people in the United States.
Roman Buildings (recipient of this year’s Atlas Award for Best Art Film) and Escapes (recipient of this year’s Atlas Award for Best Feature Film and the Atlas Vitri Prize for the year’s best foreign language film), narrative feature films from the United States and Spain, respectively, present their stories in unconventional ways. The nonlinear and highly symbolic Roman Buildings takes place in New York City, where highly charged, sumptuous dialogue issues from the mouths of poets (played by Sarita Choudhury, Michael Connor, and Maria Rosenblum) in the course of regular conversation. Like the ceaseless singing of opera, the film’s ceaseless poetry creates an alternate universe elevated from the quotidian whose characters’ circumstances are nonetheless tragic. The film’s experimental writing sets it apart from traditional cinema, even within the symbolic realm of art film.
The approach of Escapes also emphasises art and metaphor as essential to its narrative. After China (played by Huichi-chiu) loses her father, she embarks on a journey that will reveal to her the essence of life. In traveling, though, she discovers that running away is not the answer. The drama of her travels unfolds to artistic visual effects and fantastical dramatic elements that manifest the interior states of the film’s characters, bringing to life China’s emotions and the significance of her journey.
The Eve and Local Girls use more traditional methods of storytelling. Their content, however, is highly unorthodox, blending genres to create new perspectives and symbolism: The Eve, an Italian horror film, couples the anticipation of the horror genre with traditionally joyous celebrations of Christmas Eve. Local Girls, from western Canada, fuses the supernatural with the Old West.
In The Eve (recipient of this year’s Atlas Award for Best Horror Film), eight-year-old Simon seems to have everything from life. He’s rich yet unhappy. Wishing to leave his materialistic world behind, the only present he wants for Christmas is for Santa Claus to take him away to live in his fairyland toy factory. But his wish turns into a nightmare when Christmas Eve transforms into the eve of something quite different, and it seems that something terrible might happen.
In Local Girls, the violent antagonism between two women in the Old West is transformed by supernatural intervention and the appearance of a mutual enemy. The film uses elements of Western, horror and exploitation films to explore the dynamics of colonialism in Canada originating in the late 19th century. ■
For the full 2016 festival schedule with film synopses, visit this year’s festival page.
For more information about the Atlas Awards, visit our Awards page.
Elements of this Festival Recap were previously published in altered form in a critical review of Rites of Passage, and are used with permission.