DIY Screenings

by Bill Mousoulis
First published in Cinema Now zine, May 2018.

Cafe screening (Tripokaridos Bar) in Lamia, Greece, September 2017.
Thanks to Giannis Roupotias in Lamia for organising this screening.

Do it yourself.  When the world doesn’t respond, find your own space.  Your own agency, your own activity, your own life.  Size doesn’t matter.  Do what you can, in your own way, and have fun.

Increasingly, since about the turn of the millennium, things have got difficult for Australian independent filmmakers (I mean those who make more radical work, not the mainstream-wannabes) to find avenues for their work to be seen.  The major film festivals in this country are squeezing out the more alternative indie films, because there’s more demand/pressure from more commercial titles.  In this changing landscape, where theatrical box office is down, commercial producers use the festivals as a way of showcasing their features, before they go to VOD platforms.  This basically means that these films are now taking more and more festival slots away from the indie films.  Indie work will screen in the major festivals only if it has funding or distribution attached.  If you’re a maverick filmmaker, you’re out in the cold.

Yes, there are some smaller film festivals in Australia that cater for the more maverick filmmakers, such as the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, or the Sydney Underground Film Festival, or Monster Fest, but these tend to focus on genre work and/or more quirky cum transgressive work.  If you’re an experimental filmmaker, or an avant-garde narrative filmmaker, or even just a plain narrative filmmaker in the “subtle drama” mode of Rohmer or Bresson, there’s nowhere for you to go.

Having made numerous films since 1982, I’ve seen this shift unfold.  I’ve had films (both funded and unfunded ones) screen in the major film festivals in Australia from the late ‘80s to the early ‘00s, and then, in the last 15 years, nothing.  Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked mainly in Greece, and my features, such as A Nocturne (2007, made in Australia) and Wild and Precious (2012, made in Greece) got into some major, and some minor, festivals in Greece and the rest of Europe.  But, last year, 2017, I found that my new feature Songs of Revolution (2017, made in Greece) was struggling to get into any kind of festivals, even ones I’d been in just 5 years earlier, in 2012.  Admittedly, the film is difficult to categorise (half documentary, half narrative) and also strong politically (anarchist/anti-establishment), but the change in the festival atmosphere struck me as quite marked.

After having failed to be accepted for the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in March 2017, where it rightly should have had its World Premiere, I had to settle for a small festival in the UK for the World Premiere of the film, the London Greek Film Festival.  There were all of 10 people in the audience.  This was okay, but there were no other festival appearances lined up for the film in the subsequent months, it having been rejected from a dozen or so likely festivals for it, and I had committed to staying in Greece for 5 months, from May to October, to show the film in European festivals.  It wasn’t looking flash, and I also knew the Melbourne International Film Festival (scheduled for August 2017) probably wouldn’t program the film, so my schedule was looking very barren.

Cafe screening (Anthos Cafe) in Kastoria, Greece, September 2017.
Thanks to Panagiotis Tsadilas (front centre) in Kastoria for organising this screening.

But in the land of “The Crisis”, I sensed an energy.  Many Greek feature filmmakers were just making do with a few festival appearances, and a small theatrical run, and a heavily dwindling DVD market, but my friend Dimitri Athanitis was trying something different with his film, a fully funded government feature, Invisible (2016).  Whilst it got some good festivals and had a reasonable theatrical run, he decided to self-distribute his film (even though he could have gone with one of the main distributors), and he focused on organising one-off screenings in different parts of Greece, where he would also appear to do a Q&A.  He found that this was an admin-heavy enterprise, but a very rewarding one.

As he was organising more and more of these screenings, and thus being absent from Athens for long stretches, I started hanging out at the main Athens anti-establishment community centre Nosotros, where I could see first-hand community/DIY events being organised, and how there was a thirst in the audience for these events.  The co-producer of my film, Tasos Avouris, suggested I could screen my film at some of these anarchist centres, and even those in other parts of Greece.  This, combined with Athanitis’ example, was all I needed.

I started liaising with community centres and cafes (and whatever other venues I could think of) to put on small screenings of my film, with Q&A, free entry, my expenses paid.  I found there was great interest in putting my film on, especially as it was a film “of the street”, with anti-government sentiments, and great local characters in it (protest singers mainly).  The beauty of this strategy was that most of the venues came with a ready-made audience of their regulars, keen to see this film and meet this odd filmmaker from beyond their shores.

In the busiest month of my DIY screenings in Greece, September, I actually had 10 screenings in 9 different cities, in the space of 25 days.  All up, from May 2017 to February 2018, there have been 16 of these small screenings in Greece (and I attended 13 of them, the other 3 occurring after I had left Greece).

Arriving back in Australia in October 2017, I decided to try a similar strategy in Australia, of organising small screenings.  So far, from November 2017 to March 2018, there have been 5 such screenings in Australia (4 in Melbourne, 1 in Sydney), and there are more on the horizon.

All up, even with numerous festival rejections, my film Songs of Revolution has so far screened to live audiences 23 times, 16 in Greece, 5 in Australia, and one each in UK and USA.  To a total of about 1,000 people, which compares more than favourably with features that may play in a few film festivals (even if they have an audience of 100 or 200) and then disappear.

The breakdown of the kind of venue is interesting –

Anarchist/self-run community centre – 8 times
Cafe/bar – 5 times
Conventional film festival – 4 times
Arts/political festival – 2 times
University – 2 times
Rock venue – 1 time
Bookstore – 1 time

University screening (Uni of Thessaly Cinema Club) in Volos, Greece, September 2017. With George Avouris (producer/musician) at left.
Thanks to Thalaki Diam (behind desk) in Volos for organising this screening.

I said “live audiences” a moment ago because this is crucial.  In this era where filmmakers upload their films to YouTube and Vimeo and people flick through them without much commitment, to be able to present a 2 hour film to a live audience and then talk about it afterwards is special.  And this is why filmmakers should be attempting to present their films in cinema-like spaces if they can.  Especially indie filmmakers, who put so much effort and money into making a film, and yet then expect the normal festival and distribution channels to do all the work for them, in order to have their film screened. 

Unfortunately, in Australia, it can be hard organising these smaller type screenings, as it’s the Land of Plenty, which means most venues require a ridiculous hire charge, even library and cafe spaces.  And there’s very few self-run collectives in Australia, where one can screen one’s work and get a good “community spirit” happening.  Money money money in this land Down Under!

But where there’s a will, there’s a way.  There’s a bubbling brew of Australian underground indie filmmakers at the moment, planning away, organising small screenings, at venues such as Long Play in Melbourne, or the Artist Film Workshop, also in Melbourne.  Walking into these venues, it feels like a throwback to the days of the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group or the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op, groups that existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  But that’s what we’ve come to.  We have come full circle – we are back in a conservative time, where alternative, underground filmmakers are shut out of the system, just as they were back in the ‘60s.  And that’s a recipe for movement.

Songs of Revolution
had a number of small screenings in Australia in 2017 and 2018.

Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and occasional writer on film.

Published June 8, 2018. First published in Cinema Now zine, May 2018. © Bill Mousoulis 2018.