Revelation Film Festival – 20 Years of Unique Films

Documentaries, short films, unique, great cinema.

Based in just about the middle of nowhere is the Sleepy Little Deathtoll Town that is Perth. We’re technically the most isolated city in the world, with some of our biggest claims to fame being the birthplace of Heath Ledger and the place that Beatrix Kiddo wanted to move to after she got married. Besides that, my hometown Perth, is also the home of arguably one of the great film festivals that this fine country has to offer. Yep, you got that right – the Revelation Film Festival.

This article is an attempt to write a love letter to this great festival on the anniversary of their 20th outing in Perth. It’s a love letter to the grand swath of variety that Revelation has shown over the years, ranging from the films initially shown on a 16mm projector in the basement of the Greenwich Club, all the way to the 20th anniversary which encompasses the majority of Perth in as many artistic ways as possible. It’s hard not to get personal or emotional when talking about Revelation, especially as the great mind that is Richard Sowada has been behind the festival since its inception way back in 1997.

When somebody asks what the Revelation Film Festival is, I usually explain it as the most unique and interesting film festival you’ll get to see in Australia. Sure, the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne Film Festival’s (and newly revived Queensland Film Festival as well) have all got the big hitter films, but these are films that will get some kind of distribution or ease of access down the line. What makes Revelation Film Festival so very unique is how each year you’ll see a film you had no idea ever existed. Films that will blow your mind and challenge you in ways that you will not expect. And then, just like that, that film will walk off into the night, leaving behind a field of memories.

Atmo HorroX screened at the 19th Revelation Film Festival, and to be completely honest, I was originally not going to see it due to scheduling. Anybody who has attended a festival knows how it feels to see that every film that’s announced is just another film that you’ll wish you caught. Fortunately enough a slot appeared in between my afternoon film and catching the 10pm session of The Love Witch that allowed me to slip in Atmo HorroX. And I’m eternally thankful that I did. When people talk about unique, completely one of a kind original films, they are talking about a film like Atmo HorroX which is so immediately undefinable that the only way to get an idea of what it’s like is to look at the image below.

Yeah, you wish you saw this film now, don’t you? Well, that’s what every single session of Revelation is like. Back in 1997 there were two projectors, one guy running them and twelve films, so scheduling what films you would see was a little easier back then. In its 20th year, Revelation has 200 film screenings with 14 world premieres, 41 Australian premieres and on top of that over 20 special events. Taking a look back at those first 12 films that screened at the then REVelation Film Festival (the name, I assume, a nod to founding sponsors REVelation Magazine) we can see the foundations of what was to come in regards to tone and variety of films screened at subsequent festivals.

(A sidenote before I launch into the older films: the great source that is the Revelation website has the lists of films screened at every festival from 2009 onwards. Thanks to archive.org I’ve been able to scour the many variations of Revelation websites to find what was screened at previous festivals. Due to this, the line-up may not be 100% accurate. The history of Revelation states that there were 12 films screened at the first festival, but the archive states that there were 11. If you know the mystery 12th film, please let me know!)

The first festival showcased the following films:

Australian Underground
Bad Bugs Bunny
Beat America
DOA
Halloween Society & the London Underground
Hard Core Logo
Mondo Teen
Sis Pics
So Wrong They’re Right
Sonic Outlaws
Timothy Leary’s Dead

Many of these films can’t be found on IMDb and were quite possibly either full length or short films. I was thirteen in 1997 and had no idea such a festival existed – it wouldn’t be until 2000 when I went and saw my first Revelation Film Festival film, McLibelOne of the shining achievements of Rev has been its dedication to showcasing the great variety of short films from around the world. Most screenings would have a short film playing beforehand to act as an appetiser for the main event that you were about to watch. Accompanying this is the specialised screening of Get Your Shorts On! – a jam packed short film session made possible with the help of ScreenWest, Lotterywest and Film & Television Institute (FTI), and showcasing the minds of WA’s emerging filmmakers. It’s an exciting event that furthers Revelation’s dedication to film of all kind.

My first experience with Revelation was the documentary McLibel, then screening in its 50 minute TV version. Many Revelation films may only be festival releases, meaning that they may not receive an actual rating by the OFLC, so they will end up screening with an R18+ label. Knowing this, I was unsure whether I’d be able to head into seeing a film about McDonald’s getting the shit handed to them in a lawsuit. But I’d be damned if I was going to miss it. I was about to finish high school, and worked at McDonald’s, so that ‘stick it to the man’ ‘burn down the establishment’ feeling was slightly there (it was more of a tingle than anything else).

I grew facial hair at a young age, so figured I’d be ok to slide past the ticket booth with no issues. Sure enough, I was in and McLibel was watched. It was a good film that informed me more than entertained. But what excited me the most after that screening was reading what other films were being shown at that particular festival – Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, On the Ropes and WADD: The Life & Times of John C Holmes. Yeah, sex and wrestling – as I said, I was still in high school.

Even though I didn’t get to see those films, I still knew that they were ones that I would need to seek out eventually. As a quick sidenote, looking back at the films that screened at the 2000 film festival makes me wish that I was just a touch older at the time and more aware of what was being shown – as there were films about John Huston – John Huston: War Stories, Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock, Selznick & the End of Hollywood, Stan Brakhage – Brakhage and a screening of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As with every single line-up, there is always a screening or five that you had wished you’d made it to.

While I didn’t make it to the 2001 festival, I did at least know to keep an eye on the films that were screening for future reference. I remember scouring TV late one night and stumbled on SBS screening Cunnamulla. I was blown away by what I saw. I’m sure my seventeen year old self was saying, oh shit, this film festival shows more than just films about wrestling and porn stars! (I mean, they still screened the documentary The Girl Next Door at the 2001 festival, but it was alongside other films like Divine Trash, Long Night’s Journey Into Day and My Khmer Heart. An amusing note about the 2001 festival is that director Craig Baldwin attended to screen his film Spectres of the Spectrum, and as per the festival program at the time, there was also a special event of Craig Baldwin: Playing Havoc With History (In Person, In a Bar).)

2002 rolled on and I was free from high school. The Revelation Film Festival also was growing up with its festival line-up seriously pumping with features, documentaries, shorts, and animated films. After growing up with late Saturday night screenings of Eat Carpet on SBS, I was prepared to indulge in whatever bizarre films that would be screening at that years festival. Sadly, I don’t recall actually attending too many in that year, but I did at least attend the Australian Premiere of Jan Svankmajer’s insanely curious wooden baby film Little Otik.

Seeing Svankmajer’s Little Otik reminded me of one of my favourite films that I’d seen sometime earlier in my life – his very short animated film, Meat Love. Revelation is permanently packed with films that you would never expect to find screening at a regular cinema, and if there were an artist that exemplifies the feeling of what to expect from a Rev line-up, it’s Jan Svankmajer. His films are wholly unique, original pieces of work that come straight from his soul. Little Otik may not be his best film – that still stands as his bizarre take on Alice in Wonderland with Alice – but it’s a film that I’m glad I saw at Revelation in 2002 because I don’t know where or when I would have discovered it elsewhere.

If there was one film that I did wish I had stumbled into during that festival, it would be (yeah, sex again) Making Venus. Revelation has been a perennial place where Australian films of all types can be screened. Just like Little Otik, Making Venus (a documentary about a troubled Aussie sex comedy) is not your typical film that would get a cinematic release. It’s no secret that many Australian films struggle to find audiences or even a distributor, so with that in mind it’s great to see a festival like Revelation get behind Australian cinema in the ways they do. Flash forward to 2014, when Revelation started their Australian Revelations screenings. But, more on that later.

For reasons that I can’t recall, 2003-2004 were years that I missed the Revelation Film Festival. It’s worth noting though that even with showing new and hard to find documentaries and feature films, Revelation also worked in screenings of older films. Opening to the 2003 festival was one of the greatest documentaries ever made, the Maysles brothers Gimme Shelter. Future festivals would show some of the best of cinema with screenings of restored versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wake in Fright, Body Melt and screenings of Metropolis and Suspiria with live music backing.

During 2003-2004, Revelation pushed socially conscious films like Zero Day, The Corporation, The Weather Underground and Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. Local films like Eddie Martin’s Jisoe screened as well with the director in attendance, taking a look at graffiti culture. Also screening was the anime The Cat Returns, a much loved Studio Ghibli film. If there’s one thing about Revelation, it’s the consistency that has been brought to the festival by the great Richard Sowada and the various program directors along the way with their dedication to bring documentaries and animated films from anywhere and everywhere. In 2007, Triple J’s Megan Spencer became the program director before handing the reigns over to the current program director Jack Sargeant.

The mind of Jack Sargeant is one that many film lovers envy. Each year, when  Jack and Richard stand up in front of the Revelation crowd on the opening night and talk about the many, many films that they watched throughout the year to decide the lucky many that would make up that years line-up, the audience can only sit in awe of what goes in to curating such an event. These are two extremely busy men, so much so that it’s a wonder how they manage to even fit in the hundreds of films a year that they watch, as well as release books, do interviews and run a year long festival while travelling the world. Of course, the rest of the Revelation team is there to assist with the running of the festival, and as someone who adores and lives this festival yearly, I say thanks.

2005 was the year that I really went hard into Revelation, attending many films that year that have not gotten the attention they really deserve. Films like Assisted Living, Kontroll and the Brazilian film The Man Who Copied are all unique, fascinating films that have not left my mind since seeing them. In particular, The Man Who Copied showed me as a film viewer the exciting, fascinating aspects of international cinema that I wasn’t supremely ignorant of. It was another sign post pointing out a rabbit hole that looked extremely inviting to jump down.

I’m repeating myself, but this is the key aspect of the Revelation Film Festival to me – it’s a film festival like no other that showcases films that may only ever be screened once in Australia, or even around the world. I could rundown every single year and outline what films I did or didn’t see, but this article would be longer than necessary. The key thing to keep in mind about this festival is that it makes diving into cinema easy and enjoyable. While there have been films that I’ve not enjoyed that have screened at the festivals throughout the years, there hasn’t been anything that I’ve outright wish I’d never seen. From the documentary about a river (Yakona), to the Australian cannibal film Van Diemen’s Land, the variety of films on display is supremely extensive – a literal ‘something for everyone’.

In many ways, a unique, off the wall festival like Revelation is a fair representation of the city it lives in – and from 2001-2008 the inclusion of SPLIF (Screen Perth’s Local Independent Films) really put the spotlight on Perth cinema. Being the ‘most isolated city’ in the world, Perth often misses out on films that everybody else is talking about. So, with that in mind, it’s great to see that many of the films screened are ones that feel unique to Perth. Ones that when you come out you feel like screaming at the top of your lungs ‘go see this film!’, only to find that that opportunity is not possible. Thankfully, Revelation did start up a Rev On Demand service where some of the previous films screened at the festival can be streamed online. It’s a great service, and one that’s helped me fill some gaps in my film viewing schedule.

I never thought I would ever be able to see Wake in Fright on the big screen, but sure enough in a cold Astor Theatre venue mid July, I was able to see the film in a packed out screening. Two years later, the great David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz come across to Perth and talk about their careers. To run through the many guest speakers that Revelation has had would take a while, but needless to say, David Stratton, Margaret Pomeranz, Goblin, Crispin Glover, and George Lazenby are just the top of the deep pile of talent that have attended the festival in some capacity.

Being a Perth festival, it’s interesting to see the variety of venues that Revelation has lived in along its journey. Almost always living at Luna Leederville in some capacity, Revelation also has had screenings at The Bakery, Luna SX, Cinema Paradiso, the State Library, the Astor Theatre and (possibly) the old Port Cinema in Fremantle.

A few of my favourite screenings that I’ve attended along the years have been seeing Australian horror film The Loved Ones at a late night session with director Sean Byrne in attendance. That same year I saw the truly bizarre and extremely energetic stop motion animation film A Town Called Panic. (Also screening in 2010 was a double of Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! and Vixen which I will eternally kick myself for missing.)  Or the screening of Suspiria with Goblin providing a live score. A double whammy that night was getting to meet the extremely generous and lovely members of Goblin, and then after the screening finding that as I stood at a packed urinal, I was in fact peeing next to the members of Goblin. So, that’s something to tick off on the bucket list.

Even at the most raucous screenings, Revelation has always delivered great joy. At 2016’s festival, Anne Biller’s superb The Love Witch screened in the late 10pm slot. Having watched five films that day, I was ready to head into my sixth film and have a good time. For that screening however, we were bundled into one of the small cinemas in Luna Leederville (one of the 24 seat ones). No big problem, it’s par for the course with a film festival. However, being so late it was unexpected to have a loud talker throughout the screening – one who felt the need to narrate the whole entire film with his pal. I’m 99% a fight broke out during the screening as the guy sitting in front of the resident talker (who had told him as politely as possible to ‘shut the fuck up’) eventually got up and left the cinema. The talker also walked out. Ten minutes went past and only the shusher returned. As someone who hates talkers, I’m genuinely surprised that even with all the extraneous noise, I still managed to fall in love with The Love Witch.

As Revelation has progressed, it’s grown to the point where it’s become not just a film festival, but in fact a boiling pot of ideas, with workshops for filmmakers and film lovers being held throughout the years under the Industrial Revelations and Academic Conference banners. These have been extremely informative and helpful for filmmakers all over – allowing them to finesse their craft in various ways. Whether it be with acting greats like Steve Bisley, Ningali Lawford-Wolf and Mark Coles Smith running acting workshops, or festival director Jack Sergeant running independent film workshops, these seminars have been a great boon for Perth based filmmakers – many of who may have had a short film screen at the Next Gen/Get Your Shorts On sessions which have run throughout recent years festivals. It’s this cultivation of new talent that makes Revelation more than just a ‘film festival’.

Short films have been a bread and butter component of Revelation, with many of the various shorts screening before the feature films on offer. Adding a nice amuse bouche to the main course, these short films are often as memorable as the feature film they are paired with.

Revelation is a festival that anybody who has attended throughout the years will have different things to say about. It’s a festival which I’m glad exists in Perth, and is unique to Perth.

Even after all these words, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the Revelation Film Festival. There really is a rabbit hole of great cinema that has been shown. Hit up the Rev archive if you’re interested in seeing what films screened from 2009 onwards, and for those films prior to 2009, hit up this link here. I asked the mind behind the festival, Richard Sowada, to name a few of his favourite picks throughout the years and here is a slice of that selection:

  • Teenage Babylon (1997) One of the best experimental short films ever made in this country. I was very proud to screen that.
  • Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1999) nominated for an Oscar this was and is still a fantastic documentary. It was one of our first big box office films. It set up our social justice and political voice.
  • On the Ropes (2001). Nominated for an Oscar this film is almost impossible to get now. A lost film but a very beautiful documentary from great filmmakers who are now winning Oscars.
  • Dropping Out (2002)The first film made by the now directors of Spongebob Squarepants, Kung Fu Panda and Adventure Time. So strange.
  • The American Astronaut (2002). One of the great independent films of our generation. An absolute classic sci-fi musical western.
  • Spellbound (2003) That film reinvented documentary as a cinema experience – and I like to think Rev discovered it for Australia. We premiered it and it was subsequently acquired for release and was a huge hit.
  • Gimme Shelter (2003) One of the greatest documentaries ever made. Brilliant and our opening night. I felt that year was a turning point.
  • Mods(2004). An off musical set against great mod music. Very strange but really very cool.
  • Kontroll (2005) A crazy Hungarian action drama we did for an opening night. Great art-direction and story but one that really slipped through everyone’s cracks.
  • Assisted Living (2005). A very lovely Harld & Maude type love story between a loser nurse and a woman in an aged facility. People love it but it’s so unseen.
  • Blacktown (2006) Kriv Stenders’ (Red Dog) great look at a relationship in suburbia. It’s so clean and lean. A real independent classic.
  • Boxing Day (2007) Again from Kriv Stenders’ (Red Dog) this is an almost 1-shot day in the life of. Really excellent.

Andrew has been a film lover all of his life. For a while now he's been talking about how great films are and usually that's been directly to his wife, Bernadette. Now with AB Film Review everyone else in the world can listen to what Andrew has to say to his wife. Bernadette grew up renting videos from a Plains Video. She mostly hired out Cry Baby and wore the tape thin learning the lines to the John Waters classic. After a series of arguments in the car ride home with her husband, Andrew, the two decided to record their arguments and launch them into the world for everyone to listen to.