Sun, surf, and cinema: The indie utopia of Australia’s Byron Bay Film Festival
Set in the picturesque location of New South Wales, Australia, and boasting a rich program of independent film alongside cutting-edge virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experiences, the Byron Bay Film Festival offers a showcase like no other. Established in 2006 as a way to platform the work of the numerous talented independent filmmakers who live in the region, BBFF has since grown to become what filmmaker David Lee Miller described as “pure magic”. “The Byron Bay Film Festival is absolutely world class – filmmaker friendly, professionally run, and featuring top-notch, bleeding-edge independent films.”
Speaking to Film Daily, BBFF director J’aimee Skippon-Volke described how the location and influence of filmmakers helped shape what the BBFF is today. “ Our festival has so much great stuff going for it like an amazing beachside location – Australia’s Malibu full of name actors – and a very unique audience base. But I really do think that we’ve grown a global reputation amongst independent filmmakers because we’re a festival started by Filmmakers.”
Those “name actors” Skippon-Volke refers to include Chris Hemsworth – a local resident who made the BBFF go viral in 2016 when he and his Thor cast mates Tom Hiddleston & Idris Elba gave it an on-camera shoutout as “the best festival in the world.” But the BBFF also attracts other celebrity fans too. In 2011, Byron Bay regular Jack Johnson jumped up to play a memorable set of his songs for the BBFF audience, while Alec Baldwin wished the festival a happy tenth birthday from the set of Saturday Night Live in 2016.
All of which is hardly surprising considering the numerous charms the festival has to offer, making it a pretty easy event to fall in love with and want to celebrate. “As a 10-day destination film festival in what really is one of Australia’s most desirable holiday destinations, we provide attendees with the opportunity to get immersed in their BBFF experience and the temporary community built amongst the attendees,” Skippon-Volke explained. “ We have a lot of filmmakers coming along to share their work, so I guess there’s a really special connection audiences gain by getting to meet the minds and talent behind it. Festival guests also get a very carefully curated selection of films which we hope leave them inspired, stimulated, motivated, and entertained.”
The types of movies showcased at the BBFF as part of that carefully curated program have changed since the festival’s inception. Skippon-Volke calls attention to some specific qualities the diverse panel of festival judges look out for in making their final selection. “ When we started 13 years ago, our focus was very much on finding films that matched the interests of our region like surf, environmental issues, music, social justice, celebrating spirituality or creativity, and so on. This is still true but it’s no longer a driving focus; we’re seeking great films with stories that need to be told . We do have very high standards when it comes to programming, particularly in regards to acting and scripts, but I guess you could say if a film comes along that really reflects the mood of the political or social climate, it may find itself rising amongst its peers.”
Having enjoyed a “long-standing passion” for VR with BBFF co-director Osvaldo C. Alfaro since the early 90s, Skippon-Volke continues to celebrate the medium within the festival with an impressive (and vast) program of augmented and virtual reality experiences. “We started introducing filmmakers to VR back in early 2014 and some of those filmmakers are now working professionally in the field. We’ve gone on to create a rich program of VR exhibits and talks, bringing together some of the very best minds Australia has to offer while providing an opportunity for them to meet with international talent. It’s important to the festival because it’s broadening the scope of the audience & filmmakers’ experience of storytelling.”
The work the BBFF achieves within the VR world has opened the festival up to collaborate with some of the world’s best VR innovators & companies and has gained it a reputation as a reliable source for quality VR content. For instance, in 2017 a piece titled Micro Giants, which offered an immersive peek into the insect world, went on to play at Sundance after screening at the BBFF. Clearly the festival is an incubator for notable, rising talent.
The 2018 BBFF program will take place between October 12 and 21 at several venues across Byron Bay. That leaves just enough time for any filmmakers hoping to be showcased to submit their opus prior to the deadline (currently set to May 16 for the late cutoff and June 28 for the extended one). If you like your indie film fests with a side of sunshine, a slice of surf, and a healthy heap of boundary-pushing content and celebrity endorsements, the BBFF is the one for you. See you on the beach, folks.