Discover ‘The World’s Best Film’ with director Joshua Belinfante
Joshua Belinfante wants to bring the eccentric and the surreal to the big screen. The filmmaker and photographer has been making art since he was 12, and he got his start in the industry by working on shows for Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Belinfante parlayed this exposure into a varied TV career that has included broadcast news and true crime shows for the juggernaut network that is ABC.
Belinfante, who currently teaches at the University of Sydney, National Institute of Dramatic Art, and University of Newcastle, has had similar success with film. His short Requires Review screened at 10 festivals and won numerous awards like ‘Best Short Documentary’ from the Hong Kong Arthouse Film Festival and Around International Festival in Berlin. Other films like Everything That Clunked Along Today and Cut Down the Puppet Strings have also screened and won awards at various international festivals.
Belinfante’s debut feature documentary, The World’s Best Film, recently had its premiere in Perth at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, and was nominated for an audience choice award at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival (‘MDFF’). The film had its Victorian Premiere at MDFF at Cinema Nova on March 28th.
Film Daily had the pleasure of talking with Joshua Belinfante about his career, his current film, and his cinematic plans for the future. Here’s what he had to say:
You’ve been a filmmaker since you were a kid. How did you start your film career?
I started off as an actor in school plays and I performed script readings for feature films in development. But by the time they were ready to shoot I was too old for the parts.
From an early age I was attracted to the idea of making films. I made films with my school friends and stole my dad’s camera to make it possible. After school I went to university and studied Media Arts Production and Law at the University of Technology Sydney. I experimented with different genres and even shot on 16mm film stock too.
I got my first job in TV as a production assistant. It was a baptism by fire.
When your debut feature documentary The World’s Best Film was screened in Perth, what was going through your mind?
I was elated to screen at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, especially during 2020. Releasing an indie film is hard enough without a global pandemic. All our screenings in 2020 were cancelled or moved online. I was happy to go with the flow and booked my flights the day after the border opened.
I was humbled by one professor of film in the audience who thanked me for telling a story of everyday people, showing that we/they can be great too.
What was the inspiration behind The World’s Best Film?
Being stuck in a hospital in 2014 and being told that I needed major surgery in order to survive made me question my life decisions. Was I spending the time on things that mattered to me? I knew that if I recovered I wanted to travel the world and meet as many interesting people that I could and try to make the world’s best film.
I thought about what other people around the world were doing with their time. Surely the quest to do something meaningful with one’s life was a common struggle. I wanted to make a statement on how we as individuals can pursue the thing that matters most to us. To make a film that says to people that they can do whatever they want to do, even if people tell them not to do it. The importance of following through and trying your best and doing what you can.
Why did you choose to film The World’s Best Film as a documentary?
It’s a fascinating question. Documentaries have the capability to start a dialogue, make an impact on somebody’s life and also be entertaining in a way that a fictional film might not be able to elicit from an audience.
When people watch a great documentary they might react ‘there’s no way this can be real?!’ or ‘how did this happen?’ or ‘what can I change in my own life after seeing this?’ Telling this story in a completely scripted narrative sense wouldn’t have been possible. Though while living in Sweden I wrote a screenplay about my life in 2014 and all the stranger than fiction things that happened in my life. So maybe one day there will be a narrative film about it!
I’ve always been interested in poetic documentaries, films that stretch the fabric of what is generally thought possible in the medium. Embracing the use of staging, especially during instances where what the subject speaks about is no longer filmable.
How was your working relationship with David Bruggemann & Anthony Marsh?
It was fantastic! David was one of my only long term collaborators on the film, I would show him early cuts and David would start scoring things based on our meetings. David’s music was instrumental to a lot of what flows in the film and I am indebted and grateful to his contribution.
Both Liam and Anthony are so gracious and talented. Nothing was ever too much of an ask and they both knew how to get the job done in the most efficient and professional manner. I cannot recommend them enough as a sound mixing dream team! I am indebted to them and the stellar service of Final Post in Newcastle.
I am thankful for the entire community of cast and crew that was built around our film. I should mention the collaboration I had with filmmakers Joshua and Karly Marks of Doco TV! Having them on board was incredibly valuable, especially the ability to talk with other documentary filmmakers as a way of steering the ship of telling the story of The World’s Best Film.
You’re quite creative. Why did you venture into photography?
I’ve always photographed things since I was a kid. I love the medium and the ability to focus on one single moment in time, rather than 24 or 25 moments a second in filmmaking! I’m actually prepping a photo shoot for a wedding as I write this. I love the potential to capture something meaningful for someone that they will hopefully treasure for a lifetime.
I love the beauty of black and white and searching for the ‘silver’ in a moment. I also love the way people react when they see their portrait for the first time, sometimes months after a 35mm photograph was taken.
What is your favorite style of photography and why?
That’s a tough question! I definitely like photography that borders on the surreal or work that is a photo documentary, a captivating portrait with a back story and narrative behind the eyes that the photographer has captured. I love photos that evoke a mood that you can feel through the eyes of the subject.
I like Ralph Gibson’s black and white work. I was lucky enough to have him review some of my portfolio a few years ago in a public lecture at New York Film Academy Sydney, where I was working at the time. Which was humbling.
Australian photographer John Ogden’s work is also inspiring to me. He’s photographed many wonderful stories over the years, from surfing to the stories of indigenous Australians. I’ve learnt countless things from Oggy over the years.
Tell us about your work at the University of Sydney.
I started teaching digital editing at the University of Sydney in March 2021. The students are tuning in from all around the world, so it’s a fantastic discussion and brain’s trust of emerging voices in film, which I am very passionate about supporting. I’ve been teaching since 2008 so really excited to continue doing this along with working on my PhD in design/documentary at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
Did you ever see yourself as a lecturer/teacher?
I probably saw myself as a fireman or a vet surgeon or marine biologist like most kids! I think it was something that found me. It started after I finished high school and my tutoring college invited me to teach for them. I learnt a lot from the main teacher at the college, Fergus. I also had a host of encouraging teachers at my school that saw something in me. It’s that same essence that they saw in me that I try to perceive in others, to pass on that torch of passion and inspiration derived from within yourself.
While I was studying law I was invited to teach at my university, University of Technology Sydney and soon I was running workshops for hundreds of students and then more film schools followed.
Are you part of any film communities or foundations?
I regularly contribute to the Film Kino movement in Sydney and Filmonik in Melbourne, which are open mic film nights for filmmakers to screen new work. The emphasis is on making things pragmatically and releasing new films each month.
During the pandemic I reconnected with my creative roots in stop motion. I made a film noir pastiche that screened at Sydney Underground Film Festival and even won 3rd prize in the 48 hour film competition there! I screened it at Kino and Filmonik and everybody loved it. I also made a pastiche on Star Wars called Sugar Wars and worked with composer David Bruggemann again on the score.
Each month I experiment and screen a new work, even if it isn’t perfect! At the moment I’ve been performing all the voices too. You can check them out on my YouTube page or on TikTok.
I’m also creating a community of filmmakers and actors in my hometown of Sydney, so if anyone is interested in being involved in that please reach out to me on social media. (@finesilvermedia or www.finesilver.com.au)
What was the inspiration behind the documentary Requires Review?
It grew from my frustration with poor town planning in my hometown. I questioned whether a seemingly perfect city like Stockholm also faced similar issues. I met Björn Lindqivst in the Stockholm library and we discussed all the things we hate in town planning. Björn being both a town planner and an amateur actor allowed us to play a lot with the story.
The trouble with filming town planning is that it’s not a riveting subject for a film and also a profession that many audiences might not even know exists. It also is not something that can easily be spoken about in the public forum for legal reasons so some liberties had to be taken with certain details. So Björn and I decided to make the ordinary extraordinary and tell a story in a way that has never been done before.
Requires Review became the first scene in The World’s Best Film. I test-screened it at Dances with Films in Hollywood where it screened at the Chinese Theatre to thunderous applause and a lively q&a where people were stunned with Björn and really excited to learn about a profession they previously knew nothing about. I’m not sure if this would have happened if we just filmed a town planner at their desk!
It even sparked a meeting at the Sydney of City Town planners where one town planner remarked that “Björn is the Banksy of town planning!”.
What’s the biggest difference between making shorts like Everything That Clunked Along Today & Cut Down the Puppet Strings and documentaries?
The biggest difference is the ability to take and retake shots, to rehearse with a crew, to worry over the lighting and production design. To lean into a genre, to represent reality as authentically as possible but in a narrative sense with actors.
My stop motion live action films were designed to be quite surreal and not necessarily accessible to everyone. They were ‘midnight movies’ full of symbols and metaphors ripe for interpretation, inspired by the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jan Svankmajer, Jiří Barta, Jiří Trnka and other amazing artists.
I like to think that my experience in making documentaries will enlighten the way I make future narrative work.
What has been your biggest success in your film career?
My first big success was in 2008, I won a documentary film competition and was flown to Washington DC to screen my work at an international conference for world delegates.
Requires Review won festival plaudits and The World’s Best Film has been gathering them too. My biggest success as a director has been making this film and slowly getting it out into the world. At a time when perhaps it is more relevant than ever because of everybody being locked down for so long, disconnected from the things they love that they may not be able to do anymore.
Are there any actors you hope to work with some day?
Absolutely, I’d love to work with many actors and I’m always open to new collaborations. Working with new and experienced Australian talent would also be a treat.
As an aside many people have drawn comparisons between The World’s Best Film and that of Tenacious D’s ‘Tribute’ to “The Best Song in the World”. I was lucky enough to have a video chat with Jack Black and Kyle Gass last year which can be watched on my Instagram. So working with someone like Jack Black on a future documentary series would be pretty magical and likely hilarious.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
At the start of 2020 I was accepted along with 49 other international filmmakers into a filmmaking accelerator run by Werner Herzog. We were supposed to make a film under his guidance in the Colombian jungle but due to COVID19 it’s been postponed. While it was postponed it pivoted into a video diary project which can be streamed on my vimeo page.
I’m developing new documentary projects, weird, wonderful and personal. One about my great uncle who has an incredible life story during the holocaust, another about an amazing public speaker. I’m developing several narrative film ideas inspired by the work of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and John Cassavetes.
I’m editing a feature documentary for another documentary filmmaker, Enda Murray on an Irish Troubadour which will hopefully come out sometime this year.
You’ve worked with many major networks over the years, what was your biggest lesson you learned from these experiences?
I’ve worked a lot for the production companies and by proxy the networks. My biggest lesson was that communication is key and encouraging open discussion can save not only money but many hours of time.
Do you see yourself venturing into TV series any time soon?
Absolutely, I have many concepts that lend themselves to TV series! I’ve been careless enough to mention some of my tv show ideas before too haha!
I am interested in adapting some of my films for TV. I’d love the opportunity to keep making ‘The World’s Best Film’ series in TV form or go deeper on some of the characters and personalities in the film. Particularly Björn Lindqvist, or the world’s best toilet tour guide Rachel in London.
During the pandemic, what has been your biggest challenge as a filmmaker?
My biggest challenge during the pandemic was staying motivated. I felt a bit like my year was cancelled and I actually had flashbacks to how things were for me in 2014. I was told to stop working, stop studying and stay inside and do nothing. Before the pandemic.
After facing something like that I was lucky enough to travel the world, visit 3 continents, 10 countries over 5 years and make The World’s Best Film! So I think it’s important that people know that there is some light that can come after the darkness and good things can be around the corner. Just because you miss the bus doesn’t mean there’s not a limousine around the corner waiting for you.
We managed to screen online as part of many different festivals and now lucky enough to be screening in cinemas through festivals like Revelation in Perth and Melbourne Documentary Film Festival this Sunday on the 28th March!
What advice can you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Make the film that you want to make, know yourself and what matters to you, follow your gut and that fire within. Sometimes the fire doesn’t burn that brightly and it’s okay to rest and reflect. Find your second wind when it comes, ride it out and lean into what follows.
Are there any indie filmmakers that should be on our radar?
Aussie filmmaker Stuart McBratney has been a mentor to me in several ways and his latest film Don’t Read This on a Plane is worth checking out when you get the opportunity. I also worked on the film in Romania and Newcastle. I also recently met Kai Smythe at Revelation and saw his documentary Lost on the Road to Shangri La which was oodles of fun!