New Zealand wannabe film-makers wanted to reap global glory in silent film competition

Wurlitzer enthusiast Nathan Avakian holds sway at the International Youth Silent Film Festival's Tauranga regional ...
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Wurlitzer enthusiast Nathan Avakian holds sway at the International Youth Silent Film Festival's Tauranga regional finals in 2016

A picture tells a thousand words

Nowhere is that more evident than in the world of silent film, where traditional narrative relies on the strength of what's on screen to envelop the audience, rather than catchy dialogue and explosive action. If you further squeeze that narrative into the confines of a short film, there's no disputing that the challenge becomes more than a touch tricky.

Further to that if you throw into that mix the fact your film will compete against the rest of the world, it almost seems like the odds are stacked up against you before you've even begun. But that's clearly not phased anyone involved in the local leg of the International Youth Silent Film Festival which is currently casting the net far and wide globally for entries.

Regional finalists at the 2016 International Youth Silent Film Festival - the hunt for 2017's NZ winner is now underway
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Regional finalists at the 2016 International Youth Silent Film Festival - the hunt for 2017's NZ winner is now underway

It was the brainchild of American JP Palanuk and sprang to life back in 2009. 

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However, last year was the first time the idea landed on Kiwi soil. Entrants were given a pre-composed piece of music to structure their film around but had a range of 10 genres from which to choose.

Wurlitzer enthusiast Nathan Avakian plays live at the International Youth Silent Film Festival's Tauranga regional ...
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Wurlitzer enthusiast Nathan Avakian plays live at the International Youth Silent Film Festival's Tauranga regional finals in 2016

Submissions close in October this year before the regional finals in Tauranga in November and those involved are confident that New Zealand has got what it takes to win on the world stage. 

It's not to be sniffed at either with a $2000 prize pot on offer for the winner as well as the chance to represent the nation in Portland next June.

Last year's inaugural regional finals were held at the Baycourt Community and Art Centre and overseen by regional manager Megan Peacock Coyle. She's optimistic they can top the 41 entries they had from as far south as Invercargill.

"The quality was what you'd expect at the beginning of a process," she says laughing and clearly being diplomatic. "We had primary schools that entered, so they were just having a good laugh but the level jumped considerably when we got to the Top 10." 

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Though Coyle acknowledges that even if the schoolkids were "having a laugh", the spark of something in their future was clearly being ignited. So much so that ahead of the submissions deadline this year and in the second week of the July school holidays, they put on a workshop for 8-15 year old to fire up that passion and ensure a bumper crop of entries this year.

"It's about growing that spark - a lot of it is about telling stories. There are some kids there who could go on and become incredible film-makers and we decided 'Let's give them a little bit more insight into it'."

One of the things that proves a drawcard to those wishing to enter - aside from the cash, obviously - is the Baycourt's magnificent Wurlitzer, one of only three working machines in the country. It's upon this that the soundtracks for the various genres were composed and which will be played live at the November regional finals as the chosen films unspool on the big screen behind them. And it's also this multi-generational appeal that's proving to be cinematic catnip to those who are part of it.

"It's kind of harkening back to the history of film-making in a way and it's using this incredible organ - there's only three of them in New Zealand. The scores were written by a 25-year-old man from New York (Nathan Avakian) who's incredibly talented and he's composed all the scores on the Wurlitzer organ, so you've got quite a juxtaposition of things with youth and the organ that the older generation appreciate and love.

"But now we're finding the younger generation are starting to look at it. It really is an incredible piece of machinery, it's quite outstanding - the kids' jaws drop when they see how the machines operate."

One of those who knows the thrill of seeing the soundtrack play out on the Wurlitzer while your creative efforts are screened to an audience is teenager and Tauranga local Micah Winiata.

Winiata's short film An Homage, which he created, shot and edited with two other film-makers won the regional event last year, something which holds a special place in his fledgling film-maker career.

"It was like a really weird feeling because we were shooting (the film An Homage) all by ourselves and we just entered on a website, one email away without even knowing how big it was - so we didn't get the gravity of it. And then I was coming up to Tauranga, and decided to attend as well. I found out we were in the finals, then I found out we won, it was really unique."

Citing film directors Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Taika Waititi as being inspirations, Winiata thinks anyone who's vaguely interested in the concept should simply dive in.

"In some ways, it's easier than coming up with a wholly original idea because the music has to fuel what happens, but I did consider a few other stories to tell. I just found that it was a little bit easier to listen to the music and hear the beats and kind of make a story to that. It does require a lot of thinking."

It's a train of thought that Coyle agrees with. But she's optimistic that of the 10 genres selected which range from mystery to horror, sci-fi to action, there's something for everyone to try their hand at.

"Kids tend to head for the action, horror, you know, the science fiction. We had quite a lot of westerns last year which was kind of great - the third place winner was a western set in a skate park. I think romance is one that's not covered - a lot of that's to do with the age group!"

Tauranga native Tim Balme of South Pacific Pictures will be on the judging panel this year - and Coyle's determined to attract Sir Peter Jackson to any future festivals, revealing she's repeatedly asked him to take part.

"He declines due to being very busy - but I'm going to get him one year!"

Entry details for the International Youth Silent Film Festival can be found at www.makesilentfilm.com/rules and the closing date for submissions is on October 1st.

 - Stuff

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