Celebrating films that are truly fantastic

"Prisoners of the Ghostland" features at this year's Fantastic Film Festival Australia. Photo: Rachel Bostock/supplied.

Hudson Sowada has childhood memories of his dad bringing out a 16mm film projector, placing it on the kitchen table and showing short films and animations. That early introduction to celluloid got Sowada hooked and today he is the festival director of the Fantastic Film Festival Australia. He spoke with Rita Bratovich about the 2021 season. 

Though many “fantastic films” are indeed very good, that is not what the term means.  The cinema industry defines a fantastic film as one that breaks with convention, defies stereo-types and norms, is transgressive, counter-cultural, bold and alternative. 

“They all have to come from a place of truth and a place of honesty and a place of human experience, and all these films have that in them, and they’re incredibly relatable even if they don’t follow traditional convention,” says Hudson Sowada, describing the criteria he applied in curating the program for the 2021 Fantastic Film Festival. 

“A lot of them are really accessible and there are films you could take your grandparents to and have a great time – and there are others that you can definitely not do that with.”

Scene from Bloodshot Heart. Photo: Rachel Bostock/supplied.

Sowada and a group of similar minded cinephiles recognised a gap in filmic offerings in the local market, so in 2018 they launched the Paracinema Fest, screening 14 films. It returned in 2020 as the Fantastic Film Festival. 

This year’s program of over 20 films features an eclectic international collection, spanning, defying, and conflating genres. 

“More and more now we are seeing genre qualities and genre mindsets and attitudes spilling out into more accessible or less boxed-in classical genre styles like, you know, horror and science fiction and things,” says Sowada. 

The Fantastic Film Festival Australia 2021 trailer. Video: Bloodshot Heart/YouTube.

The quirky, obtuse styles previously associated with fantastic films now imbue more mainstream genres such as true crime, romance, comedy and even documentary, and many of these are represented in this year’s festival. 

Various countries are also represented, each with their own sensibility and tone. Sowada says French cinema is producing great surrealist and horror films, and they have an idiosyncratic sense of humour. 

There are two French films in the program: Teddy, a werewolf film, and Jumbo, a film about a young woman who falls in love with a theme park ride. The latter, though it sounds bizarre, actually treats the subject matter with tenderness and understanding. 

Scene from Jumbo. Photo: Rachel Bostock/supplied.

“[It’s] played dead straight, and really just an allegory for any unconventional love story – that’s a beautiful film,” says Sowada. 

Canada, considered the underdog in cinema representation, is doing some amazing stuff, according to Sowada.

“There’s a film called The Twentieth Century, which is a re-imagining of Canadian history through Art Deco and 16mm Technicolour. Reminiscent of Guy Maddin and The Mighty Boosh to some extent, and Monty Python. Then there’s another Canadian film about civil war and the idea of death and laughter and happiness and the cross-section of all those things.”

Sowada cites the Australian thriller Bloodshot Heart, as an example of the high-quality local product. 

“There really is a great underground Australian spirit here that I’m really wanting to celebrate in this program too.”

There are three films directed by women and many others that feature a strong female lead. Sowada considers it important to include more diverse voices, communities and varied points of view. 

Scene from The Old Man Movie. Photo: Rachel Bostock/supplied.

The opening night film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, stars Hollywood heavyweight Nicholas Cage and will likely have mainstream release. 

“That’s going to be pandemonium on screen. It’s gonna be a really fantastic night.”

Closing out the festival is Mother Schmuckers, from Belgium. 

“[It’s] an absolutely wild, wild ride. I haven’t seen anything like that for sure,” says Sowada. 

The program overall should appeal to a broad spectrum of tastes.

“We’ve got hard-boiled Korean crime Beasts Clawing at Straws; we’ve got political, kung-fu, zombie horror, Get The Hell Out; Willem Dafoe in a deranged trip through his dreams in Siberia; we’ve got an erotic film starring Julia Fox from Uncut Gems that’s called Private Chat; there’s a Shakespearean tragi-comedy set in a nudist colony in Patrick; and we’ve got a great Estonian stop motion extravaganza in The Old Man Movie. And then one of the best true crime documentaries I’ve seen in a very long time, called Miracle Fishing, about what it would be like for a family to be told to raise $5million or their dad dies, that’s an unreal film.

“It’s been an amazing ride to put this event together and we’re really proud of what we’ve got on offer.”

The Fantastic Film Festival Australia runs from Friday, 16 April to Saturday, 1 May at Ritz Cinemas, 45 St Pauls Street, Randwick. For full program and bookings, visit www.fantasticfilmfestival.com.au.