American Essentials Film Festival is bringing the best of independent cinema to Australia

“A really defining thing about American independent cinema particularly, is that you can really see the individuals behind the film.”

American cinema is famed for Hollywood, red carpets and its A-list stars, though it’s the country’s independent filmmakers who are making a splash the world over. With the likes of Cannes Film Festival and SXSW awash with groundbreaking American independent films, cinema enthusiasts are paying close attention – some in particular ensuring we don’t miss out by bringing the top picks Down Under with the annual American Essentials Film Festival.

Back for its third year, the American Essentials Film Festival will make its way around Australia with a carefully curated selection of films across a range of genres, celebrating the art of American independent film and the creative minds commandeering the scene.

Richard Sowada, the festival curator, has spent decades working within the cinema industry across numerous projects and film festivals, and estimates he watches approximately 150 films in the months leading up to the festival, ensuring the program is diverse, cohesive and goes beyond regurgitating your run of the mill crop of films.

“Almost every year, there’s a tone that emerges from the scene – it’s the same with music as well – a voice, really,” Sowada says. “I look at what the voice is and how that all comes together through 20 films. A lot of these films are about the individuals’ quest or search for authenticity – who they are, not how they relate – so that’s kind of what I felt is the overriding theme. That ‘who am I and what am I and how am I?’ That’s what I felt was really developing in the films.”

When considering his personal highlights from this year’s program, Sowada jokes it’s like being asked to decide which of his children to kill. After all, none of the films featured in the festival were added to the program lightly. Sowada’s rigorous checklist ensures the films tell him the filmmaker understands ‘the language of cinema’ before he begins to examine the finer details.

“All of the films are in there because I feel personally connected to them, not just because I think ‘Oh, well that’s a good movie,’” he says. “There’s a meaning for them to be in there and the meaning is a little bit more than my opinion.”

Sowada’s personal favourites of this year’s festival include Pet Names, a sharp romantic comedy by Carol Brandt, whom Sowada predicts to be the next big thing in independent film; Outside In, the story of an ex-con readjusting to life outside prison; Stuck, a musical which unfolds in real-time, following a group of strangers trapped between stations on a New York subway; American Folk, the story of two folk musicians who drive across the country together after their flights are cancelled in the wake of 9/11; RBG; a documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the Supreme Court Justice; and Gotti, starring John Travolta as mafia kingpin John Gotti in a Goodfellas-style New York crime film.

In addition to a crop of new films, many of which will make their Australian debut at the festival, American Essentials also features a handful of retrospective films celebrating the city of Los Angeles with Postcards From LA. This program showcases a selection of films set in the city, including a special double feature of music documentary Wattstax and Charles Bernett’s iconic The Killer of Sheep.

Having spent the past eight months dedicated to programming the festival, it comes as no surprise that Sowada considers film to be his life. But why his particular fascination with American independent cinema? He explains that the industry’s running social and political commentary and rich history of filmmaking traditions come together to create tried-and-tested methods and inspired content. 

“A really defining thing about American independent cinema particularly, is that you can really see the individuals behind the film,” he says. “It’s really quite rewarding because once you’re involved in it for a while, you actually feel like you’re really getting to know the filmmakers personally because you can see them changing with their work and you can see their personality changing and their ideas changing.

 “I want people to sit in the cinema and when the movie’s finished to go ‘Fuck, I was not expecting that.’ That’s ultimately what I want people to think and to feel,” Sowada says. “I think people underestimate the strength in American independent cinema and I want people to see that.”

Aside from its focus on American film, American Essentials differs from other film festivals in that Sowada has meticulously reviewed every detail, inspecting everything from the psychological reasons behind how and why people react to certain things, to the creative and political nuances behind each film. He compares the program to a recipe, explaining that the films come together to create one satisfying meal, with each element adding its own flavour to the overall product. 

“I’m in each of these movies, that’s me in there, and that’s a really personal thing. So there is that personality and that personal comment in every film, and as a result the entire festival, which binds it together and I think, and I hope, gives it some kind of meaning beyond a bunch of good movies.”

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Palace Cinema’s American Essentials Film Festival is happening from Thursday May 10 - Sunday May 20 at The Astor Theatre and The Kino. Tickets are available at americanessentials.com.au and at the venues.