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18 September 2018
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In conversation with Sundance scout Trevor Groth

In September and early October, the AFC played host to Trevor Groth from the Sundance Film Festival and Maryanne Redpath from the Berlin International Film Festival. They were both in Australia scouting for films for their 2007 festivals. TREVOR GROTH programs narrative and documentary features for Sundance and is the head of the short film section of the festival. Films discovered under his tenure include: Clerks, Hoop Dreams, Hard Eight, Pi, Memento, Napoleon Dynamite and March of the Penguins. He is also Director of Programming for CineVegas. In this interview, Groth shares his take on contemporary Australian cinema and programming one of the world's paramount film festivals.

Is this your first trip to Australia in a professional capacity, Trevor? Can you describe your role at the festival and what career steps led to it?
It is actually my second trip to Australia. The Australian Film Institute brought me down in 1999 because I programmed a group of American short films that they screened at various places including the St Kilda Film Festival. It was a great experience and I met many filmmakers on that trip who I am still in touch with today.

My role at the Sundance Film Festival is Senior Programmer and I'm involved in selecting the films in all of the sections. I got involved with Sundance because I grew up in Utah, where the festival takes place, and the highlight of my year was going to the festival. I attended the University of Utah and began working for the Sundance office in Salt Lake City. Upon graduation I applied for a programming position in the LA office and was hired based solely on my boyish good looks and charm…actually it was my willingness to do absolutely anything. Along with programming I was submissions coordinator, print trafficker, filmmaker liaison, driver etc, etc. Luckily we have a larger staff now and my responsibilities are limited to mostly programming.

Do you see stories/trends/themes emerging from this hemisphere that differ from European and American filmmaking?
In relationship to the Australian films that we have shown at Sundance in recent years, there seems to be a fascinating sense of dread in many of them. Looking at such films as The Proposition, Wolf Creek and Chopper, which all played at Sundance, it appears that there is a distinctive ability to harness a new level of intensity in various genres.

Are you looking for particular genres/themes for your 2007 festivals?
We never set out looking for themes in our programming process, for we feel it hinders the purity of it. We prefer to watch everything, make our selections and then we analyse the program to look for themes.

In your opinion, is it important to come to Australia to watch our films in context here, rather than view a screening copy at home in the US?
Coming to Australia to screen the new films is advantageous for a number of reasons. Primarily it is a great way to meet the filmmakers and producers from the region and to establish a human connection with them that will hopefully lead to a long-term relationship in which they think of Sundance as a place to premiere their films. There is also something to seeing the films on their home soil that enhances the experience.

Are there particular Australian filmmakers whose careers you are following, having seen their earlier works?
There are many Australian filmmakers whose careers I have been following. In no particular order: Gregor Jordan, Greg McLean, Cate Shortland, Paul Goldman, Nash Edgerton, Ana Kokkinos, John Hillcoat, Sarah Watt and Christina Andreef.

Can you briefly run through the various categories of your festival and indicate whether they require international/world premieres, a North American premiere etc?
Sundance is known as a 'discovery festival', thus films that have played other festivals (except in country of origin) are not as important for us. We look primarily for international premieres for our competition, but we do have sections where we can play films that we love but have had exposure. Our sections are:
* US Dramatic Competition, US Documentary Competition, World Dramatic Competition, World Documentary Competition - these are mostly world and international premieres;
* Spectrum - this consists of US and international films that have played other festivals;
* Midnight - an 'after-hours' showcase of kinetic and surprising features from all over the world;
* Frontier - experimental films from all over the world;
* Shorts programs - we have both a US and an international competition for shorts.

What advice would you give filmmakers about submitting their film to your festival?
Submit your film in the best version possible. We do accept rough cuts but try to have it as close to picture-lock as possible. It's tough for us to fairly judge a three-hour film that will eventually be 90 minutes.

In Australia there is a very lively short film industry, supported by local short film festivals, competitions, funding and courses. What are your key criteria for selecting shorts for your festivals?
We don't have the same criteria for selecting shorts that we do for features. Shorts do not have to be premieres to play Sundance. It is so hard for short films, especially in the US, to find theatrical audiences that we would never inhibit someone from playing somewhere so that it would be a premiere at Sundance.

The feature documentary Unfolding Florence screened at Sundance in 2006. What do you look for in a documentary when considering it for selection at your festival, and is there an art to programming documentaries for a festival audience?
As with all of our sections in the festival we are constantly looking for innovative ways to tell the story. It is a mission of the Sundance Institute to find these voices and it applies to documentaries as well as features. Unfolding Florence is a good example of a documentary that found creative ways to tell its story.

Our Indigenous film industry has grown significantly in the last few years, and the films are having an impact on the international stage. Green Bush and Plains Empty for instance have both screened at Sundance. What is your perception of the 'buzz' around our Indigenous films?
Sundance has a specific agenda to find and support Indigenous film from around the world. One of my colleagues and fellow programmer, Bird Runningwater, has travelled the globe in search of Indigenous filmmakers whose work the festival has shown and whose scripts the labs have developed. It is encouraging to see the support that many of these filmmakers are receiving and hopefully that trend will continue.

If an Australian feature gets selected into your festival, what can the director of that film expect should he/she attend?
Expectations should be about enjoying the experience of it. With features, and especially English language features, there has developed a mentality that the festival will be a feeding frenzy for buyers where all the films will receive multi-million dollar deals. This just isn't the case…and we are happy about that. The film festival isn't about the deals; it's about the movies. The filmmakers should plan on going to as many movies as possible and engaging their fellow filmmakers in dialogue about the films. The business side of things will happen at its own pace.

Could you offer short filmmakers any advice about maximising the experience of a major festival when attending with a short film?
If they have aspirations to make a feature then it is a great way to meet producers and agents. The shorts at the festival are always scouted to find new talent. Many filmmakers have had a short in the festival, which allowed them to make connections that enabled them to go on and make their feature.

Trevor Groth will be visiting Sydney's Popcorn Taxi for a special information evening about Sundance.
7:30pm Wednesday 4 October 2006.
Visit the Popcorn Taxi website for details.

Trevor Groth, programmer of the Sundance Film Festival, is in Australia in October scouting for films.

Ngaire Pigram in Plains Empty (w/d: Beck Cole), which screened at Sundance. Photo: Mark Rogers.