By ScreenHub — 14 Jun 2019
The Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) began as an outrageously idealistic gesture in Queensland, driven by local journalist, board member and backroom expert Des Power.
The screen community was nonplussed. Most of the films were not even locally released. What was the mysterious Academy which comprised all the filmmakers nominated for an award?
Enter the Motion Picture Association (MPA), the international offshoot of the Motion Picture Association of America, funded ultimately by the six major US studios and Netflix. The screen bodies around the world are joined at the hip over piracy, but differ over Western and American dominance. The Australians have fought the MPAA toe-to-toe over our subsidy system.
The MPA, based in Singapore, agreed to provide four awards of US$25,000 per year to develop productions across the region, the winners to be decided and supported by the APSA Academy. Andrew Pike, current distributor and legendary exhibitor through Ronin Films, has chaired the process for the last ten years.
‘I’m very proud of it,’ said Andrew Pike. ‘I have no idea why they keep asking, but it’s the highlight of my year. It’s just been an absolute eye opener for me and I don’t know why it is so little known in Australia.
‘Asghar Fahardi is quite frank about the fact that the $25,000 grant he received for A Separation in the first round got him across the line with the film that started his international career. He has remained attached to the academy network. He has turned up several times and given masterclasses and so on.’
A Separation took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.
Three years later, No Burqas Behind Bars won an International Emmy for Outstanding Documentary. It was shot in an Afghan women’s prison by Maryam Ebrahimi and Nina Sarvestani. They are now based in Scandinavia and still making films.
In 2018 The River by Kazakh auteur Emir Baigazin and Memories of My Body from the Indonesian director Garin Nugroho were chosen for the Orrizonti section of the Venice Film Festival. The real APSA moment was at Cannes, where Ayka, another Kazakh film, took the Best Actress award for Samal Yeslyamovka. South Korean film Burning took the FIPRESCI prize for director Chang-dong Lee. Nuri Bilge Ceylan was in competition for The Wild Pear Tree.
The APSA nominations are a strange mixture of commercial films that do well in the region, and arthouse films made under conditions that would leave an Australian indie gasping. Producers here can be sued, but they are never hunted like animals by religious extremists, or treated as toys for censors.
Pike claims that APSA provides intangible but powerful moral support. Some countries have very little infrastructure to back local filmmaking, others are trapped inside a highly commercial model, many shoot under onerous conditions. All the finalists are brought to Brisbane, where they meet over formal discussions and two days of social occasions.
Every grand scheme has to deliver or it eventually disappears. This program has been carried through APSA’s epic journey to find a secure home in the Queensland bureaucracy, whichwe have covered faithfully.
‘In terms of revenue to cost we have a pretty happy ratio within the arthouse market,’ said Pike. Because the APSA grants are available to finalists, it means they are used by a body of practicing filmmakers and that body gets bigger every year.
Even though we are dealing with an elite, US$25,000 is significant – it’s not just part of a $300,000 development budget, it can make or break a project. About 60% of our projects go forward, though some take a long time. Recipients from eight or nine years ago are just being completed.’
Beyond the money, the grant carries recognition. It demonstrates that an awards body which covers the region acknowledges the status of the filmmakers. Every time a fund supported film is released or honoured, that becomes more powerful.
The Asia Pacific region as defined by APSA covers half the world, though the level of production is much lower. Films in the same competition can come from Russia Israel, Palestine, Cambodia, Taiwan, China, Australia, Samoa and New Zealand. The American side of the Pacific is not included. There are many films about very poor people, but once they turn up in festivals the makers are clearly middle class. They are educated, after all.
‘We are very comfortable with giving to filmmakers who are in an elite socially or educationally but film is a very expensive art form,’ Pike said. ‘If you have filmic aspirations you need money and recognition and your morale boosted. I see us doing all three of those things. We cooperate with a great deal of humility and support a lot of heart-felt films. The ceremony is great but it is a lot less pretentious than some other awards ceremonies.’
‘The rules are so loose we are really wanting aspirations more than anything else,’ Pike admitted. Returns and audience are not part of the criteria, and the whole application is based on a maximum of seven pages. Treatments and scripts are not considered – it’ just about ideas and artistic integrity. Unsurprisingly, commercial projects rarely get supported.
‘The panel has been really well selected over the years by people who are interested in film culture and not the film industry. That’s what festivals do too, but they want to support winners.
‘We do ask for applications in English. They are often translated by Google, and are hilarious and difficult to read. We don’t judge by the fanciness of the application – if anything that is a turnoff. Separation was a page and a half of typescript with no formatting, but it just expressed a clarity of vision we wanted to support.
‘We redistribute them in batches of five or six and end up with a shortlist of 25 films. There are always two or three with a pretty strong consensus, and one film which we discuss for hours.’
‘There is a sense of uniqueness about what we do. In the Western model the barriers are really harsh and the arthouse market has a lot of power.’
It is not surprising that the APSA model is softer. The gateway is not in development, but in the grind of making the film. Here the West has a certain indulgence – the indy filmmaker has a heroic glow, the culture is supportive so the task doesn’t seem outlandish, and there’s plenty of resources to share or deal. We have a different meaning for ‘difficult’.
The APSA scheme is a development fund, which offers year round support and feedback as the project develops. According to Pike, who has been through his share of fund applications, the process ‘is more deeply felt and more intricately constructed’ than many contemporary schemes.
Australians are allowed to apply, and some have received funding. Robert Connelly has been supported to develop Magic Beach, a compendium film by a variety of animators about the life of the seashore through the eyes of children.
Rolf de Heer has a development grant for Mr Ward’s Incredible Journey, described as ‘a darkly comic biopic drama. A story of two incredible journeys by the same man: one a journey from pre-contact to an almost successful adaptation into a new culture; the other a brutal, stupid journey from the living to the dead.’
Kath Shelper was supported for The Guardians, about young men trying to protect children and turned the project over to Indigenous director Bec Cole.
But Pike noticed that some Australian applications have already been thoroughly worked over. ‘Some of them come in as glossy booklets with colour illustrations and sections like a character bible. It’s bullshit stuff.
‘They have been so thoroughly script edited and checked and balanced and gone through development workshops there is now no raw energy to them. The vital sparks have been knocked out of them by honing and re-honing and re-honing and mentoring and researching that … anyway.
‘We don’t want to change these people – we want them to be more themselves. We are patrons rather than investors and I love that.’
Working with filmmakers from different societies is a huge privilege. While the development process here is honed by the necessity of raising money and finding market support, Pike is brushing up on cultures whose values and approaches are much more communal.
‘Everything has to have a value, but the only value for people in Western society tends to be financial. We look at this concept of value from a historical perspective, and the idea of the primacy of monetary value is pretty recent.
‘Historically there were other values that were even more important.’
Lebanese actor and director Nadine Labaki was a nominee for Best Achievement in Directing and Best Performance by an Actress at the 2007 APSAs, which gave her membership of the Academy. She came back and won the directing prize in 2018, and took the Jury Prize at Cannes.
She was not funded by APSA, but the film takes us into a different world. Just to prove that sometimes the system can deliver, the picture took US$68 million around the world from a release by Sony Classics.
This article was first published here.