Interview with Vahid Vahed, Founder and Artistic Director of CINEWEST in Australia. According to the group's web site, CINEWEST multimedia promotes and implements CCD (Community Cultural Development) initiatives and screen culture through multimedia programs among children and youth in the western Sydney region.
What made you come up with this idea of having a festival for children and young adults?
Since 1985, I facilitated many projects with children and youth and utilized multimedia tools and moving images as an artistic medium to document various expressions. There was no venue in Australia to screen or exhibit the works produced by children and youth or made about or for them by adults, and by creating a platform such as the Auburn International Film and Video Festival for Children and Young Adults, presentation and promotion as well as distribution became the focus of this event.
Was your vision formed after you left Iran or before?
I left Iran when I was 16 years old. I remember being taken by our high school to Tehran's International Children Film Festival (now in its 39th year entitled 'Roshd International Film Festival) organized by the Ministry of Education in the early 70s until now. We were excited about the field trip because we were not going to be in the classroom. I remember watching strange animations from Eastern Europe that scared us instead of bringing us laughter and joy.
Then, there were only American animations brought to children through television such as 'Felix the Cat', 'Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny' and 'Walt Disney productions'! I remember watching them in their original language and that did not stop me to understand the moralistic messages loaded in the narratives.
Maybe, the vision for a children film festival was planted in my unconscious then, but never pursued it seriously until 1998 when I became employed by BSW Ministry for the Arts as an Arts Officer in one of the most culturally diverse communities in the western side of Sydney called 'Auburn'. Another reason to start the festival was to promote Auburn as one of the most diverse cultural demographics in Australia. Since there is no other international children film festival in Australia after the closing of Adelaide International Children Film Festival in the early 80s, our event became a landmark locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
Did the festival become an overnight success?
Yes, in many ways. Filmmakers and distributors whose works were about children and youth and had limited options in presenting them globally instantly recognized the festival. Lack of venue to showcase children and youth produced works was another element to attract younger filmmakers to utilize this event, as their preliminary platform for self-expression and professional development. Also, being the only international film festival for children and young adults in Australia generated an enormous interest from the rest of the world. i.e. in its 5th edition, the festival presented 41 countries.
Did you ever think one day you'll be able to fulfill your dream?
It was not my dream to set up a festival for children but it became one of my long-term visions through my work as an Arts Officer when the NSW Ministry for the Arts to promote cultural diversity employed me.
Do you find the festival well received at the local and international level?
Each year, the festival receives more and more child and youth produced works locally and globally by individuals, schools and higher educational institutions. The amount of interest expressed by filmmakers and distributors are staggering in comparison to the audience attendance.
Is every year different to the next? What year has been the best so far?
Every year is different from the next but the core competitions categories never change as the amount of entries always increase. I always hope that next year will be better than the previous year, because it provides us with the opportunity to present the latest cultural and artistic development in the world from children and youth perspectives.
Is there any particular country that her contribution or participation is more than others? Why do you think that is?
The most entries are from Australia overall but not far behind is Iran. Films from Iran can qualify for both Adults and children audience due to their subject matters, which are either about or for children and youth. This becomes a lucrative submission by Iranian producers with the assistance from foreign distributors such as SONY Classics, MK2 and Miramax to reach wider audiences.
How have you perceived the involvement of Iranian filmmakers in the festival?
The films that we usually receive are from government distribution units such as IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), Kanoon and Farabi Institute as well as CMI, which is an independent (non-government) private distribution body. In more recent years, we have been receiving works from many independent producers and distributors. The films are diverse in content and form but have their own specific agendas, i.e. if the work is produced by Public Broadcaster or other government agencies is likely to contain constructed social and political messages, but if independent young filmmakers produced it those messages become the point of unresolved conflicts that need to be addressed socially and politically. Therefore, we receive more daring and challenging works from young independent filmmakers than adult filmmakers, not only from Iran but also from everywhere else in the world.
What do you think of the children's film made in Iran?
I attended a Master Forum conducted by an internationally known contemporary Iranian Filmmaker in Fabu International Film Festival for Children and Families in Norway 2002, and to be honest did not agree with the way children participated in the productions. I don't want to elaborate on the detail of many points and issues rose until I left the forum in despair and extremely worried for children actors in Iran.
Firstly, adults are the writers and directors of such films as for or about children and youngsters are merely the performers under direction! Secondly, the children used in the films are considered non-professionals, therefore not protected by actors' union laws, and usually have no rights as the professional crew and adult cast members.
I have heard about the same methods used by various filmmakers prior to the 'New Iranian Cinema' but never met directors that publicly expressed special exploitative skills to excavate desired gesture or lines from the child actors. And be proud of the humiliating strategies as innovative and skillful!!
How do you compare the Children's films made in developed and under-developed countries?
Children films are usually defined as films made by adults about or for children, and as I mentioned above children are merely used to convey a particular message by adult writers and directors. Under this pretext, the underdeveloped countries will deploy exploitative strategies to involve children as principal cast members, and in the developing countries, child actors whether amateur or professional are protected under the Actors Union Laws i.e. children must be paid according to wage regulations and should have a guardian and private tutors on set that will assist them with study for the duration of productions and many more benefits.
What makes a good film for children you think?
What makes a good children film is when it is conceived, written, directed and produced by children.
Do you consider yourself culturally Iranian? Or Australian? Or something else perhaps?
I am lucky that I was able to experience different cultures by either learning about them or residing in various countries. I attended high school and college in England during mid 70s and worked in Germany during early 80s and finally immigrated to Australia in 1983. These dislocations somehow shaped a continental person in me that is not Iranian nor German, English or Australian but a mixture of all cultures. Although, I have a soft spot for Iran and wish to visit and work with Iranian children and youth more often.
Have you made any films yourself?
I have produced and directed over 20 short films and 2 feature documentaries for television in the past 15 years as well as many sound, performance and time based art installations. Most of the films were produced either by SBS Television in Australia or independently but the installations were funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and other government art agencies. My last short film 'Aquarium' was produced under $50AUD to relay a practical solution to independent filmmakers that it is possible to work outside the industry parameters. The film was shot and edited on digital video in 2001 and was invited to over ten international short film festivals since then such as Artecolica Venice International Short Film Festival, Manchester International Short Film Festival and Girona International Film Festival.
May I ask you what that $50 was for?
Well, $50AUD doesn't cover much these days except a box of teabags, a jar of instant coffee, a bag of sugar and a few liters of milk as well as some not so flashy biscuits! Unfortunately, the catering was over before the second day of the shoot by having almost 15 cast and crewmembers, there was no chance of saving. But as usual, the hidden resources came to rescue the film since the next two days we had to use Sidetrack Performance Group's studios in the inner western suburbs of Sydney. When I began my community arts practice, Sidetrack has always been my favorite place to work in because of its innovative and gentle director Don Mamouney who co-founded the company nearly 25 years ago. Therefore, I felt at home at Sidetrack studios and knew that if we use some of their tea, coffee and biscuits will be added to in-kind usage of the location.
How did you get involved with CIFEJ?
I was presenting our festival's winners and best for International Film Festival for Children and Young people in Mar del Plata, Argentine during November 2001 and CIFEJ (International Centre for Children and Young People) was holding their Board meeting at the same festival. I met the board members and was invited to join the organization in order to expand the membership of CIFEJ to Asia Pacific Region as well as collaborating on potential international projects.
In 2002, during CIFEJ General Assembly in Norway, I was nominated and elected as a board director by the members, and subsequently elected by the directors as the vice president. The board membership can be in 2 terms only, which totals 4 years unless a director is elected as the president that will add an extra 3 years to his/her appointment.
What is expected of you as the Vice President of CIFEJ?
My primary duty as the Vice President is to promote the aims and objectives of the organization in order to attract more members and therefore more projects. UNESCO and UNICEF established CIFEJ in 1955. In the year 2005, CIFEJ will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary coinciding with the General Assembly held in Tehran hosted by Kanoon during May 24-June 1, 2005.
How do you define your relationship with the other board directors, specially the Iranian member Mr. Amir Esfandiari?
I always find it difficult to stay in touch with other board directors. Board Directors are working extremely hard in their own countries and the meetings that are held twice a year due to logistics and lack of finances may never be achieved successfully with all members present. But we frequently make contact through the administration office in Montreal, Canada and receive updates about latest developments of the organization. The relationship that I have with other board members are through the common practices and concerns about children and youth globally, which allow us to know about each other.
You said earlier that it was one of your “long-term visions” to establish an international festival for children, what are your other visions that you would like to see materialize one day?
Before establishing the festival as an audience development and screen culture initiative, to be part of my position 'Multicultural Arts Officer', I always had the vision of establishing an international film, television and digital art school that allows young talents to enter despite their lack of finances or being subjected to disabilities in various areas i.e. AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School), which is the major film institution in this country has certain restrictions for entering such as; one must be over 25 years of age to be eligible! Or must have industry background!
The so called high end of educational institutions such as fine art and film schools in Australia are very exclusive these days and their products are becoming more and more uninteresting because students are not challenged by content only by form, which inevitably is a gateway to the industry and employment. I visualize an educational institution where positive and creative ideas are nurtured and developed to become universal messages for mankind and beyond.
I was never a good student when I was at school in Iran, in fact, I failed year 10 at high school and that was partly the reason I was sent to England to have a second chance. The haunting memories of being punished by the teacher when I did not bring my home work to school or expressing some issues that were totally out of school context are still vivid moving pictures in my mind. Maybe, this is the reason behind wanting to establish a school for contemporary ideas to flourish rather than decayed values that the global education system wants to reinforce and preserve.