Little Cambdia

Student Films Take Centre Stage in the AFTRS Documentary Showcase

Drag kings, classical guitar and Indigenous cuisine: these topics and more are the focus of an exclusive partnership between the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and SBS On Demand aimed at exposing Australian audiences to the next wave of documentary filmmakers. 

Launched in April 2022, the AFTRS Documentary Showcase is a collection of ten documentaries from second-year Bachelor of Arts Screen: Production students: Born at Eighteen (Abbey Hocking), Talent over Tourette’s (Suzanna Steele), Gentle Torture (Joelle Sanounou), Drawing the Line (Elyse Landsberry), Little Cambodia (Vanessa Bush), Native Food (Juliette Hoffman), Pills & Powder Milk (Nazareth Alfred), Silent Guitar (Yen Hoang), The King in Me (Felix Dupuy) and Tracking Farmer Dave (Nic Puni). The brief was simple: tell a story that explores culture and identity in Australia in no more than five minutes. Now available to watch on SBS On Demand, these documentaries sit beside prestigious television series, classic films and the latest in world cinema. 

Traditionally, the pathway for student films outside of educational institutions has been the festival circuit (both local and worldwide). At film festivals, shorts offer a niche alternative to features, but still have to contend with an audience who crave the titles with the biggest hype and talent, which may reduce the number of bums on seats. And even though festivals offer the allure of exposure, and bigger and better career opportunities, the cost of entry fees and demand for exclusivity can also be a huge barrier for students. 

In contrast, streaming services offer emerging filmmakers a ready-made audience. According to Roy Morgan research, SBS On Demand reaches over 4 million Australians every four weeks, making it the second-biggest free-to-air streaming service in the country (behind ABC iview). On SBS On Demand’s homepage, the AFTRS Documentary Showcase sits next to the category ‘Opposite Sides of the Law’, which features the critically ­acclaimed Martin Freeman–starring British crime drama The Responder – clearly, the platform is not merely offering a home to the showcase but actively promoting it. 

An alternative possibility for student filmmakers is the free-for-all of platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. This may be a fruitful avenue for some, but uploading work to these oversaturated spaces puts the fate of the filmmaker in the hands of the algorithm, and nixes exclusivity. While Screen Australia does invest in online content designed for platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Facebook – perfect for emerging talent – it’s a funding model built on the track record of its creators and their credits. Streaming platforms like SBS On Demand, on the other hand, give filmmakers not only access to a huge audience but also the seal of approval from a major Australian network, which may hold weight on future funding applications. 

The trend of a streaming bump for students isn’t isolated to SBS On Demand. In 2021, the Film and Television department of the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) partnered with the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) to showcase the work of its 2020 graduating class. VCA student films were made available to stream for free on MIFF Play, a platform that was set up in 2020 to allow the festival to power through the COVID-19 pandemic. Over forty films from a broad range of genres featured in the VCA Film and Television Graduate Season package. In launching the initiative, MIFF artistic director Al Cossar described the program as a way to ‘get a glimpse of who’s next’. Meanwhile, ABC iview hosts AFTRS Showcase, a growing collection of student shorts that have been given the thumbs up from the national broadcaster. 

So where are the gaps? Clearly, the streaming might of services like Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime could play a role in this space. There would be no harm done to the financial bottom line of these companies by showcasing new Australian talent, and it would certainly bump up the presence of Australian content on commercial streaming platforms, which is in need of a boost. Netflix, for one, isn’t averse to shorts: Two Distant Strangers (Travon Free & Martin Desmond Roe, 2020), which won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2021, is available on the platform, as are plenty of other titles. Placement with these hugely popular services, too, could help emerging talent get the credits they need to apply for funding from local screen bodies. 

The demand for short-form screen content continues to grow, and it just received a huge vote of confidence through the official partnership between the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and short-form video platform TikTok. The festival used TikTok’s creators to get its 1 billion users as close as possible to the red carpet and glamorous parties. But this wasn’t just a publicity exercise; Cannes also hosted a global short film competition, in which users could submit their short films in the app without an entry fee. Award-winning Cambodian director Rithy Panh led the jury, and three major prizes were awarded: the Grand Prix, Best Script and Best Editing. The selected winners received a cash prize and a trip to the festival – a great place for an emerging creative to network fresh off an endorsement from the world’s biggest film festival. Not only has the competition driven emerging talent to TikTok, but there’s also a chance these short films will actually be widely seen on the platform as its reputation grows as a talent incubator.

It’s encouraging to see pathways open up for students beyond the rigorous demands of traditional avenues like film festivals. The AFTRS Documentary Showcase and similar initiatives give a boost to emerging Australian talent by bringing their work to larger audiences. The next big thing is now only a click away.