The Coffs Coast takes its place on the Australian film festival circuit

Now in its sixth year, Screenwave International Film Festival is a 16-day event serving locals and drawing hordes of cultural tourists to the region that many call paradise.

Think of regional film festivals and you might imagine a weekend event with an audience of a couple hundred diehard fans. Instead, the Screenwave International Film Festival (SWIFF), based in Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW, is a 16-day event with multiple venues, 120 sessions, and a passionate audience of around 10,000. 

Running this year from 14–29 April, SWIFF 21 will screen 65 different feature films from Australia and around the world, 22 short films in the Nextwave Youth Film Awards, and a raft of special events and industry forums. Usually held in January, the event was pushed back into an Autumn timeslot this year to allow for the opening up of cinemas after COVID-19. It’s a move that has been met with audience enthusiasm.

‘It’s a week after announcing our program and ticket presales have boomed,’ said festival co-founder and co-director Dave Horsley. ‘Presales are about three and a half times what they were last year.’

‘I think it’s a sign of the times that people are feeling culturally starved, and that here in Australia we’re ready to get back out there and have a live festival experience again – albeit with some COVID-safety measures sprinkled on top.’

Dave Horsley and Kate Howat are the husband and wife team behind SWIFF. Avid film buffs, they travel to Australia’s major film festivals each year, keeping a close eye on the international festival scene.

‘I think it’s a sign of the times that people are feeling culturally starved, and that here in Australia we’re ready to get back out there and have a live festival experience again.’

Dave Horsely, SWIFF co-founder

A curated film festival by film lovers for film lovers

Both Horsley and Howat were filmmakers in a former life, and have always had a passion for film. Now they are bringing that passion to audiences in their thousands with SWIFF, which is growing by a remarkable 40 per cent attendance each year.

‘Kate always has her ear to the ground with what’s going on in cinema,’ Horsley says. ‘She hunts down films through sales agents, distributors and through overseas filmmakers. We don’t have a submissions process for our main festival, which is unique. It’s a 100 per cent curated film festival and we choose the films by asking if we, as lifelong cinephiles, would attend our own festival.’

The program is also selected with an eye for what’s out in the world at the moment and what’s historically significant. ‘How do you represent the year that was? That’s a big question for us.’ 

In 2021 this means that SWIFF has a strong strand of powerful political and social documentaries. Alongside Australian feature docs like The Leadership and Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, there’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s Cockroach, about the Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government; and Alexander Nanaus’s Collective about official corruption uncovered in Romania following a devastating nightclub fire. Another highlight is Sebastien Lifshitz’s Berlinale nominee Little Girl, a documentary following the personal and legal struggles of a French girl and her family through gender transition.

Screenwave co-founders, husband and wife team Dave Horsely and Kate Howat. Image supplied.

Starting the festival, embracing the region

‘Creating SWIFF was a chance to create a regional festival for the people who live here, and a destination film festival for visitors who like beaches and mountains and also cinema.’

There are also at least 200 screen businesses around the Coffs Coast and Bellingen, and Horsley says the region is rich in talent. ‘Many people, editors and sound designers, are based here and work on productions outside the region.’ SWIFF has been able to draw this community, as well as many of the schools and education businesses, into its net of events, screenings and celebrations. 

Australian highlights, old and new

Opening SWIFF 21 is a gala screening, with cast and crew in attendance, of The Furnace, Roderick MacKay’s WA-set Western. ‘We’ve been following it ever since it premiered at Venice,’ says Horsley. ‘It’s kind of part of this accidental trilogy that’s emerged about truth-telling about Australia’s past, through The Nightingale, through High Ground, and The Furnace – all these really interesting stories that haven’t been told previously.’

‘As Jack Thompson, one of our festival patrons this year said, it’s about our industry maturing, about us now having the opportunity to tell these stories that maybe we couldn’t before, and also not telling Australia’s history through a colonial point of view.’

‘Life Itself: a Tribute to Jack Thompson’ is a strand of films celebrating the long career of the Australian screen icon. Recent films like High Ground sit alongside classics Breaker Morant, Sunday Too Far Away and a 50th anniversary screening of cult favourite Wake in Fright with live music accompaniment from Rhyece O’Neill Band.  

Closing the festival will be a gala screening of Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli, starring Riz Ahmed as British Pakastani rapper Zed. It’s just one of the many highly anticipated international feature films that most Australian audiences will not have had the chance to see yet, including Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling, Henry Blake’s gritty UK youth drug-smuggling drama County Lines, or Vaclav Marhoul’s brutal, stark WW2 holocaust epic The Painted Bird – all Australian premieres at SWIFF’21.

‘We’ve been a 16-day festival for four or five years. It’s a marathon but it’s what we want to do with our lives,’ said Horsley. ‘The Coffs Coast is on its way to becoming a film city.’

The Screenwave International Film Festival runs from 14 – 29 April in Coffs Harbour. Find out more about the full program and buy tickets and passes here

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She is a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk