Drama as Transformation

Rob Speranza is a producer, director and line producer from New York whose feature film credits include Arthur and Merlin, Entity, Inbred and Small Creatures (nominated for Best Film at EIFF 2013) alongside 15 short films. He has enjoyed screenings and awards at hundreds of festivals globally and has won over 60 awards for his work. Rob holds an MA and a PhD in film studies from the University of Sheffield. As the ASFF programmer for Drama, we talk to him about the selection process and the form as a whole.

A: Drama was one of the most popular strands at ASFF, both in terms of entries and the screenings, with biggest number of reels. Why do you think that is?
Simple answer to this one. Drama as a genre has the widest remit in many ways. Lots of sub-genres of films can be called dramas, so a lot more fits into it. I also think that, arguably, more filmmakers make drama films more than other genres (especially in the UK), and therefore there are more out there to choose from. This also means that there are, simply by ratio, a naturally larger amount of better quality films as well.

A: The genre is all-encompassing and evokes any number of reactions in its audiences. What does it mean to you as a tool for visual story-telling and how does this affect what you look for when programming a festival?
Indeed this dovetails with what I say above. There are a lot of potential reactions to drama films – with comedy, maybe you most of the time expect to laugh. With horror, most of the time, you expect to be frightened or repulsed.

With drama, one has to be a bit more careful with the programming of each film, so as to not take the audience in singular programme on too jolting a roller-coaster ride of emotion. I think by the same token it is important not to programme all of the same kinds of films in a programme to homogenise it.

It is important to try and guess what the audience might be feeling – what the filmmaker is trying to elicit from them with their story. Will I always be right? Of course not. Will people always feel what the filmmaker wants them to feel? No way. We have all been there when the audience laughs at a place they were not supposed to laugh. Or felt saddened by something that was meant to be more bittersweet, ironic, or maybe not sad at all. But the best you can do is try to go for what feels like the most common denominator, understand the purpose and intended aim of the story and try to programme from there. And I always try to end an individual programme with something powerful, funny, or amazing!

A: How do you begin to distinguish between a film that combines elements of drama, and one that you would definitely place within the category? In other words, how do you separate films by definition?
Short answer to this. It isn’t that complicated for me. The films are mostly already coming to be having been previously defined by their makers. If I feel that a film is far more comedic or is more of a thriller, I’ll recommend it for those categories. What I look for is the way I think an audience is going to feel after watching it. That helps me separate the films by definition.

A: Do you think you bring a personal vision or perspective into the films that were presented this year, and if so, what was it?
I suppose I draw upon my own experience as a filmmaker, as a producer, of films that have done well at festivals, have attracted large audiences and won awards. I think it is important to, before you start judging other people’s work, have worked in the trenches yourself and made films that have played festivals and the like. I think my shorts played ASFF about three or four times previous, so it felt like I had some degree of understanding about the aesthetic of Aesthetica, and what kinds of films played it.

For me, I looked for films that had strong stories, powerful characters, interesting and different kinds of narratives, stories I had not seen before, those that avoided tropes and predictable elements, and films that had a clear director voice or vision. Those films that seemed to do all of that, were technically superior and then ALSO seemed to feel like they would play well in York to the ASFF crowd, those were the ones that got through. Timings of films and a diversity of nationalities behind the films all also came into play.

A: How do you think that the drama genre is inherently transformative? As it brings out a range of emotions and memories in its audiences, do you think it has a sense of responsibility?
 I think you could argue that most powerful examples of most genres are transformative. I mean, I’ve felt that way, where I have had a series of emotions and memories evoked in me, by documentaries, by horrors, thrillers, sports-themed films and even comedies with heart.

So therefore, I think all films have a sense of responsibility to create a feeling in their audiences – it is more about creating a sense of disbelief that causes the viewer to truly lose themselves, forget that what they are watching is a film with people who are NOT the people onscreen, actors, sets, lights and cameras just a few feet the panel we are staring at. If you can forget that, buy into what the story is telling you, and indeed feel something powerful, the filmmaker has done their job and then some.

A: Is there anything that surprised you this year about the entries?
I do not think I was surprised by much to be honest. I wish there were not so many films that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. And post-apocalyptic situations. That is one thing. Although a few of those films were very strong and made it in. I can say I think that technically the films were stronger than ever, which I attribute to the well-publicised and written about notion that better and better quality equipment is becoming more commercially and readily available (and affordably so) than ever before.

Does that mean that everyone who gets their hands on such gear is a gifted storyteller? And that all the other elements are top-notch? Acting/plot/character journeys etc? Well, no. But I do think that there were more better-looking and better-sounding films in the pile than ever before.

A: Why do you think that Silence was awarded out of so many reels?
RS: It was one of the few films I listed first off as a potential award-winner. I think it pushed a lot of boundaries, had the boldness to show some pretty racy stuff that I hadn’t really seen in a short film before. In fact I even had it rated as an 18 with a question mark at one point, albeit that might have been thinking with a rather conservative hat on. It is masterful in it’s treatment of the audience and taking them on the journey of its powerful main character. And with regard to sound, you’d be hard pushed to find another short film that worked as hard at creating a landscape of the world of this person – what a job they did. So much so, that I stopped thinking about it and I BELIEVED it. Those are the films, the films that can do that, that win it all.

1. Still from Dejan Mrkic’s Silence. (2016). Courtesy of the filmmaker.