Nothing quite like a photo wall to say, “Look at me, I’m at a legitimate film festival!”

David Farrier goes to the Auckland International Film Festival and, guess what, it is total balls

Last month, David Farrier discovered a mysterious film festival that was confusing the hell out of people. In part 2, Farrier slowly went crazy trying to find out who was actually behind the festival. Now, the mysterious AIFF has finally come to pass.

OK, so where were we? That’s right. A man called Mitesh Patel, who appears to live in Chandler, Arizona, is behind a bunch of film festivals, including The Chandler International Film Festival, the Canadian Diversity Film Festival (what?!) and the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival.

Now he’s started The Auckland International Film Festival.

A bunch of people who entered the Auckland International Film Festival contacted the Spinoff, miffed because they thought they’d entered the New Zealand International Film Festival, which has a very similar name. In fact, a few years ago the New Zealand Film Festival literally used to be called the Auckland International Film Festival.

“I swear I had submitted my short film into NZIFF but I checked again, I actually submitted to AIFF. Lol I’m so dumb,” one young filmmaker wrote to me.

Then some American entrants got in touch, annoyed that despite being accepted into the festival, their film might not even play. They sent me the AIFF emails which read: “Please note only winning films will be screened”.

Then some people got in touch brassed off they’d paid money to enter this whole thing, with entry fees ranging from US $17 to $60.

By now I’d been leaked the festival’s FilmFreeway account, which showed at least 387 submissions to the AIFF:

With a top entry fee of $60, and a cheapest of $17, they’d make somewhere between US $6,579 and $23,220 (as much as NZ $33,579.60) on submissions, minus transaction fees.

And FilmFreeway wasn’t the only way to enter AIFF – they also accepted entries through the longer-established WithoutABox.

Keep in mind, many of the films submitted aren’t selected, and even most of the “official selections” won’t play at the festival (unless they “win”).

Nothing going on here was illegal or anything, but it all just seemed so weird.

By this point, Mitesh had blocked me on Facebook and wouldn’t email me back answers to questions like “Why do you have so many film festivals” and “Why did you set up in New Zealand?” and “Why do many accepted films not even play?”

Him blocking me didn’t stop him from weighing in on my Facebook, calling me an “idiot guy”:

He’s right – there is a fee to review and rate films that will play in a festival (well, except for documentaries).

As for how many staff work at the AIFF, the only person I’d talked to at this point was Anand, who seemed to be managing things on the ground for the fast approaching AIFF festival at Tapac.

Then someone else who was working on the AIFF got in touch. I say “was”, because they’d just quit.

“He [Anand] keeps telling me that there is a team behind it… but I’ve never seen him or anyone in the team in person. And of that ‘team’ he’s the only one who has reached out to me. He’s also requested for me to get other people involved to form a ‘team’ for next year which makes me question how big this ‘team’ really is.”

I asked the former employee if he’d been paid by the AIFF.

“Unfortunately not. I would’ve been paid $400 at the end of the festival if I stayed on. Also, he didn’t ask for a tax number or anything when hiring me. I also don’t have a bank account in New Zealand – I’m only here temporarily – and he said he would do an international transfer to my account back home, so I’m unsure if this is a legal way of hiring someone in this country.”

I’ve send Mitesh an email asking about this, and whether he was satisfying NZ employment laws, and will add any response when or if he responds.

Meanwhile, Mitesh kept posting on my Facebook:

I should clarify that Mitesh set up the bloody website of the AIFF, so his whole “please write to the AIFF” line was pretty annoying at this point.

Look, as I said already, no-one is breaking any laws here, but it seemed fairly obvious that this festival was taking indie filmmakers’ money, and providing very little in return – like, say, playing their film. It was doing this under a name that very closely resembled the festival that’s been established in New Zealand for 50 years.

I was also fascinated by the way Mitesh Patel had just casually fobbed me off this whole time, failing to answer questions, blocking me on Facebook, and probably sending me this threat of legal action on Facebook (I only assume it’s him, because whoever sent it had blocked me):

With allegations of “fulse information” levelled against me, as well as threats of legal action, what better thing to do than head along to the film festival?

I went to the TAPAC website and found the festival consisted of 12 parts, which would each cost me $20 to attend. Two hundred and forty dollars (plus booking fees!) was a bit steep for the whole weekend, so I purchased two sessions: the opening category on Saturday, and the awards evening on Sunday.

It was actually a bit annoying giving $43.60 to this particular festival, but such is the price of investigation.

Saturday: 9am Features & Shorts

I arrived at 8.55am for the opening session of the Auckland International Film Festival. I counted 19 people in the lobby, who I assumed were there for the festival. By the door, three of those 19 people were putting up a festival sign.

How many men does it take to assemble a sign? Three. That’s how many

I went to the counter and got my ticket. I was in!

Curious what I was about to see, I went to look at the programme. It was different to the last one I’d seen on the website. I was going to be watching the opening film, South 2015: an Antarctic Voyage to Remember. This was confusing, because not only was this film a late addition, but it had replaced Storm Letters Of Fire, which had won Best Film.

Storm Letters of Fire was nowhere to be found. The festival’s Best Film wasn’t even playing.

Of the 387 entries to the AIFF, 38 were listed on the programme to play

So at 9am, I took my seat (fold-down, comfortable), and watched opening documentary South 2015, which followed the British Antarctic Monument Trust on a trip to Antarctica. It first played for the Royal Geographical Society last year, and you can get it on DVD for £15.

There were about 10 of us in the audience, watching a series of interviews cataloguing various deaths on the snowy continent.

By the time South 2015: an Antarctic Voyage to Remember was over, I’d sort of had enough, so I ducked across the road to the zoo, where I saw a tiger.

It’s hard to see so I circled the tiger behind me

As I stared at the tiger, I thought about the strangeness of the AIFF. I mean, regardless of the quality of the films playing, it’s cool they’re playing on a big screen. It takes so much effort to film and edit something, and it’s great they’re getting an audience.

But I still had so many questions for the organisers about about the DNA of the festival.

Like: what happened to Storm Letters of Fire? Why aren’t they playing all their ‘official selections’? Why is Mitesh so angry at me on Facebook? Why did they decide to run a festival in Auckland in the first place? Do they realise how confused people are about the AIFF and the NZIFF?

I didn’t want to be an asshole and make a scene, so figured I’d let the festival do it’s thing, let people enjoy the films that were playing – and I’d try and talk to someone about it on awards night. Tomorrow.

Sunday: 7pm Short films & awards ceremony

I arrived just before 7pm to watch the final “Short Films” event. Things were even quieter in the lobby than they were yesterday.

6.55pm Sunday: all is quiet

Kicking things off with a French electro-dance music video which you can watch here on YouTube, it then led into a series of fairly earnest shorts. In one, a man had to put his dog down. In “Hard Candy” an orphan fell off a bunk and brained herself on the floor. There was a short about self harm, and one about a kid’s dead mum.

With that upbeat content over, it was time for the awards.

A middle-aged woman took to the stage and thanked the 15 people in the audience for coming. She then asked the award winners to come on stage. Four people went up. One was a kid of about six, who immediately started crying and went back to sit with his mum.

That kid had the right idea to get the hell out of there.

In one of the most bizarre and puzzling awards ceremony events I’ve ever seen, as the remaining three winners were made to hand out awards (certificates) to… each other.

The AIFF awards ceremony

No-one knew who anyone was, so everyone was confused.

“Andrew.. Can you give it to… Charles?” asked the woman.

“Or is it Carvin? Wait, this is for best score.”

“What?”

It was like watching a strange sketch show, seeing these poor people try and figure out who was who, and who had won what. It was a total mess.

And then it was over.

With around six people remaining in the audience, the lady who’d MCd the night pointed to her name on screen, and offered her services for other events. I went and introduced myself. “Do you run this festival,” I asked. “No, I am just doing this bit,” she said. I asked if Anand was around. “Hmm, I’m not sure. He was here yesterday.” I asked if she knew Mitesh Patel. She didn’t. I asked why they’d set up this festival in New Zealand. She wasn’t the one to talk to, she said.

And with that, there wasn’t really anyone else to even talk to.

No Anand. No Mitesh. No-one.

But outside, some luck. It was an entrant I’d bumped into earlier. He told me he had to pay to enter, then had to beg for another category to win his award.

“So is this festival all about money then, or the films?” I asked.

“Oh, money” he replied.

“Is it dodgy?” I asked, in another leading question. “Yes!” he said.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

He indicated that it sort of didn’t. He had an award. He had some laurels to put on his poster from a festival called The Auckland International Film Festival. It sounded professional and would help him get his film out there.

He told me he had run some film festivals himself over in Canada. And he was going to start one in Tel Aviv.

“Fucking hell,” I said to myself, but I’d accidentally said it out loud.

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