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A medley of images from the Incredibly Strange Film Festival.
The Incredibly Strange Film Festival is 30, dirty and thriving. (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJuly 15, 2023

An Incredibly Strange story: ‘It was a group of gonzo cinephiles running it like a circus’

A medley of images from the Incredibly Strange Film Festival.
The Incredibly Strange Film Festival is 30, dirty and thriving. (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

Burning effigies, front page headlines and packed out screenings: 30 events later, Ant Timpson’s Incredibly Strange film festival is somehow still going strong. 

In the middle of 1994, on a chilly winter night, Ant Timpson was on stage in Wellington holding a sledgehammer. At The Paramount in front of hundreds of people, Timpson had dressed as Holly Hunter’s character from Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. Alongside a friend dressed as Anna Paquin holding a chainsaw, they took turns smashing that piano to smithereens. “The crowd ran down and grabbed the keys as momentos,” remembers Timpson. “I hear people still have those in their living rooms.”

A few weeks earlier he’d organised a quickfire film festival at Charley Gray’s (now the Capitol), the Auckland cinema he was in charge of. He’d picked about 30 films – cult underground hits like Astroboy, Barbarella, Pink Flamingos and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman – and passed out flyers for the two-week event. Timpson enjoyed putting it together but wasn’t sure anyone would show. “It was, ‘If you don’t understand why these films have such longevity with obsessive fans, we’re going to package them up,'” he says. “It was a really good overview for casuals.”

A poster for the incredibly strange film festival.
The poster for Ant Timpson’s 1994 Incredibly Strange Film Festival. (Photo: Supplied)

People did show up – in their droves. “We packed out most of the sessions that first year,” says Timpson. “It took me and many other people by surprise.” Called The Incredibly Strange Film Festival, Timpson’s one-off event was so popular he was forced to take it on tour, quickly organising similar festivals in Wellington, then Christchurch and Dunedin. That’s how he found himself on stage, in a wig, smashing a piano.

It was a stunt, but it was also a statement: screw films like The Piano. Timpson wanted his festival to be as far from the mainstream as it possibly could be.

Word spread that a new film festival was in town, one that wasn’t afraid to show movies full of violence, nudity, sex or abstract weirdness. Pre-internet, it was hard to find films that weren’t for mainstream theatres or couldn’t be screened on TV. Popularity grew and it became an annual event. For Timpson, a film nerd as long as he can remember, he’d lucked out: he’d found a community full of friends. “It was great for a bunch of like-minded people to finally have a home base,” he says. “It was very much a group of gonzo cinephiles … running it like a bit of a circus, a crazy travelling road show.”

Ant Timpson’s Incredibly Strange Film Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary (Photo: Supplied)

Timpson had started something that is still going strong today, 30 years and 30 events later. Soon, his festival would lead 6pm news bulletins and make the front page of Sunday newspapers. Beef with censors, politicians and conservative community groups would soon follow. Lawyers would be hired, High Court appearances would be made and some of his films would be banned. Twice, Timpson’s house would be raided and searched for objectionable material.

Theatres kept packing out full of people desperate to see the films he’d picked. The outcry every time he launched a new line-up was instant. “It’s insane to think about how much column inches and television coverage we generated,” he says. Timpson loved it all. Almost by accident, he’d created the controversy-generating film festival of his dreams.

Timpson keeps a box filled with his favourite newspaper clippings. His favourite is from the year 2000, when he made the front page of the Sunday News. “I’m on the cover looking like a complete nerd drongo with a big headline … saying, ‘I will go to jail to show this film,'” he says. “It’s one of my proudest moments. Years later someone put it on a T-shirt.”

The controversy was caused by a screening of the R18 French crime thriller Baise-moi (Fuck Me), a film still banned in Australia and other parts of the world. That story led competing 6pm news bulletins read by Judy Bailey and John Campbell. One report included the quote, “It’s a dreadful movie … absolutely garbage,” by NZ First deputy Peter Brown, someone who almost certainly hadn’t seen it.

It wasn’t the only time Timpson’s festival made headlines, and he became a regular news generator. In the early days this was by design: he’d organise protests outside competing festivals to hype up awareness for his own. “It was just an easy thing to say, ‘Hey, we’re the true indie spirit festival … and that’s your grandmother’s festival over there.” At one point, his supporters burned effigies of Bill Gosden, the late, revered founder and director of the New Zealand International Film Festival. “He saw it as all a bit of fun hullabaloo,” says Timpson.

But it was Timpson’s film selections that proved the biggest drawcard for journalists looking for some easy outrage. He supplied them with as much as they could handle. Why wouldn’t he? The more headlines he got, the more popular his festival became. “That uneasy and queasy mix of sex and violence – if you have both of those elements in one single film, then that’s what usually caused an uproar,” he says. Some years, just the cover for his festival guides – like 2003’s, which showed scissors slicing into eyes – could spark outrage.

The cover for the guide to the Incredibly Strange Film Festival 2003.
The cover for the guide to the Incredibly Strange Film Festival 2003. (Photo: Supplied)

Soon, Timpson found himself fighting regularly with the Society for Promotion of Community Standards over whether or not he’d be able to screen his movies. He enjoyed the battles, sending off press releases full of typos at 3am. “I’d fire them out to Scoop and they’re so cringe,” he says. “We tore each other to shreds. When I look back they’re so embarrassing, like a couple of idiots having too many beers.” 

But it soon became serious when the chief censor was forced to step in and ban his films. Hiring “proper” lawyers and appearing in the High Court wasn’t fun.”It shone a light on a festival,” he says, “but if you can’t end up playing the film, you’re kind of screwed if that happens.” Timpson found that if he hung in there, he’d usually end up winning sooner or later. “We got pretty much everything back on screen.”

The festival’s peak, Timpson believes, was in the early 2000s. At Auckland’s ChinaTown Cinema, Incredibly Strange took over the entire complex for a month of festival carnage. On the opening night, a film was supposed to screen, but the crowd was so rowdy Timpson turned it off. “Our opening was so debauched and out of control … I pulled the film and it just turned into a party. We had no film play at the opening of a film festival.”

Afterwards, the building’s owner pursued Timpson for $10,000 in damages, claiming someone had fallen through the ceiling. “The owner wanted to chop my hand off,” says Timpson. He believes one of the Back of the Y lads – Matt Heath or Chris Stapp – was to blame. (They dispute this.)

By 2004, Timpson pitched Gosden to merge their festivals and bring Incredibly Strange under the wing of the NZIFF. That’s where it’s stayed ever since. Along the way, Timpson has become a local film veteran with a string of titles and credits to his name. He started and still runs the filmmaking competition 48 Hours, helped two films get made under the Make My Movie umbrella, and is busy making movies himself. He directed 2019’s black comedy Come to Daddy, and executive produced David Farrier’s dark documentary Mister Organ.

When we speak to him, he’s editing his new movie Bookworm, an adventure-comedy starring Elijah Wood and shot recently in the South Island. “Shooting in the wilderness is not easy,” is all he’ll say about that one at this early stage. “It was hard.”

Elijah Wood in a scene from the banned film Maniac.
Elijah Wood in the banned 2012 film Maniac. (Photo: Supplied)

Every year he finds time to curate another line-up of films for Incredibly Strange, and remains as keen as ever on finding buttons to push and freak people out. He’s still fighting against the modern-day multiplex experience. “I hate that whole aspect of cinema-going where you just turn into sheep,” he says about Hollywood’s landscape being dominated by underperforming superhero blockbusters, with little underneath. “You just form this line of mediocrity.”

His brother owns The Hollywood in Avondale, where Timpson helps curate events. Recently, he tried to screen Maniac, the 2012 film also starring Elijah Wood. But he couldn’t – it’s still banned in theatres here, yet is available to watch for those with a Prime Video subscription. “I have to question why the fuck we have a system … ” He trails off, then declares: “That’s a mess. I’m a big fan of self regulation and informing the public of what they’re in for. But let’s let adults decide what they want to watch.”

These days, Timpson’s Incredibly Strange festival doesn’t feel quite so incredible, nor strange. But how could it? “It’s hard to get people along to cinemas at all these days,” he says. “One click and you can access all this stuff instantly.” Besides, when bizarro films like Beau is Afraid get huge budgets and screen in multiplexes, it’s proof that the mainstream “has absorbed the ideology and transgressive nature of the underground”.

Still, he keeps searching, picking half a dozen movies each year with the same ethos that his Incredibly Strange festival began with. Timpson looks for movies that will stay with people, “the kind of like watercooler stuff that people will want to say, ‘Holy smokes, I saw this thing last night and want to share it,’ then wake them up a month later, wondering why they’re still thinking about it.”

This year, that means the Japanese superhero film Shin Ultraman sits alongside the acclaimed horror film Late Night with the Devil and Good Boy, a film about an online dating match with a very weird twist. He’s also showing Sisu, a Nazi war movie which Timpson calls a “borderline black comedy … with gross over the top violence” comparable to early Peter Jackson films like Bad Taste and Braindead.

But it’s a different kind of movie that he’s most excited about this year – one with no sex or violence at all. When he discusses Hello Dankness, Timpson turns into the hypeman of old, like he’s about to fire off another 3am press release and end up on the front page of another newspaper. “It’s my pick of the whole festival,” he says. Made by the Australian siblings Soda Jerk, the film culls stolen studio footage together to tell a new story about the rise of Donald Trump. Notoriously prickly critics at The Guardian hailed it as a “triumph”.

It is, says Timpson, “borderline illegal … it can’t play outside of this festival ever again”. It’s the kind of film that gives him the same feelings he got all those years ago, when Incredibly Strange first started and began “corrupting young minds”. He can’t help but imagine how Hello Dankness might have played at the festival’s peak, when people were packing out cinemas and falling through ceilings. He starts giggling. He sounds giddy. “It’s sort of the stuff that I used to dream about when we were stoned sitting in the living room,” he says. “It’s just very exciting. It’s very new. I find it incredible.”

New Zealand International Film Festival begins on July 19 in Auckland; View the full line-up for the Incredibly Strange Film Festival here.

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