“You’re probably thinking there’s no way this can be the world’s best film,” says filmmaker Joshua Belinfante. “Like me, the people featured are all united in their quest to be the world’s best at their chosen profession or way of life.
“Like Australia’s Steven Edwards [above], who claims to be the world’s best bummer of cigarettes, a claim I’m sure many will challenge,” Belinfante continues about some of the subjects of his documentary. “Narong Sairat from Thailand claims to be the world’s kindest cab driver and England’s Rachel Cole-Wilkin runs the world’s best toilet tour and is the go-to expert on all things lavatory.
“What I realised in the course of production over 5 years is that I am the same as the people I was interviewing. I was trying to make a really great film about people who are striving to be the world’s best; in striving you might just do your personal best at whatever it is you do.”
Featuring stories about Björn Lindqvist, Narong Sairat, Wilai Sairat, Stevie Edwards, Freddie, Rachel & Micah Cole-Wilkin, Amber Kincade, Katie Sarah, Andy Richards, Gabriela Bonér, Stanislaw Kurkowski, Kamil Skicki, Gervais Koffi, Yannick Koffi, Ivar Fors, Martin Dernhagen, Maddy Slabacu, Shabnam Tavakol, Alexandru Ciorba, Evelin Bodea, Kurt, Peter Fuchs, and Joshua, Lilly & Peter Belinfante, The World’s Best Film is a highly personal globe-trotting documentary about people and their passions, a reflection of how they see themselves and how we as a viewer may have thought of them before we heard their story.
And here’s Joshua Belinfante’s story as it relates to his very ambitious first feature film, and its highly ambitious title.
In The World’s Best Film, you discuss your passion for filmmaking, over a more steady respectable job; can you expand on that in terms of what inspired you in the first place, in terms of films/filmmakers or otherwise?
Growing up, my family always encouraged me to follow my passions, but also to consider a back-up plan; at the same time as studying to become a filmmaker I also studied to become a solicitor.
My mother is a social worker and has always inspired me to go out and try and bring some kind of good into the world. My mother wanted to change the world at 18 and become a lawyer. She changed her preferences after being accepted into Sydney Uni and ended up not pursuing that path. So, I felt a responsibility to carry on her spirit in some way.
But then out of nowhere I was diagnosed with a rare illness and forced to confront my mortality. I was told by a surgeon “I might remove one of your lungs, part of your heart, you’ll probably never run again, there’s a chance of death, how’s Wednesday?”
And in that moment, I realised that I might not see my friends or family ever again and I may have been squandering my time on a career that I was not totally invested in. I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to make films, all the ideas in my head suddenly became ablaze. In that moment I wasn’t thinking about dying, I was thinking about missed opportunities and all the things I wanted to do. I wanted to travel the world and meet as many aspirational people so I could work out what I would do with my second chance – the participants in the film trying to be the best at what they do helped me try to be the best at what I really wanted from life.
I’ve always been inspired by a wide assortment of filmmakers, particularly by the realism in the films of John Cassavetes, the zaniness and surrealness of Jan Švankmajer & Jiří Barta and the genre bending work of Werner Herzog. I tried to track down (basically stalk) Švankmajer 8 years ago and ended up in his art gallery in Prague. I got yelled at by an old lady who yelled at me “I don’t understand the cult of Švankmajer, all these stupid puppeteers coming to Prague to find Švankmajer”, so I then proceeded to buy a bunch of Švankmajer merch which made her happy. My love of puppeteering features in my film through the story of Australian, Romanian puppeteer Maddy Slabacu.
Last year, I flew to Sheffield Doc Film Festival so I could ask Werner Herzog some questions at his conference presenting his film Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. I asked him something like “after retracing the steps of the nomad Bruce Chatwin, how has this made you reflect on your own quest to find the sublime and the ecstatic truth in your work and life?” After I received my response from Herzog, I asked him another question the next day about how he makes the decision to insert himself into the narrative of his films. Once I received my answers, my life was made much more rich, and so I flew home to Australia and made a set of changes to my film. I’m thankful for being able to set my own production timeline in the making of the film and allow for some indirect, spiritual guidance from Herzog.
Is documentary where you want to be as a filmmaker?
I started out making strange midnight puppet shorts and a queer Swedish drama. Those films did well on the festival circuits, but I hadn’t managed to make a film that was more accessible. I began to experiment with documentary narratives and seeing what elements of narrative filmmaking I could apply to documentaries.
I’ve always taken to heart what a lot of wise old filmmakers have stated, that if you want to make great drama or comedy, go and make documentaries for a while, then come back to narrative filmmaking full of all the tools from reality and the world around you.
What has always attracted me to documentaries is the ability to just pick up a camera and a microphone or two and go and make something. Often you do not have the same restrictions of a dramatic film and the opportunity to learn about the world around you is limitless.
Was the film completely self-funded, and are you able to disclose the budget?
I’m able to disclose that the budget of the film would be less than the catering budget of an episode of Game of Thrones!
I began making the film in 2014 – I would travel to a country and try and find a story, and then maybe one year later I would be in another country for my day job and I’d find another story. Soon, I had about 4 of the stories and they continued to transform into something larger. I wanted the production methodology to be free and grassroots, and I realised that very few funding bodies would give me that freedom.
The film was completely self-funded. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family putting a roof over my head in Sydney and of course the willingness of all the participants and contributors in the film itself!
I would not have been able to make the film without the humbling assistance of a few key players like sound wizards Liam Moses, Anthony Marsh, colour grader Shane Burrell, documentary team of Joshua and Karly Marks and my brother Jeremy. I’m also indebted to my partner at the time, Gabriela in Sweden, who allowed me the freedom to travel around Europe.
Did you ever consider making it as a web series?
Compiling the segments I realised how strongly they were bound together and how much each person striving to be the world’s best had in common. I wanted to elevate the work and draw links between people, I wanted to blend a selection of professions, places and languages in a way that hadn’t been done before.
I found it was very important for each of the stories that audiences could experience them as a whole. I’m also not opposed to stripping the anthology film out into its individual scenes for audiences to watch in bite sized components at a later date. It would allow us the freedom to expand some of the stories out and include some of the scenes that didn’t make the tight 90-minute theatrical cut. A few key scenes I would love to expand, particularly Björn Lindqvist [below] and his ‘Requires Review’ movement where he and other social players place signs around the world on bad architecture or town planning.
Have any of the participants (cast) seen the film, and if so, what do they make of it?
It was very important for me to show the film to my mum, dad and brother. It was very emotional for my mum to watch and I even filmed her reaction. Seeing the footage of me in hospital was a little much for her to relive. I chose to keep a lot of my story surrounding my illness brief as I did not want the focus of the film to be on weird medical marvels or feeling sorry for myself. It was important to focus on how the people I met chose to push forward with their lives and passions when they faced adversity or great odds, how they get up, brush themselves off and do what they do.
I also flew back to Sweden to show my former partner, the world’s best dog sitter, Gabriela [below]. I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without her support, so it was important for me to show her. Gabi, without prompting, began to question the priorities she’d made in her life, she questioned the passions she’d chosen to follow and whether she should be devoting time elsewhere; for me this was one of the most rewarding and heart-warming reactions.
I’ve also shown it to musician Ivar Fors in Sweden, the grand-daughter of holocaust survivor Kurt Fuchs and several other participants and many tears have been shed.
Unfortunately, a few of the participants went missing after the film was made. Namely our beautiful taxi driver Narong in Bangkok [below]. We’ve tried to contact him since 2018 and we hope he and his family are doing okay.
Did you shoot other ‘World’s Best’ segments, and why did some make the cut over others?
I tried to make a scene about the world’s best micronation within the Baltics, but after months of emails and negotiations with their leader we could not make a time to film as their schedule organising the micronation was so busy. I still live in hope of filming that micronation one day!
There is one story in particular I hope to release as a full-length deleted scene about an instructor of medieval sword fighting and air soft guns in Oradea, Romania. He tried to teach me how to fire an air soft gun and I somehow manage to shoot a 10 – the world’s best score of the day!
A group of filmmakers, Joshua and Karly Marks from Doco Tv, invaluably helped me film scenes about my own story and decision-making in producing the film. The scenes were very emotional and important for my own development as a filmmaker and a person, but very meta and ultimately will remain part of the behind the scenes materials.
Is the whole idea behind the film a comment on society’s obsession at rewarding best of various pursuits whilst others are ignored, and also the notion that we strive to be the best at something when just making an effort should be enough; and the psychological/social implications of that?
It has frustrated me for many years how all around us there are people doing amazing things in professions or passions that might not be the most glitzy or glamorous. But people do them and they excel in them, not for money, or fame or even an audience, just simply because it is the thing they want to do.
Age shouldn’t matter – I wanted to document someone from as young as a baby to as old as a grandparent or great-grandparent. In the end, I was the baby in the film and my friend’s grandfather the 94 year old. The ultimate conclusion is that no matter your age or your disposition there is something that you can do and excel at.
I’ve also been aware of how many lost people there are in the world and how many people in younger generations are struggling to choose what it is they want to do with their time.
Making an effort, applying yourself, putting yourself forward, facing rejection or failure and getting back up and trying again; my mumma always told me growing up “just try your best, that’s all you can do” – the tagline of the film could literally be that!
What are your hopes for the film and also your career moving forward?
I hope that people who are feeling lost or hopeless in finding what it is they want to do, realise that they can do anything as long as they apply themselves.
We have just started submitting to film festivals and have signed with a lovely sales agency in Victoria. I’m dreaming of having screenings across the world, particularly in all the places where we feature stories. I am excited for screenings across the USA, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Thailand, West Africa and of course here at home in Australia – a lot of our participants hail from Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne.
After that it would be amazing for the film to be on streaming platforms, one dream result would be on planes while people are going off on their own adventures!
I’d love for this film to be a proof of what I and a humble rag tag team of creatives can pull off without any outside help or investment so that we can all move forward and tell more stories with some outside help.
I have a bunch of other feature film projects I am developing. It is my hope that the right people see what I can do with nothing so that we can team up and make even more films that could be the world’s best!