sydney film festival adapts and mutates

keith gallasch talks with sff director clare stewart

Cochochi

Cochochi

CLARE STEWART IS HAPPY IF A LITTLE FLUSTERED WHEN WE SPEAK IN LATE MARCH. SHE’S CLOSE TO SETTLING THE PROGRAM FOR HER 2008 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL, BUT NOT CLOSE ENOUGH TO REVEAL ALL, NOT UNTIL MAY 8. DESPITE WHAT SHE DESCRIBES AS “A SOFT YEAR FOR FILM”, GIVEN DISAPPOINTING SHOWINGS AT THE BERLIN, ROTTERDAM AND SUNDANCE FESTIVALS, SHE ARRIVED HOME FROM HER 2007-08 PROGRAMMING TRAVELS KNOWING THAT SHE NONETHELESS HAD “A WEALTH OF GOOD FILMS TO CHOOSE FROM A HUGE VOLUME OF NEW MATERIAL.”

Stewart’s search for good films took her to New York and festivals in Toronto, Rio de Janeiro (where she was on the film festival jury), Pusan in Korea, Rotterdam and Berlin. She mentions in passing that the Brazilians were keen to hear what Australians thought of the films she’d programmed from their country for the 2007 Sydney Film Festival. Those films indicated, she said, a strong, diverse Brazilian film culture if not a film movement as such; elsewhere a new wave of Mexican auteurs were making their mark in international festivals. I ask about Australian films in Stewart’s 2008 festival. She can’t name names, but says the 2007 trend for “powerful low-budget, digitally made Australian features, experimenting with story-telling, continues.”

competition

Stewart mentions that the renowned Pusan Film Festival is reaching a point in its rapid growth where it will need to reconsider its scale. I comment that Australian film festivals too are going through some significant changes themselves and wonder how competitive the festival scene, or perhaps I should have said festival industry, is becoming. The Sydney and Adelaide festivals now offer large money prizes, both for 12 international films in competition; Adelaide and Melbourne offer production funding for new films, Melbourne a co-financing marketplace and Sydney something similar, if of a different order. There’s a growing number of associated events and alliances, often with a marketing dimension. Australia’s international film festivals are, without doubt, mutating, extending their reach beyond satisfying film buffs and showcasing. But let’s hope that they don’t, like their arts festival counterparts, all start to look and function in the same way.

Clare Stewart’s cheery retort is collegiate: “Not competitive, richer!” She thinks these developments across the festivals are good for Australian film and screen culture. Given that the major film festivals in Australia’s capital cities (Adelaide’s February-March biennial aside) run almost consecutively from June to August, there’s little in the way of direct competition (except for the lean hope perhaps of pulling audiences across borders). But festival publicists are letting loose with the rhetoric. The Adelaide Film Festival has re-visioned the film festival model over a very short period and quickly gained international notice. When it won The Inside Film Magazine IF Award for Festival of the Year, 2007, and was included in Variety’s Top 50 International Film Festivals, the AFF website declared “another ringing endorsement of one of the youngest but most dynamic and innovative festivals in the world.”

Adelaide’s announcement of its Natuzzi International Award For Best Feature Film, with a cash prize of $AUD25,000 was soon followed by Sydney’s $60,000 (from the SFF’s principal sponsor, Hunter Hall Investment Management) and with its declaration, “The Sydney Film Festival is Australia’s only film festival to have a FIAPF-accredited Official Competition” (FIAPF, the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, is the regulator of international film festivals).

In a variation on Adelaide’s Festival Investment Fund (AFFIF, initiated in 2003) Melbourne’s Premiere Fund?will support “a number of quality feature-length projects that will have their International premiere at MIFF”, with the fund as “a strategic minority co-financier.” Melbourne’s 37 South: Bridging The Gap, operated by its industry programs unit, is “Australia’s only film co-financing market in a film festival environment [enabling] Australian producers with market-ready feature-length projects to meet with key international film co-financiers in Melbourne.”

prizes

On the prizes front, Sydney will be looking for “new directions in film”, all contenders will screen as Australian premieres and will all ‘”have emotional power and resonance; be audacious, cutting edge and courageous; and go beyond the usual treatment of their subject matter.” Adelaide says, “Our jury is looking for a distinctive voice, bold storytelling, and creative risk-taking—above all, a film that genuinely engages and transports the viewer.”

Stewart says the the Sydney Film Festival prizes are all about visibility: “they leverage the standing of Australian film locally and internationally with a high-profile jury; the competition films will enrich the program; and each film will be accompanied by two significant international guests.” The guests won’t simply provide glamour (each film in competition will have its own red carpet Australian premiere), but will also provide career talks and meet local makers in groups and one-to-one sessions, not only exchanging information and ideas but also opening up the possibility of collaboration and co-production. No wonder Stewart refers in passing to these directors and producers as “enhanced guests.” The series of meetings and other industry events will be managed by the festival’s new Industry Liaison Officer, Kristy Matheson, working with a wide range of government agencies from Events NSW to the Department of Tourism and FTO (NSW Film & Television Office), which will offer the festival’s guests familiarisation tours about working in Australia. “It’s an integrated approach”, says Stewart.

I imagine then that choosing the 12 films for competition could be quite a challenge. Film quality is paramount but getting the right kinds of artists and producers who will provide red carpet glamour and benefit Australian film culture with their experience and wisdom suggests several other layers of criteria. But for Stewart, a sense of democracy overrides all other concerns, as she has witnessed in the Berlin and Venice festivals “where the films of well-known and unknown makers sit side by side in competition, sharing the same visibility.”

program: first glimpse

As in Stewart’s 2007 festival, diversity is the key, maximising choice and simultaneously building niche audiences. The Kids’ Festival continues after an “enormous response” for its initial season; Screen & Music at the Metro music venue again takes aim at the target youth-market (with Stewart hinting at some remodelling, making more palpable connections between festival screenings and Metro events). One film that should make that connection is Anvil, a 2008 Sundance hit. Stewart describes the film as “a documentary in the mockumentary style—but it’s the real thing.” It’s about a Canadian band, Anvil, whose early 1980s very heavy metal prefigured the likes of Metallica, but they never made it and “went straight into obscurtity.” Nonethless the band still performs and the film follows a recent, mismanaged European tour, in which the band members invested and blew all their savings.

mexican wave 2

Stewart is impressed with recent Mexican filmmaking and has secured three of the most acclaimed feature films currently enjoying attention on the international film circuit. She describes the films as “vibrant, diverse and part of a movement, the next generation on from González Iñárritu [Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel], Alfonso Cuarón [Great Expectations, Y tu mamá también, Children of Men] and Guillermo del Toro [Cronos, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth].”

Rodrigo Plá was born and educated in Uruguay and studied film in Mexico City. His first feature is La Zona, to a screenplay by Laura Santullo from her own short story. Three young men from a slum break into a wealthy gated estate; there’s violence, a death and an appalling vigilante response from a community that is a law unto itself (and allowed that right by the state). This is a community that has, in turn, imprisoned itself—oblique echoes of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (made in Mexico in 1962). Plá’s protagonists are two young men from either side of the class divide, ironically united by violence. Described variously as a bleak thriller and hyperreal, La Zona, says Stewart, is an incredibly assured film.

Cochochi (2007), the first feature directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán (he studied communications in Mexico, she attended film school in Cuba), and made with non-professional actors, is set in the Sierra Tarahumara of northwest Mexico. Stewart says the appeal of the film resides more in its ethnographic fidelity to the lives of the indigenous Raramuri than in its simple but affecting plot. Two boys, one committed to his culture, the other eager for the world beyond, lose a borrowed horse while delivering medicine to a remote community, and are then themselves separated.

Stewart describes Blue Eyelids, directed by Ernesto Contreras from a screenplay by Carlos Contreras, as “a bittersweet romance, melancholy and expectant, elegant and surprising.” A withdrawn woman working in a company that makes uniforms wins a holiday trip for two to a beach resort. She’d like to take someone with her. The search yields a man of like character and inevitable problems. For some reviewers, Blue Eyelids recalls Eric Rhomer’s brilliant The Green Ray (1986). Stewart promises as well a set of Mexican shorts and documentaries to accompany this promising threesome.

retro kerr

The 2008 retrospective is a curious one; rather than being dedicated to a filmmaker, it’s based around a film star who sometimes worked with great directors—Deborah Kerr, who died in October 2007. She was in the pantheon of my childhood film gods and goddesses of the 50s and into the 60s in films as remarkably different as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947), Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinneman, 1953), The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (John Huston, 1957), Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958), Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958), The Sundowners (Fred Zinneman, 1960) and The Night of the Iguana (1964). Although she sensitively played more than her fair share of shy, retiring, virginal types (a nun twice, the chaste heroine of Quo Vadis, the spinsters in Separate Tables and The Night of the Iguana), it was a capacity to suggest both intelligence and desire stirring beneath a wary facade that captured her a loyal audience, as well as a very English and un-Hollywood beauty, not least when her characters’ passions erupted.

From Kerr’s almost 50 films, although many are not available now, Stewart will be choosing eight, most likely including the two Powell and Pressburger films and From Here to Eternity, all welcome for a rare appearance on the big screen.

festivals: where to?

I grew up with and thrived on the intimate film festivals of the 60s and 70s, small programs with a richly diverse arthouse homogeneity and rigour, and a strong sense of community—there was a good chance most of the audience would see most of the films. As festivals have grown larger, that sharing has diminished (and how many films can you now budget to see?)—programming strands multiply in respect of age and special interest groups, forms and media and, increasingly, the demands of the market place—Australia’s film festivals nurture new films and become another nexus with the greater film world. With its prize money and industry strategies, Sydney Film Festival joins the mutating fold, adapting and innovating. Whether its red carpets will generate the audience numbers it so desperately needs is another matter, but the desire to pick winners in order to benefit local talent suggests its heart is in the right place.

Sydney Film Festival, June 4-28, www.sydneyfilmfestival.org/

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2008