sydney film festival’s new face

hamish ford interviews director clare stewart

Bomb Harvest, Kim Mordaunt

Bomb Harvest, Kim Mordaunt

RECENT INDUSTRY BUZZ ABOUT A RE-JIGGED, REJUVENATED SFF HAS CENTERED AROUND THE APPOINTMENT OF A YOUTHFUL NEW FESTIVAL DIRECTOR, CLARE STEWART. A SENSE OF ANTICIPATION WAS APPARENT AT THE CROWDED CIRCULAR QUAY LAUNCH. TELSTRA WAS WELCOMED AS A MAJOR NEW SPONSOR, AND WILL CO-HOST AN ONLINE COMPETITION FOR ONE-MINUTE MOBILE-SHOT FILMS. A NEW VENUE WAS ALSO FLAGGED, THE METRO THEATRE ON GEORGE STREET, WHERE MUSIC FILMS WILL SCREEN IN A ‘COCKTAIL-BAR’ ATMOSPHERE (AS WELL AS FEATURING POST-SCREENING PERFORMANCES). FINALLY STEWART TALKED US THROUGH CLIPS FROM THIS YEAR’S KEY FILMS AND PROGRAM STRANDS.

In light of her appointment and subsequent first program, Stewart’s career path is of interest. Based in Melbourne, she has had a 15-year programming career, the culmination of which was the last four years as head of film programs for ACMI. Previously a programmer for the Melbourne and National cinematheques, she worked for five years at the the Australian Film Institute. I talked to her by phone about the programming philosophy she brought to her first Sydney festival.

There is always debate around film festivals in regards to programming. Do you think SFF ought to have a kind of ‘contract’ with audiences that the event is bringing into their orbit ‘cutting-edge’ world cinema?

If you mean ‘should the festival be challenging?’, I would say yes. I think that’s one of its roles. My approach to programming is that the ideal audience is composed of a number of clusters. Not everybody is interested in being ‘challenged.’ But that is absolutely, on a curatorial level, one of the things the festival must do—and I’m very excited about our Provocateurs strand this year, which is quite deliberately putting up films that agitate, films that provoke, that are really on that cutting edge of stylistic, formal or content provocation.

I have to say, though, that I believe in cinema for everyone. We’ve just introduced this year for the first time a program for kids. [This is all part of] widening out the festival… Personally, my tastes are very, very broad. I’m particularly excited about reviving The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, USA), the only film that Dr. Seuss substantially contributed to. We also have a program charting 20 years of Pixar shorts. For me, programming is about producing these kinds of clusters; it’s not about saying an overall program should be one thing or the other.

Do you think there’s any tension between an obligation to challenge viewers in regards to the formal and conceptual extremes of contemporary cinema (and retrospectives), and economic pressure to appeal to an ever-larger audience by programming ‘accessible’ films. How can a festival deal with this gap? I’m thinking both of programming per se but also marketing and public articulation of the festival’s tone or character.

I’d say it’s a tension not as in a restraint [but] as in an exciting ‘frisson’ [Laughter]…It’s my responsibility to communicate effectively to all possible patrons that this is a festival for everyone, which is not the same as saying everything in it is going to appeal to everyone. That’s an important balance to strike. For the cinephiles, and I would very much class myself as being one, I also don’t like to presume they’re not interested in more popular forms of cinema. I guess I just don’t see it as an either/or situation; I see it as a complex set of options.

For film-goers who seek out challenging work that’s not likely to appear on TV or DVD anytime soon, what are some of notable titles in the program?

Sure. The Provocateur strand is really quite full of that. For example, Build a Ship, Sail to Sadness (Laurin Federlein, UK), I’m sure this is not turning up in a DVD near anyone anytime soon! It is a completely bizarre, hilarious film [about] an incredibly strange man who is driving on a kind of motorised cycle around the hills of Scotland with the desire to set up a mobile disco, to “take away the loneliness of the citizens” who, of course, are completely uninterested. He ends up sniffing the petrol in his vehicle and having hallucinatory moments. Featuring a kind of clapped-out video aesthetic with roots in performance video art, it’s a film that’s come out of nowhere with a minimal budget. Then we also have the Australian premier of Inland Empire, the newest David Lynch film. This really is ‘Lynch at his most Lynchian.’ He has always been a provocateur extraordinaire, and the film totally anchors a program like this.

There is perennial talk around film festivals of ‘new waves’ from various parts of the world. Could you comment on where you think the centre of gravity is right now in regards to important feature filmmaking?

One of the most evocative and powerful strands in the festival is the Turkish Poets program—a cluster of recent award-winning Turkish films that share a very poetic sensibility…[often portraying] a melancholic state where the civilian population of Turkey is somehow suspended in the nether space between the loss of the Ottoman Empire and the contradictions of the rapid introduction of western capitalism, and how all of that fits with a predominantly Islamic society. It’s a really rich field of paradoxes…Takva—A Man’s Fear of God [Özer Kiziltan], for example, is an incredibly powerful film about a man who starts working for the local seminary in an administrative role. He’s suddenly brought out of his life of faith, paradoxically [now in] a more commercial environment because he’s representing the business of the seminary. And this absolutely challenges his faith in God. Times and Winds [Reha Erdem] is a visually stunning, lyrical portrayal of village life, which has visual echoes of Parajanov or Tarkovsky, but also a visual and temporal language all of its own. [There’s also] the Stories from Brazil program, a more textured and varied strand. For example, São Paolo City Tellars (Francesco Jodice) looks at the different tactics of survival in a city of 18 million people showing the helicopter-taxis that fly rich people over the dangerous streets below, then the extensive recycling that is a way of life for many.

I’m looking forward to both those programs. I’m also delighted to see you’ve got the complete 2006 Vienna New Crowned Hope festival’s ‘Mozart’ package of films commissioned by Peter Sellars.

Of course—I haven’t even touched on that! To me, that is the most exciting commissioning project of the year. It’s so adventurous, obviously featuring some of the most interesting filmmakers working in cinema at the moment—people such as Tsai Ming-liang, who will be familiar to many RealTime readers I’m sure.
Global Haywire, Bruce Petty

Global Haywire, Bruce Petty

There seems to be an increased presence both of Australian cinema and I think documentaries in the festival this year. This presumably reflects your positive view of these sectors at the moment?

It’s been a very strong year, particularly for Australian feature-length documentaries, which I think is really exciting, and we’re premiering a number of those. We’ve got films like Tim Slade’s 4, the new Tom Zubrycki film, Temple of Dreams, and Bomb Harvest by Kim Mordaunt. These are films that go the extra mile in terms of length and depth, as well as sometimes being more unconventional in style, [such as] Bruce Petty’s Global Haywire—a very different investigation into contemporary global politics, which is a feature-length combination of animation and performance. There’s Home Song Stories [Tony Ayres], Lucky Miles [Michael James Rowland] and West [Daniel Krige], which will be breakout feature films.

But we’ve also got some interesting independent films made on very low budgets, like Corroboree, by Ben Hackworth, which is a totally daring production, very different for an Australian feature film. It’s a tribute to Richard Wherrett, but he’s the starting point for a film which really undertakes a formal experimentation that demonstrates the energy and inventiveness of the early works of Guy Maddin and Lars von Trier…It’s so exciting to see those kinds of forms coming into play in an Australian feature.

Sydney Film Festival, June 8-24,
www.sydneyfilmfestival.org

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 19

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2007