Na­tional pro­jec­tion

It seems ev­ery coun­try needs its own film fes­ti­val, writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WHEN the in­au­gu­ral Al­liance Fran­caise French Film Fes­ti­val took place in 1990, it was the first big Aus­tralian event ded­i­cated to the cin­ema of one na­tion. Th­ese days the fes­ti­val screens in six cities and in March racked up an im­pres­sive 70,000 ad­mis­sions na­tion­ally, mak­ing it one of the largest French events of its type in the world.

The Ital­ian Film Fes­ti­val, run for nearly a decade by in­de­pen­dent cin­ema chain and dis­trib­u­tor Palace with sup­port from the Ital­ian In­sti­tute of Cul­ture, sold an es­ti­mated 40,000 tick­ets this year. It’s so firmly es­tab­lished that it of­fers its pro­gram for sale in a boxed DVD pack af­ter the end of each year’s event.

Far from soak­ing up the au­di­ence for for­eign cin­ema, the rip- roar­ing suc­cess of th­ese an­nual fes­ti­vals ap­pears to have spurred on ev­ery other na­tion to have a go at launch­ing its own bou­tique film event. Ur­ban dwellers can hardly walk out of their front doors th­ese days with­out trip­ping over a flyer for yet an­other one.

Most of th­ese events will have be­gun life in Syd­ney and/ or Melbourne be­fore spread­ing — or plan­ning to spread — to other cities.

Dur­ing the past month or so Syd­ney, for one, has hosted no less than six spe­cial­ist film fes­ti­vals ( with sev­eral also held in other states): Mex­i­can ( Novem­ber 15 to De­cem­ber 5), Greek ( Oc­to­ber 31 to Novem­ber 18), Cana­dian ( Novem­ber 29 to De­cem­ber 5), Ja­panese ( Novem­ber 29 to De­cem­ber 8), Jewish ( Novem­ber 10- 25) and new kid on the block, the Syd­ney Ir­ish Film Fes­ti­val ( Novem­ber 22- 28).

Other months on the cal­en­dar are dot­ted with events de­voted to the cin­ema of Ger­many, Rus­sia, In­dia, the Mid­dle East, Africa, Malaysia and Ser­bia. In­cred­i­bly, there are three an­nual fes­ti­vals ded­i­cated to Span­ish- lan­guage cin­ema, with Latin Amer­i­can and Span­ish events joined last year by the Hola Mex­ico Film Fes­ti­val in Vic­to­ria and NSW. This is not even count­ing the well- es­tab­lished gay events or the short film bashes that seem to spring up in ev­ery other street cor­ner or cafe.

It may be eas­ier to ask which na­tions don’t have film fes­ti­vals in Aus­tralia. With the ex­cep­tion of Ja­pan and Malaysia, East Asia is un­der- rep­re­sented, al­though a small- scale South Korean event raised its head a few years ago, as did the slightly longer- lived Syd­ney Asia- Pa­cific Film Fes­ti­val.

Sur­pris­ingly, per­haps, the Bri­tish don’t have one and nei­ther do the Ki­wis, but that, surely, can only be a mat­ter of time. And while the US may ap­pear to be the last na­tion to need a fes­ti­val to show­case its movie in­dus­try, an event ded­i­cated to un­der­ground Amer­i­can film and video is not in­con­ceiv­able.

Given all of the above, are enough strong films pro­duced by each coun­try or re­gion an­nu­ally to jus­tify the ex­po­sure? Is the cal­en­dar still on the right side of over­crowded, and are au­di­ences not suf­fer­ing from burnout? How does the av­er­age film en­thu­si­ast ever get the time to at­tend th­ese events when it’s hard enough keep­ing up with the best films on gen­eral re­lease?

‘‘ When we started last year there wasn’t an Ir­ish film fes­ti­val,’’ says the di­rec­tor of the Mex­i­can event, Samuel Douek. ‘‘ I don’t know why all of a sud­den there are all th­ese fes­ti­vals in Novem­ber.’’ The need to draw from a broad au­di­ence is par­tic­u­larly ur­gent for him, given that there are only 600 Mex­i­cans in the whole of Aus­tralia. Luck­ily for Douek, Mex­ico has a lively con­tem­po­rary in­dus­try that has cat­a­pulted a clutch of film­mak­ers to in­ter­na­tional promi­nence, as ev­i­denced by the pro­files of Pan’s Labyrinth and Ba­bel at this year’s Academy Awards.

While au­di­ences drawn from Aus­tralia’s eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing the Greeks, Ger­mans, Rus­sians and French, help to bol­ster their re­spec­tive film events, most fes­ti­vals still rely on the pa­tron­age of the wider com­mu­nity. Roughly 60 per cent of the au­di­ence at this year’s Rus­sian Res­ur­rec­tion Film Fes­ti­val in Melbourne and Syd­ney were from non- Rus­sian back­grounds, ac­cord­ing to its di­rec­tor, Ni­cholas Maksy­mow.

Head of pro­grams at Melbourne’s Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Richard Sowada, says that ‘‘ film fes­ti­val has be­come a bit like the word in­de­pen­dent’’, used so widely and in­dis­crim­i­nately that it has be­come a bit woolly. ACMI hosts sev­eral of the larger fes­ti­vals but he thinks it will dif­fi­cult for many of the smaller events to keep their heads above wa­ter in the long term.

ACMI is reg­u­larly ap­proached as a po­ten­tial screen­ing venue by all man­ner of groups, in­clud­ing skate­board­ing and soc­cer film fes­ti­vals. But niche events have a much harder strug­gle to main­tain mar­ket share and keep down their costs, says Sowada, who ex­plains that screen­ing from im­ported 35mm prints, as op­posed to DVD, is ex­pen­sive. ‘‘ You might en­gage a ( spe­cial­ist) com­mu­nity, ( but) un­less you main­tain high de­liv­ery stan­dards, you don’t main­tain an au­di­ence base in the long term,’’ he says.

Yet all the reg­u­lar fes­ti­vals hosted by ACMI have ex­pe­ri­enced year- to- year au­di­ence growth of at least 35 per cent, in­di­cat­ing an in­creas­ing pub­lic hunger for in­ter­na­tional cin­ema, pos­si­bly a re­ac­tion against Hol­ly­wood’s ever- in­creas­ing fo­cus on se­quels and spec­ta­cle.

Matt Ravier, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Pos­si­ble Worlds Cana­dian Film Fes­ti­val ( which is about to en­ter its sec­ond year), strongly be­lieves we’re a long way from au­di­ences be­com­ing sat­u­rated. Paris and Toronto, where he grew up, host far more na­tional film fes­ti­vals than Aus­tralia, he says, adding that ‘‘ there wouldn’t be th­ese fes­ti­vals if the de­mand wasn’t there; we live and die by au­di­ences’’.

One rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of the best fes­ti­vals is that they of­fer the chance for in­ter­ac­tion be­tween au­di­ences and visit­ing film­mak­ers, Ravier says.

‘‘ There’s less variety on our tra­di­tional cin­ema screens than there used to be, so peo­ple are yearn­ing for films that re­flect their own cul­ture,’’ he says. ‘‘ Films gain­ing com­mer­cial re­lease rep­re­sent a very nar­row spec­trum of what’s be­ing made out there to­day and of the range of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and view­points.’’

The same plots and view­points are seen again and again and, he says, peo­ple are tired of it.

But he also thinks the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fes­ti­vals has a po­ten­tial down­side. ‘‘ My fear is that if we have mas­sive na­tional fes­ti­vals that show pretty much any­thing from that coun­try that year, that di­lutes the fes­ti­val ex­pe­ri­ence,’’ he says.

‘‘ The key thing ev­ery fes­ti­val di­rec­tor has to ask is: how do we main­tain the trust ( of the au­di­ence)? If you’re screen­ing 30 to 40 dif­fer­ent films in a year and can’t jus­tify each one, why are you do­ing it?’’

New view­points: Chris­tine Horne as a young Ha­gar in The Stone An­gel , to be shown as part of the Cana­dian film fes­ti­val in Syd­ney this week

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