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