Clare Ste­wart’s hard yards in film here are pay­ing div­i­dends in her new home at the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

BE­ING in­vited to Buck­ing­ham Palace and chat­ting to the Queen wasn’t high on Clare Ste­wart’s agenda when she took up her new ap­point­ment as head of ex­hi­bi­tion with the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute in Oc­to­ber. Yet soon af­ter mov­ing into her of­fice by the Thames, she had re­ceived the royal sum­mons for a party on the eve of the Queen’s visit to Australia.

‘‘ I was so ex­cited I mem­o­rised the in­vi­ta­tion,’’ she says with a laugh. The ir­re­press­ible, auburn-haired for­mer di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val hit the ground run­ning: ‘‘ My first week we had Ken Loach in the house on Tues­day night at the end of a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work, and then Paddy Con­si­dine on Thurs­day at the pre­miere of Tyran­nosaur, and then straight into my first week of the London Film Fes­ti­val, and fol­lowed that with a visit to the Queen. It was quite ex­tra­or­di­nary.’’

Ste­wart sounds a lit­tle breath­less, and it’s not just from walk­ing to work from her new flat in Fitzrovia, in cen­tral London. In fact, the job would daunt any­one less en­thu­si­as­tic than Ste­wart: in the wake of a big shake-up of arts fund­ing, the BFI is in the mid­dle of ex­pand­ing from a purely cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion to one that has an in­dus­trial role, over­see­ing pro­duc­tion fund­ing. It is now Bri­tain’s lead­ing public film agency, af­ter the demise of the UK Film Coun­cil, charged with dis­tribut­ing na­tional lot­tery funds (es­ti­mated to be about £43 mil­lion in 2014) and must de­velop pol­icy on the run this year.

Ste­wart’s po­si­tion as head of ex­hi­bi­tion is a new one: she di­rects the London Film Fes­ti­val and the busy BFI South­bank com­plex of the­atres — part of London’s cul­tural precinct at the south end of Wa­ter­loo Bridge, and the spir­i­tual heart of Bri­tish film.

‘‘ The fes­ti­vals and South­bank had been run as very sep­a­rate en­ter­prises and it’s a big task to think about how to bring them to­gether at the same time as de­liv­er­ing them,’’ she says. At South­bank 1000 films are screened each year in fes­ti­vals, ret­ro­spec­tives and new screen­ings, and it dis­trib­utes films to 600 venues.

The BFI may be ex­pand­ing but its staff lev­els are shrink­ing: there were 68 jobs lost af­ter the last round of cuts. ‘‘ Eco­nom­i­cally it’s tough across the board, but it’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing mo­ment for the Bri­tish film in­dus­try,’’ Ste­wart says. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one is busy talk­ing about fu­ture di­rec­tions, and that’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing en­vi­ron­ment to come into. There is a lot of en­ergy around — change is some­thing that peo­ple can be ex­tremely en­er­gised by and also I think there is a lot of anal­y­sis and ques­tion­ing go­ing on. It all strikes me as be­ing in a very pos­i­tive way.’’

Ste­wart says the job ap­pealed be­cause it draws on her strengths and ex­pe­ri­ence both as artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val and as head of film pro­grams for ACMI in Melbourne. ‘‘ It’s that com­bi­na­tion of work­ing with the two en­ter­prises that re­ally ex­cites me, the idea of what op­por­tu­ni­ties might present when those two roles come to­gether, cre­atively and in terms of the com­mer­cial side.’’

Ste­wart grew up Vic­to­ria’s South Gipp­s­land, in a small town called Korumburra, to the west of Leon­gatha. ‘‘ Land of the blowfly,’’ she jokes. The town didn’t score high in the imag­i­na­tion stakes: there’s Com­mer­cial Street, Bridge Street, Mine Road, and so on, but there wasn’t even a picture theatre. Luck­ily there was a drive-in at Leon­gatha. ‘‘ I re­mem­ber go­ing to see E.T. when I was 10, wear­ing my newly pur­chased red velour jumper and blue stretch denim jeans, and Top Gun at the Won­thaggi Theatre, and that was about it for my teenage movie-go­ing,’’ she says.

When it came time to go to univer­sity, Ste­wart couldn’t de­cide be­tween law or fine arts so took me­dia stud­ies at RMIT in Melbourne, which she says was a happy ac­ci­dent: ‘‘ I rapidly dis­cov­ered a great pas­sion for film, and there was the rush of mov­ing to the city, and dis­cov­er­ing art-house cine­mas, film fes­ti­vals, and so on. I vividly re­mem­ber see­ing Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girl­friends at the Kino, and that was my first ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing an art-house film.’’

Ste­wart quickly turned her pas­sion into a job, although for years it was pretty much a labour of love. She vol­un­teered at the Melbourne Cine­mateque, and spent many hours at the Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute li­brary, where al­most by os­mo­sis they gave her em­ploy­ment, as she was so ex­pert in nav­i­gat­ing its labyrinths. She was im­mersed in the watch­ing of and writ­ing about film, and tour­ing the Cine­mateque around the coun­try gave her ex­pe­ri­ence in how to con­sider an au­di­ence in com­mer­cial terms.

In the mid-90s she ap­plied for and won a Queen’s Trust grant to travel to mov­ing im­age cen­tres and fes­ti­vals around the world: it was her first trip over­seas and opened her eyes to ex­otic film-mak­ing cen­tres from Helsinki to New York. There Ste­wart had what she calls a defin­ing mo­ment.

‘‘ At that time I didn’t have any cu­ra­to­rial stripes, if you like, but I cold-called Richard Pena, the se­nior di­rec­tor of the New York Film Fes­ti­val; Lau­rence Kar­dashian, se­nior film cu­ra­tor at MOMA; and an­other cu­ra­tor at the Guggen­heim and had meet­ings with all of them within a day. Richard and Larry I’ve sub­se­quently de­vel­oped close friend­ships with, and I see that mo­ment as when I learned some­thing about not only putting your­self for­ward, but I also learned some­thing about the re­cep­tive­ness of Amer­i­can cul­ture, and how the doors are al­ways open to you, in case you will be­come some­one sig­nif­i­cant.’’ She laughs. ‘‘ That was some­thing I recog­nised when I went to Syd­ney.’’

In Melbourne she con­tin­ued at the AFI; when that or­gan­i­sa­tion was re­struc­tured she in­de­pen­dently ne­go­ti­ated for ACMI to take on the role of cus­to­dian of the Na­tional Cine­mateque, worked there ini­tially as a pro­gram­mer, then man­aged the venue and be­came pro­gram man­ager. But af­ter about 10 years of liv­ing in a ware­house in cen­tral Melbourne it was time for a change.

‘‘ I felt I was too com­fort­able and that’s when the op­por­tu­nity to take on SFF came along,’’ she says.

The SFF was strug­gling: it was los­ing money and although cineastes still went along it had be­come in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant to a wider public. ‘‘ The fes­ti­val had a lot of pro­gram­ming strength but had lost a lot of its iden­tity. I felt very ex­cited about what it would be to take that on and, I wouldn’t say trans­form it, but take the strengths and re­ally push them, and make it im­por­tant to the in­dus­try, to the peo­ple of Syd­ney and in­ter­na­tion­ally. Those three things were real mo­ti­va­tors for me. I guess at some level I’d un­der­es­ti­mated the chal­lenge,’’ she says. ‘‘ It re­ally was a big one.’’

Ste­wart was up for it: un­der her di­rec­tion over five years, the fes­ti­val be­came shorter, sharper and more rel­e­vant. With the pro­gram stream­lined, sim­pli­fied tick­et­ing, in­clud­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of sin­gle-ses­sion tick­ets, and im­proved mar­ket­ing, SFF re­gained pop­u­lar­ity and re­in­forced its place as a sig­nif­i­cant an­nual event for Syd­neysiders.

She also re-ori­ented the pro­gram­ming, which proved pop­u­lar, en­tic­ing new and younger au­di­ences. ‘‘ This is some­thing that I’m ex­tremely proud of,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s quite ar­chi­tec­turally sim­ple, but it’s also not com­mon, to re­fo­cus the pro­gram­ming so that it is cen­tred more from the au­di­ence per­spec­tive.’’ She says it’s ‘‘ a very play­ful move’’ to tell au­di­ences you will freak them out or push them close to the edge rather than work in the way most fes­ti­vals are struc­tured, around such themes as mas­ters and vi­sion­ar­ies of cinema, ‘‘ where you al­ready re­quire quite a bit of film lit­er­acy to be able to nav­i­gate them’’.

The con­cept for an of­fi­cial com­pe­ti­tion had been around for a while, but such events need a lot of money to get un­der way: for the prize money, gala pro­fil­ing and mar­ket­ing to at­tract the at­ten­tion of in­ter­na­tional sales agents and stu­dios, and for some­thing film­mak­ers will want to at­tend.

Lob­bied by the de­ter­mined Ste­wart and film­mak­ers in­clud­ing Phil Noyce and Ge­orge Miller, the Australia Coun­cil could re­sist no longer: it came through with the funds. The first com­pe­ti­tion was in 2008; the next year Ste­wart set up the Fox­tel Australia doc­u­men­tary com­pe­ti­tion, along­side the Dendy Awards for Aus­tralian short films.

‘‘ We had a com­plete com­pet­i­tive struc­ture,’’ Ste­wart says, ‘‘ so the decision to be­come more play­ful with the rest of the pro­gram was eas­ily made be­cause there was a strength and rigour to those peer awards, giv­ing a back­bone to the pro­gram.’’

For now Ste­wart’s favourite project is com­ing out of the Na­tional Ar­chive, the BFI’S ex­tra­or­di­nary col­lec­tion of mov­ing images from film and tele­vi­sion. It is the restora­tion of the nine re­main­ing silent films di­rected by Al­fred Hitch­cock, four of which will pre­miere dur­ing the London Olympics cul­tural fes­ti­val, fol­lowed later by a com­plete Hitch­cock ret­ro­spec­tive. Martin Scors­ese’s or­gan­i­sa­tion The Film Foun­da­tion is a co-in­vestor in the restora­tion project, and Ste­wart cites the project as an ex­am­ple of how the new BFI guard, charged with set­ting up a col­lab­o­ra­tive and creative agenda, can work.

It’s early days, but what pleases Ste­wart most about her new job is be­ing among the crowds. ‘‘ To step out of your of­fice and be sur­rounded by ex­cited peo­ple com­ing out of a beau­ti­ful new print of Meet Me in St Louis, or step into a talk with [Rus­sian di­rec­tor] Alexan­der Sokurov, or Martin Scors­ese, these are to­tal de­lights. And to be host­ing those kind of talks on a reg­u­lar ba­sis keeps me per­son­ally in­spired and stim­u­lated,’’ she says.

‘‘ Last week it was Steve Mcqueen and a pre­view of Shame. And the last time I hosted a talk with him was at the State Theatre in Syd­ney in front of 2000 peo­ple for Hunger. And he’s now got two ac­claimed films up his sleeve — it’s that feel­ing of be­ing con­nected in a daily way,’’ she says.

‘‘ And I’m sit­ting in my of­fice with a view of the Thames, and the sun shin­ing on the river. How good is that?’’

Clare Ste­wart is ex­cited by her dual role

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