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