By Dee Jefferson
The Sydney Film Festival is the best time of year for many Sydneysiders, who take time off work to camp out in the State Theatre. This is Clare Stewart’s third year as the Director, and a lot can happen in three years. Most obviously, she ushered in the Official Competition section of the festival, last year. This shines an international spotlight on Sydney, and brings big talent and big films from overseas. Stewart also initiated the Kids and the Disabilities strands of the program. Of course there have been setbacks too, with sponsorship shrinking in the GFC, and the festival announcing earlier this year that it would downsize to ten days. We talked to Stewart about how the festival screen culture in Sydney is changing.
When you came on board, what things did you feel passionate about in terms of making changes?
One of the constant messages that I had received was that the festival needed to change its profile, and to feel like more of an inclusive event for Sydneysiders. The absolutely strongest starting point for me was ‘here’s a festival with a great heritage, with an excellent programming tradition’ – and the pressures around film festivals in the current environment, where everything that we do, and all the ways in which we receive information and relate to screens is radically changing. So a festival can’t afford to be the same thing in that environment that it has been for a number of years. So the notion that it had to reach out, it had to speak more broadly, it had to connect into the way that people are now receiving their information, and making their decisions about what they choose to do.
And that is the thinking behind presenting the program in strands like “Freak Me Out” and “Give Me a Kiss”…?
– which is actually quite substantially different from previous years, and also quite substantially different from most festivals, in the sense that program strands tend to be determined by the logics of the films that they embrace – whether that be, you know, ‘here is a program of world cinema, or here is a program of films by first-time directors’ – it’s all of those kinds of categorizing very much based on the logic of the film. And what I really wanted to do this year was to create pathways through the program, that talk to what sort of experience you might want as an audience member.
Well yes, because apart from real film nuts, no one really wants to know whether it’s the director’s first or fourth film.
Exactly – so I think in a sense what we’ve done is say that – and this has always kind of been where all of my personal drive is located, is in that moment when you actually connect a film with an audience, that’s what producing a festival is about, that’s what being a film programmer is about.
Are there certain films that are harder to “sell” to an audience than others? For example Australian film.
In a festival environment in Australia it is not hard to connect audiences with Australian film. We are in an environment where the people who are seeking out the festival experience are open to and very interested in what’s happening in Australian cinema – right through to the fact that one of our best sellers right now is actually Wake in Fright. And certainly the early best-sellers, as soon as you go on sale, are the Australian films. I think the difficulty with connecting these films with an audience is not in the festival context as much as in a broader theatrical context.
There are three Australian films in competition this year – is that to do with policy, or reflecting the strength of our industry?
No it’s nothing to do with policy…it’s a lot to with the fact that Australian films are actually international films. And to me it’s very very important be thinking about Australian films in that [international competition] mix, and I wouldn’t say necessarily to be privileging them, although we had two last year and we have three this year.
What about the “fish that get away”?
A festival director’s best kept secrets are the things that they lose and really wish that they had in the mix, but don’t. You can’t hold onto that kind of thing. But the reality is that every film that you end up with in the program, you feel passionately about in some way.
You’re a fan of Asian cinema – was getting the first International Premiere of Face, after Cannes, a personal victory?
Yes, absolutely. I’m a huge fan of Tsai Ming-liang’s, and I think this is a very prestige film – it’s also a very tough film, you know, one of his most avant garde films to date. But he is just, in my view, the absolute master of cinematic tableaux. And there’s such a wicked comedy that is the undercurrent of his films, as well.
What is the craziest thing you have done this year to get a film?
I almost got on a plane to Korea – which I would have had to self-finance (starts bubbling with laughter) so you know that would have been very crazy indeed! And I would have done it. But it became quite clear that it wasn’t going to get the result…
[Ed note: We reckon it might have been for Park Chan Wook’s new vampire flick, but Clare’s not talking.]