The cinematic landscape of Australia’s most cosmopolitan capital develops further with the launch of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. From July 9, the three day event will transform the Howler Art Space in the inner-city hub of Brunswick into a forum for local and international factual filmmakers, all vying for competitive honours in what promises to be a true celebration of short- and long-form documentary skill. The man in charge is Festival Director Lyndon Stone, one of the southern city’s most respected film curators after stints with the Made in Melbourne and Melbourne Underground film events. “I wanted to pay Melbourne back and provide opportunities for others,” Stone told SCREEN-SPACE when we chatted about his aims and ambitions for the new event…
SCREEN-SPACE: What was the key programming goal you set for the festival?
STONE: The central quality or theme that makes Australian cinema so powerful and so iconic is irreverence. I don’t define irreverence as being disrespectful, it’s just that our films don’t take themselves too seriously and are playful with cinematic conventions. Whilst I love ‘showcase’ documentary film festivals, I find their schedules and programming to be incredibly serious. So, we wanted to do something a little bit different. We wanted to look at creating a fun and exciting documentary film festival like Sundance, SXSW or DOC NYC, (one) that was playful with the documentary genre. My goal was to put together a festival that showcases documentaries that are relevant, thought provoking, moving and have a broader appeal to a majority of Australians.
SCREEN-SPACE: Curating a documentary festival carries with it inherent social value, given the genre’s ability to confront often unspoken truths...
STONE: We wanted to do some social good. We want to present a socially liberal film festival comprised of a diverse and challenging slate that supports and promotes women, Aboriginal, Asian and LGBTI documentaries. Despite our time constraints, I think we have been successful for the most part. Clearly, there are some ongoing inequalities in the film sector and we are utilizing media like We Are Moving Stories, Documentary Drive and Women in Film Melbourne to promote the documentaries submitted by women. As it stands, approximately 25% of the films screening at Australasian festivals are directed by women; our final total was well over 40%. We have an award for best Aboriginal Feature or Short to encourage greater indigenous participation. More can be done, of course, and the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival wants to be part of the solution, making the film sector a more inclusive, equal and fair place for all. We also want to ensure that what matters the most is not who directed the documentary, how old they are, what sex they are, what religion they are, where they come from, what ethnicity they are, but that it is simply the best documentary that was submitted to the festival. (Pictured, right; A scene from Goodnight Brooklyn The Story of Death by Audio).
SCREEN-SPACE: What most surprised you about the submissions you received this year?
I have become a huge fan of the Irish documentary sector, which I found incredibly well made, socio-realistic and exciting. I’ve also come across a rare type of film called A Billion Lives by director Aaron Biebert, a social justice documentary about vaping, e-cigarettes and big tobacco that tackles some very complex issues in a very accessible way. Bullied to Death, from Italian director Giovanni Coda, avoids the preachy or didactic, instead presenting an avant garde reality for many honest Australian families; bullying in Australia is an epidemic and needs to stop. Karen Collin's Beep is a great documentary about the history of video-game sound. And Marketa Tomanova's Andre Villers, a Lifetime in Images (pictured, top) tells of a selfless, humble, introverted and talented photographer who is worthy of further examination.
SCREEN-SPACE: Tech developments have taken the genre to new heights, but is replacing the unique aesthetics of shot-on-film docos of the past a good thing? Has the 'artform' been altered irreparably?
STONE: What I find so interesting and intriguing about the documentary genre is that the more it changes, the more it stays the same. Like horror and sci-fi, documentary is a genre that is continually innovating and moving forward into different areas but the more documentary changes as a genre, the more the filmmakers seem to adhere, or at least pay homage, to basic guiding principles. Some of my favourite documentaries, like Waltz with Bashir, still push genre conventions but at the same time stay true to the form as well. The documentary is never stagnant. What I would hate to see is for documentary and reality TV to somehow converge, but we won’t let that happen.
SCREEN-SPACE: What does a competitive festival like the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival mean to the documentary community, both in Australia and abroad?
STONE: We want to put Melbourne on the map for documentary. By having a competitive film festival solely dedicated to factual filmmaking, we have already been lucky enough to attract works and directors from the best documentary film festivals in the world. We also want to support local documentary filmmakers and give them the impetus to keep honing their craft. As you know, in this business you have to be a fighter and incredibly resilient. I have not had the elevator to success in the film sector. I have to take the stairs every day, but it’s made me more empathetic, more humble, kinder and more forgiving. I remember recently late one night I received an email from a local Australian filmmaker who had been doing it tough, which simply read, “I have really wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and being accepted into your festival has given me renewed motivation to keep going and to keep striving towards my dream.” Feedback like that is incredibly heartening. (Pictured, right; A scene from Tanya Doyle's Waterlilies)
The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival runs July 9-11. Session and ticket information can be found at the event’s official website.