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Tuesday
Aug012017

MICHELLE CAREY ON MIFF: "I LOVE SEEING PEOPLE DISCOVER CINEMA"

2017 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Now in her seventh year as the Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Michelle Carey has established a reputation as one of the most astute film minds in festival programming worldwide. Her 2017 MIFF programme is vast and challenging, the kind of maze-like film buff's treasure trove for which she has become known since her debut line-up in 2011. In the festival's Collins St office in the heart of the city she now calls home, the Adelaide-born Carey chatted excitedly with SCREEN-SPACE about her early festival director days, MIFF’s newest initiatives and what film made the cut in 2017 because she demanded it be so… 

SCREEN-SPACE: When you walked through the MIFF office door in 2010, to begin preparing your first festival, what were your aims and ambitions for the years ahead?

CAREY: I wanted to put a stamp on it. Back then, it was very ‘cinephile’. It still is, of course, but by 2010 it was viewed as being auteur-driven. And I wanted that celebrated, not seen as pretentious. Particularly in the last four or five years, people have been responding to new films by directors that may have once been considered fringe, like Yorgos Lanthimos. That’s not all my doing, of course, but it is great to see that shift. I also wanted bigger, more accessible films in the mix. I understood that the role could be very managerial, but I didn’t know what to expect from that side of the job. I don’t want to sound vain, but I think I’ve always had good instincts and it was learning to trust those instincts in those early days that helped. I’m a very fight-or-flight person, so I just found strength in my intuition. (Pictured, below: The Killing of The Sacred Deer, by director Yorgos Lanthimos).

SCREEN-SPACE: Were you determined to redefine what the role of Artistic Director had come to represent?

CAREY: My predecessor Richard Moore, who I worked very closely with, and James Hewison before him and I are all very different personalities. When I first came into the role, I was quite shy, having always been the person who was happier in the background. I’ve overcome that, although I certainly don’t think that my personality is bigger than the festival. The challenge is to find the balance between shaping the festival through your personality without overwhelming the programme with your ego or arrogance. I’m not doing this to showcase my taste in film; I’m doing this because I love seeing people experience and discover cinema. And audiences today often know far more than I do about films.

SCREEN-SPACE: The two masters you have to serve are right there in the name, ‘Melbourne’ and ‘International’. How do you reconcile the relationship between the two?

CAREY: There’s space for both. It is always interesting to work out whether they are similar audiences or whether they are inherently different. Our Australian films are always massively popular, but are they the same people who are going to the latest films from Cannes? I honestly don’t know. I would like to see those audiences come closer together, and I think festivals like MIFF provide that bridge. And they also provide an opportunity for discourse, via initiatives like the Critic’s Campus programme, and insight into the industry, with the 37 South Market team and the Premiere Fund and Accelerator. I deal a lot in satisfying the audience side of the festival and I’m always considering how we can bridge those worlds even further.

SCREEN-SPACE: A decade in, what legacy has been shaped by the MIFF Premiere Fund?

CAREY: Well, it’s 55 films now, so it’s a huge legacy. It has a really strong documentary tradition, through relationships forged with particular filmmakers like Eddie Martin or Richard Lowenstein, directors who are interested in local characters. Then at the other end you have some big productions, like Bran Nue Dae or this years’ opening night film Jungle (pictured, right), which is one of the biggest budgeted films we’ve ever invested in. Then you have our commitment to the more arthouse film, such as Rabbit this year. The feedback we get from filmmakers is how grateful they are for the Premiere Fund, because without it their films wouldn’t have been made.

SCREEN-SPACE: How did the retro-strand Pioneering Women, featuring works from the last great era of Australian films directed by women, come in to focus?

CAREY: It’s not really thought of as an era as such. I was looking back through the programmes in preparation for the 65th festival and was shocked to find the lack of Australian women feature film directors until 1979, when My Brilliant Career came out. In that fascinating period following its release, they started to emerge and by the mid- to late-90s there was a kind of an explosion of talent. Obviously, still not in the kind of numbers that it should be; 16% of Australian features were directed by women, which is still to low. But in that period leading up to the md-90s, there was this kind of ‘first wave’ of women talent. There were pioneers, like the McDonagh sisters that Geoffrey (Rush) references in his programme notes, but it was this generation of talent like Gillian Armstrong, Anna Kokkinos, Jane Campion and Nadia Tass that redefined the sector. Plus I have a soft spot for the 80s, which was a really fun period and you can see that in films like Starstruck (pictured, below) and The Big Steal. Celia is one of my favourite films of the festival.

SCREEN-SPACE: You’ve always embraced new technology and artistry, and do so again in 2017 with the Virtual Reality section. Does the tech suggest a seismic shift in movie watching is imminent?

CAREY: I think the jury is out. We are still in the eye of the storm with VR, especially in Australia. The films are becoming more sophisticated, going beyond just the experiential and moving into more complex narrative forms, like that seen in Miyubi. As to where it goes, it is hard to tell. The reason we entered into VR is that a lot of filmmakers are in that space. Local filmmakers such as Matthew Bate and Amiel Courtin-Wilson have artistic ambitions within the medium, more than just creating an extension of a theme park ride. That said, I think a film festival has to defend what cinema is about at its core, which is that big screen experience, the telling of stories. Whether that’s in a narrative way, or a non-narrative way, in a visual way or via the more traditional three-act structure, we have to be mindful of opening (our programme) up too much. Audio-visual media today is so pervasive you need boundaries, otherwise it risks becoming a bit meaningless.

SCREEN-SPACE: You were in Cannes for the Netflix controversy. You have programmed television content in 2017. Clearly you’re open to inviting the small screen onto MIFF’s big screens…

CAREY: When you say ‘television’, you have to also ask, “What type of television?” We’re not going to be showing Yummy Mummies any time soon. It still has to have some kind of auteur’s bent. The television we are showing – Glitch and Top of The Lake: China Girl – are great ‘big screen’ experiences, beautifully shot works. We are not turning into a television festival, that much is true, but you have to be open to it when some of the best talent in the world is working in the medium.

SCREEN-SPACE: Was there a film in 2017 that you pulled rank on, that had you banging the table and saying, “I say it’s in!”?

CAREY: (Laughs) Oh, probably Out 1, the 13 hour, 1971 French film by Jacques Rivette. I think a lot of people may have said, “Are you mad?” (laughs) It is a 16mm print, subtitled in German, that we then had to get two people to tag-team subtitle in English live in the cinema. And there have been a couple of experimental works that I’m sure made some of our staff think, “But why?” But I think those films are the sort of works that festivals need to present.

The 2017 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL screens August 3 to 20. Full session and ticketing information at the event's official website.

Photo credit: Graham Denholm

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