Melbourne International Film Festival executive director Richard Moore has always wanted to make front page news, and with this year's progam, he's got his wish several times over. Craig Mathieson looks at why MIFF 2009 is a political hot potato.
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22 Jul 2009 - 3:49 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Richard Moore has just graduated from having one of those days to experiencing one of those weeks. A rumpled, amenable man with a shock of black hair circa Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back, the Executive Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was sitting in his office last Friday afternoon preparing to announce that English director Ken Loach had withdrawn, a week before the Festival began, his latest film Looking for Eric.

“It's all about that,” says Moore, flicking through the bulky 2009 program and then scanning the long list of partners (Principal, Major, Corporate, Media…) to find, in the Cultural listing, a thumbprint-size logo for the State of Israel. Loach, as he'd successfully done earlier this year at the Edinburgh Film Festival, threatened to withdraw his film if MIFF didn't reconsider the sponsorship, which in this instance was to bring filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal to Melbourne for the screening of her animation $9.99, an Israeli-Australian co-production.

Moore refused to accede to Loach's demand – which was based on his support for a Palestinian call for a boycott of events supported by Israel – and at 2am that morning Loach confirmed Looking for Eric was to be pulled. MIFF, notes Moore with a sigh, has been a long-time supporter of Loach. “We even programmed [2007's] It's a Free World,” he points out.

Moore's week had begun with the call from Melbourne's Chinese consulate that became worldwide news. Without warning a cultural attache has called Moore to stridently insist that the Australian documentary The 10 Conditions of Love, whose subject is exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, should be dropped from the line-up. Beijing has declared Kadeer a terrorist and accused her of inciting the recent ethnic riots in Xinjiang province that reportedly saw several hundred deaths.

“It was all very normal. I'm in the office and then this woman calls and I was like, “Sorry?'” recalls Moore. “I couldn't believe it happened, but then you believe it happened because it's par for the course with how the Chinese will approach questions like this.” Again, Moore refused. Earlier this week three Chinese films were pulled from the MIFF schedule as part of a retaliatory boycott.

The 58th incarnation of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs from Friday 24 July to Sunday 9 August, was always meant to have a strong political perspective. But the programming has been overtaken in the last 10 days by outside events. If nothing else, Moore muses, his brief to move coverage out of the arts pages and into news pages of the city's press has been unexpectedly fulfilled.

Now in his third year at the helm of MIFF, there's a sense that Moore is firmly in control of the organisation and shaping it to his own vision. He's overhauled the programming department, reworked the sponsorship and marketing arms and expanded the membership program for an event that will screen approximately 150 features and have 180,000 admissions this year.

A former producer at the ABC, Moore has come a long way since he successful applied for the position in 2006. He sat through the final effort of his predecessor, the gregarious James Hewison, and soon after jumped on a plane for the Toronto Film Festival. In Canada one of the first pictures he saw was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's coruscating drama The Lives of Others. He couldn't secure it, which was his introduction to the labyrinthine world of artistic merit and commercial realities.

“It's taken several years to get comfortable with the job and build the personal relationships with the sales agents and distributors,” Moore says. “When we go to Berlin and Cannes now they're approaching us suggesting titles to us and asking what we want. They see MIFF as a good launching platform into the Australian market.”

Moore and senior programmer Michelle Carey – who initiated one of the highlights of this year's MIFF, the retrospective of French New Wave icon Anna Karina that spans almost 50 years and will feature Jean-Luc Godard's former wife as a festival guest – spend almost three months a year overseas attending other film festivals and scouting prospective titles.

At festivals they divide the program and then see five or six films each in a day, meeting up for a drink and to compare notes after the final screening. Moore's informal rule is to give each film 25 minutes to make him commit to staying. “If something hasn't sparked by that point I'm out,” he adds.

The 2009 program is typically diverse. Eros + Massacre, a series of politically and socially confronting Japanese features from the end of the sixties, sits alongside Festival guest Quentin Tarantino and his Inglourious Basterds; a focus on new cinema from the Balkans is counter pointed by Punk Become Pop, a selection that exhumes Australia's post-punk music scene.

Most prominently, there are five films screening that are part of the nascent MIFF Premiere Fund, a Victorian government initiative that gives the Festival a co-financing presence and a role as promotional springboard. Both the Opening Night selection, Robert Connolly's East Timor thriller Balibo, and Closing Night, Rachel Perkins' exuberant indigenous musical Bran Nue Dae, were assisted by the scheme.

“We take great pride in reinventing the program each year,” Moore says, somewhat frazzled but nonetheless satisfied. “We thought we had the programming nailed last year, but we've upped the ante in terms of variety and a political edge this year. There's a lot of relevance.”

SBS FILM will be on the ground at MIFF with daily coverage of the festival, including reviews, blogs and features.