Simon Weaving has no right to be so relaxed. In his first year as Artistic Director of the Canberra International Film Festival (CIFF), running October 28 to November 8 , his goal is to steer the 13 year-old event to a higher national prominence with a fresh programming vision. And he's pretty cool with that.
“I came down to Canberra four years ago and got involved from day one”, recalls Weaving, who last year programmed the successful Australian content strand of the inland cinema showcase. When CIFF co-founder Michael Sergi left for sunnier climes after the 2008 screenings, the position of head programmer that he had filled with skill and insight for the festival's entire history was a much sought-after one.
It was an opportunity that Simon Weaving could not ignore. “I put my hand up and put a bid in and the committee said 'Yeah, go for it.'”, deadpans the multi-hyphenate, whose background as a film academic, author and short-filmmaker has fuelled a passion for the annual celebration of film in his adopted hometown.
In her first year as CIFF President, Virginia Haussegger puts a far more enthusiastic spin on Weaving's contributions than he ever would. “Simon has brought a new vigour to the festival program,” she beams. “We've had some wonderful and robust discussions about film purpose and audience reactions, particularly around the time that MIFF was in the headlines over the Uiguar controversy.”
A close friend of his predecessor, Simon Weaving recognised the festival had become focussed on Northern European content in recent years and made it clear that he was keen to explore Eastern cinematic culture – a field of expertise he had honed whilst living in Asia. “Michael used to go to Berlin and Goethenburg to source films. I decided to go the Marche du film in Cannes, which offers a far more multi-cultural choice”. Travelling on the financial support of founding sponsor The University of Canberra, Weaving secured the rights to Irish filmmaker Anna Rodger's moving Laos-based documentary Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows, as well as slotting in two South Korean films – Park Chan-wook's lustful vampiric romp Thirst and Bong Joon-hoo's melodrama, Mother.
Haussegger is happy to let Weaving and Festival vice-president, Nicole Mitchelle, have final say on programming choices – some of which don't always sit well with her tastes. “I've spent years working in far-flung corners of the world as a television journalist and as such I have a love of documentaries.” Currently the anchorwoman for ABC-TV Canberra's evening news, Haussegger admits to having “no stomach for violence, vampires, or science fiction. I'd remove all violence from the program and fill the space with great current affair style documentaries.” But she cedes to the expertise that Weaving and Mitchelle possess to make the festival an eclectic film-going experience. “I never ever aspire to be an AD! It requires someone like Simon - with his very broad tastes and his film knowledge - who really knows what they're doing. It's best I stick to festival strategy and leave the film decisions to him!”
Though still a fledgling event when compared with the decades-old history or immense programming of Australia's other capital city festivals, Weaving is faced with many of the same issues that impact Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane event organisers. “They are big festivals that have been there a long time and have big centres of population, (but it is still) going to be their local community that provides the box office. Very few festivals, [such as] Cannes, Venice and Berlin, are going to be big film tourism destinations. What we want to do is service that local market.”
Haussegger agrees, adding that one of the main aims of the festival is to not to bring the world to the nation's capital, but to take the capital's population out into the world. “It's about stepping out of our lives and our city and for the duration of a film, and the duration of the festival, really 'looking out' at the world around us. Hence our theme this year – 'Look Out'.”
The organising committee is adamant that the CIFF is not seen as a country picture-show event. “There is nothing 'regional' about CIFF,” assures Haussegger. “Just as MIFF and SIFF don't reflect the fact that they [represent] eastern coast cities. We have more nations represented here than any other Australian city, thanks to our diplomatic community. The CIFF is a way of drawing people's attention to that diversity and embracing and celebrating it.”
If that global viewpoint provides 12 days of international and Australian cinema for some out-of-towners as well, Weaving will be stoked. “Sydney's only a couple of hours away and we have a huge opportunity if we can offer something different than the Sydney Film Festival. We are in a very different time frame, six months after their event, [ensuring] a whole bunch of films that Sydneysiders haven't seen.”
In 2009, the premieres on offer are certainly worthy of a weekend roadtrip. Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man and Sam Taylor Wood's John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy will both make their Australian debuts in Canberra; a print of the landmark 1973 Senegalese drama Touki Bouki, restored from original negatives provided by the son of late director Djibril Diop Mambéty, will screen at the National Film and Sound Archive on November 8; and Canberra-based filmmaker Rob Nugent will screen his Iraq War documentary No Dramas, followed by a panel discussion on war zone factual filmmaking.
Simon Weaving is well aware he is taking risks with some of his program selections. “In one sense, I'm really testing the marketplace as a new artistic director. But I do think a portion of the festival should be about pushing boundaries, finding films that are going to challenge you.” Despite some confronting works, especially as part of the 'Edge of Frame' strand, Weaving always had the viewer in mind. “I wanted to make the selection of films and the programming very audience-focussed.”
Virginia Haussegger is convinced that her new chief programmer and artistic visionary has got it exactly right. “The Canberra audience is a sophisticated and educated audience. Therefore it's an audience that is open to being challenged and surprised by what they might encounter in an international film festival. Simon has a wonderful eye for a good story, and it's the engagement of story that has been a key driver in his programming choices.”