On the eve of the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival, meet its new artistic director Michelle Carey.
18 Jul 2011 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Like many Melbournians at this time of year, Michelle Carey has a well-thumbed copy of the Melbourne International Film Festival program. The difference is that the numerous red ink markings that appear in Carey's guide as a form of cinematic shorthand denote the films that the event's Artistic Director hasn't yet seen. For most festival goers the program is a welcome aid, but for Carey it's the physical realisation of almost a year's work.

“It's all been in my head, in one hundred different Word documents, and on sticky notes stuck to my computer,” says Carey, sitting in the meeting room of MIFF's central Melbourne offices. “When you put any festival program together you have to cast the net wide – you have to start broad and distil it from there. Thankfully, at this point it feels right, it makes sense.”

MIFF remains, despite Sydney's resurgence and Adelaide's welcome presence, Australia's largest film festival. This year's event, running from Thursday 21 July to Sunday 7 August, produces some daunting numbers: 329 films, approximately 420 sessions, 17 days, 7 main venues, and 160,000 admissions.

“It's big, but it's manageable,” says the 35-year-old Carey, who first attended MIFF ten years ago, when she drove solo from Adelaide to Melbourne to see a week's worth of film. She experienced a “life-changing moment” sitting in the audience for Hungarian director Bela Tarr's Werckeister Harmonies, and ever since she's been drawn to MIFF, joining the programming staff four years ago.

Her ascent to the top creative position puts Carey firmly in the spotlight. MIFF has a huge foothold in Melbourne public life, with the extensive program cutting across numerous social and cinematic boundaries. In MIFF queues dedicated cinephiles stand next to casual film fans, and the cross-section of people in the average audience is wide. MIFF is a large, mainstream event that has outgrown its insular origins.

“That certainly mirrors the trajectory of film festivals internationally,” observes Carey. “As we've gone along, we're curious people by nature and we like to get involved in culture, which is a more mainstream thing now. Back in the 1950s and 60s the MIFF audience was more a cultural elite or hardcore cinephiles, but over the last 20 years – particularly through Tait, Sandra, James and Richard's years – it's become more accessible.”

Tait Brady, Sandra Sdraulig, James Hewison and Richard Moore, in chronological order, are Carey's predecessors atop MIFF. Each helped advance MIFF's cause and grow the festival, whether it was Brady geographically consolidating the festival back into Melbourne's CBD or Sdraulig making the ticketing system more accessible.

Each had their supporters and critics, and each became publicly defined by their tenure. Carey is only just discovering what being the public face of the event requires, finding herself giving numerous interviews and satisfying the “lifestyle” sections of newspapers by detailing her typical Sunday morning; chances are the man Carey calls “the Maestro”, long-time director Erwin Rado, who was in command from 1954 to 1979, never had to suggest his preferred brunch destination.

“The position is what you make it,” notes Carey, who applied for and secured a somewhat different role after many of the administrative and financial duties were siphoned off to a newly created general manager's position. MIFF's board wanted the Artistic Director to be focused on celluloid, not spreadsheets.

Her changes to the event's structure have been minor but telling. Days now start at 11am, not 12 noon, allowing for slightly longer gaps between sessions, which will hopefully result in more orderly transitions from one screening to the next. Elsewhere, a new initiative – Talking Pictures Express – provides free talks at the Festival's Lounge at 5.30 on weeknights from various experts and panels, serving as a bridge between the close of the working day and the evening sessions.

While Carey retains her affinity for – and friendships with – the committed devotees trying to squeeze 80 films into their fortnight (recognisable because they often run between sessions), she's also aware that MIFF has a casual audience that needs to be nurtured.

“I'm not interested in being everything to everyone at the same time. You just cannot do that,” she points out. “The program is big enough to have niches – some people only see the Backbeat music documentaries, for example. There's a responsibility towards the audience, so I would never just program my 329 favourite films.”

Another welcome change is putting aside (this year, at least) the recent tradition of opening night being an Australian title, an understanding that fared better some years (The Bank) more than others (2.37). Carey describes Dominique Abel, Bruno Romy and Melbourne-born Fiona Gordon's The Fairy as “the perfect opening night film”.

There are 26 titles arriving from the Cannes Film Festival, including Nicholas Wending Refn's Drive for closing night, and new works from Lars Von Trier (Melancholia) and the Dardenne Brothers (The Kid With a Bike). Carey has come to appreciate how personal ties to international sales agents, forged at overseas films festivals, are one of the most important – albeit unseen to the public – elements of her position.

“There's a lot of diplomacy involved,” she says. “A lot of their decisions are based on strategy, and it's a worldwide strategy: 'Does putting our film in Melbourne impact on getting other festivals?' 'Do we want to hold off until closer to the Oscars?' It's getting more complicated as the stakes rise. Companies want to make the most noise possible around their film, and we're lucky that sales agents respond so positively to MIFF.”

Alternately, Carey has a knack for drafting an unexpected season or retrospective that both reflects MIFF's lineage while providing contemporary appeal. Two years ago she courted French New Wave icon Anna Karina, the 1960s muse to Jean-Luc Godard, to attend MIFF to introduce an overview of her career, turning each appearance into an event.

“That's where a programmer can put their personal touch on a festival,” Carey explains. “Anna Karina was interesting as not everyone in the office had heard of her, but once we went out there the fans came out of the woodwork. She's a real character but not a household name – she has cult status. People who know her adore her.”

Carey has been lucky in that her debut hasn't been marked by the kind of headline-making incident that the seemingly indefatigable Richard Moore faced over the last few years. He had to deal with leading British filmmaker Ken Loach loudly withdrawing Looking for Eric in protest at MIFF accepting a travel grant from the Israeli government, and the Chinese government's displeasure that resulted from the scheduling of the Rebiya Kadeer documentary 10 Conditions of Love.

Instead, with her new programmer Al Cossar, who brings a focus on American independent cinema and documentaries, Carey has had a chance to assemble a typically diverse MIFF program that nonetheless reflects her own passions and beliefs. Now all she needs is the chance to slip into some of those marked sessions in her program and complete her personal viewing, while enjoying the collective bond that results from an audience being captivated by the image projected on the screen before them.

“I had that last year with Catfish. I sat right in the middle of the cinema and the way that drew the audience in was quite amazing,” remembers Carey. “I'm not the artist, it's not like being a rock star on stage, but you do feel happy that people can see what you see. It's a connection.”

Read reviews, and watch interviews and trailers of films in the 2011 MIFF program