The Canberra International Film Festival opened last Wednesday (October 26) with Gus Van Sant's Restless. Although in the end locally-raised actor Mia Wasikowska, who'd been flagged as a guest, was unable to attend due to overseas filming commitments, it was a relatively minor disappointment for the 15-year-old event, which this year screens 58 films over 12 days and runs until Sunday November 6.
Outside of the ACT the festival seems to be a well-kept secret, getting so few mentions in the national film and entertainment media that it's likely many film lovers would be surprised to learn that it even exists.
But in Canberra, it's increasingly a different story. Since being taken over by artistic director Simon Weaving three years ago and moving into the Dendy Cinemas from its former home at the Electric Shadows, the festival has undergone serious audience growth. Two years ago CIFF managed to sell double the number of tickets it had sold in the previous year, while last year saw a year-to-year increase of 18%, says Weaving.
A look at this year's booking guide and website reveals a lively looking program that features a section devoted to African cinema; preview screenings of highlights from the next 12 month's worth of independent commercial releases such as Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (pictured); and a selection of international films that won't get a local release. About 40% of the program doesn't have an Australian distributor attached, and some titles that do are nonetheless not scheduled for commercial theatrical release in Canberra.
On the lighter side there's also a retrospective of music films at the National Film and Sound Archive's art deco Arc cinema, including an outdoor screening of the Village People's Can't Stop the Music in the courtyard. If the camp classic's reception at the 2006 Sydney Film Festival* is any indication, this should go down a treat.
Unlike the bigger annual events in Brisbane (whose dates overlap with Canberra's),
Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide, CIFF has no bells and whistles such as an international competition, film funding program or industry networking component, add-ons the other festivals reckon are needed to bolster their international profiles and keep attracting the best films.
But part-time screen studies teacher and former arts administrator Weaving says he's not worried because at the moment he's been able to get most of the films he wants. With a relatively modest 58 films on the program, he's says he's able to maintain a high standard of programming.
Despite the fact he works part-time teaching film at Canberra Institute of Technology, Weaving says that in compiling his program he's managed to watch 300 films this year, including 50-60 on his one big annual overseas trip to Cannes, which he followed by sitting on the jury of Poland's Krakow Film Festival, which has a heavy documentary component.
The rest of the program generally comes from watching DVD screeners (100 brought back from Cannes alone) and a visit to the Movie Convention on the Gold Coast, where many highlights of the year ahead get screenings and Australian distributors are all in the one spot.
Weaving says a benefit of being in the nation's capital is “a great relationship with the National Film and Sound Archive,” pointing in particular to the retrospectives that screen at the Arc. Last year, for example, saw a screening of famous showman William Castle's 1959 House on Haunted Hill, with additional special effects provided by the venue.
Other artistic partnerships include the screening of a few titles from the Nordic Film Festival – Weaving thinks Norway, in particular, is producing some especially outstanding work following changes in the way that nation's films are funded. This follows last year's screenings of some items from the Hola Mexico Film Festival. The thinking is that neither CIFF nor the smaller touring film festivals can afford to compete with one another and cannibalise their respective audiences, so they might as well co-operate.
The competition for titles with the ever-increasing number of national film festivals in Australia is one that affects even the bigger events like Sydney and Melbourne, though it doesn't appear to have stopped the bigger events from maintaining relatively huge programs, full, largely, of material worth seeing.
Weaving notes that Italian films are extremely hard to get (largely due to the fact that Palace Films, which has especially close relationships with Italian sales agents, soaks up most of the better films for their annual Italian Film Festival). But Weaving is philosophical about these national-cinema events beating CIFF to some titles he might want to program: “With only 50-60 films, we can afford to miss a few of these films and if the audience gets to see them in other ways, that's fantastic.”
*Lynden Barber was artistic director of the Sydney Film Festival 2005 and 2006.
The Canberra International Film Festival runs from October 26 – November 6. Visit the festival website for more information.