With a head office based in the nondescript Victorian suburb of Noble Park and a professional history as an awarded but largely unknown independent film director, Australian Jason Turley does not immediately strike you as the man to bring 'the sexy' back to the cinemas of Paris. But that is exactly Turley's aim and, with French-based festival programmer Natalie Vella, he's finalising the line-up for the 2010 Paris edition of his Sexy International Film Festival (SIFF) movement, which will launch in June in cinemas around the French capital.
The launch will bring the concept full circle for the RMIT-trained filmmaker, who was inspired by thoughts of romance and seduction during a proverbial rites-of-pasage holiday on the Continent. “The concept was conceived on a multi-city trip to Europe in 2007,” recalls Turley. “I noticed how many genre festivals were around and thought it would be great to create (an event) which focuses on the films I enjoy watching at festivals; films which explore love, relationships and sexuality”.
He tested his concept on Melbourne audiences in October 2009, when he launched a local Sexy International Film Festival with a provocative program of short and feature-length films (the Festival awarded John Sullivan's Norwegian documentary Pornostjerne? its inaugural Best Film honour). Local audiences responded enthusiastically, though he knows that selling sexiness to the Parisian audience will be a new challenge.
“The French are unafraid to be critical, which I respect as it usually comes from interest and passion for cinema rather than insecurity,” counters Turley, who also cites the open-mindedness of the European film fan as a plus when preparing the Festival schedule. “The French are a little more liberated than we are in Australia or the US, so possibly expect raunchier content from a festival titled Sexy.”
Vella, whose background includes acting (Anna Kannava's Kissing Paris, 2007) and directing (the short Nocito, 2008), agrees it will require a fresh perspective and specific skills for an Aussie festival to win over French cinephiles. “Parisian audiences are tough judges, full stop,” she admits, taking a break from overseeing the submissions that arrived in the weeks leading to the March 31 festival deadline.
“Their cinema culture is so strong here and (the general public) are very well educated in cinema. I have huge respect for that and for them. So when putting a program together like this, it comes with great responsibility.”
Vella leapt at the opportunity to support her long-time friend with the Paris leg of his global vision for sexy-cinema expansion (events in London, San Francisco and New York are in development). “While taking a really long walk around Paris in 2007 he told me about the idea of SIFF,” she recalls of the first time Turley pitched the idea to her. “I thought, “Hell yeah!” Vella says she recognised the impact sexuality had made on a century of international cinema and the role a festival could play in celebrating that influence.
Her enthusiasm melded with an understanding that Turley wanted to explore more than just the graphic physical manifestation of sexiness. “If you asked a variety of people what 'sexy' means to each of them, you will get a different answer. It's a powerful adjective,” she ponders. “Some think its pornography. To me, 'sexy' means love, sensuality, class, cheekiness, playfulness, and sexuality and not pornography. Our aims are to cater for the many different interpretation of 'sexy' and have a diverse selection of films covering many genres.” Turley agrees that the association with the adult film business is unavoidable, though his mandate for the Festival adheres to a strict 'no x-rated hardcore material' policy. “Some may align 'sexy' with porn but I see it as a fun and inviting word with that hint of naughtiness.”
Though the program for the Paris festival will have a heavy Gallic flavour, Turley and Vella are adamant that their event showcase how cultural influences represent cinematic sexiness. “It's always intriguing to see films exploring 'sexy' from their own cultural viewpoint - it opens a window to an unknown world and it's quite enlightening,” Vella says, adding that she has received films from all over the world, including Egypt, Spain, France, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“We will be celebrating Japanese (softcore erotica genre) Pink Eiga, a premiere for France, as well as a session dedicated to a retrospective of Australian cinema.”
Vella is unashamedly enthusiastic for the SIFF concept. “I have had feedback from many people in the industry as well as other film festivals and associations here who think the festival is a wonderful idea - and why didn't someone do it earlier!”
For Jason Turley, it is a long-term goal to define 'sexy' on film for a discerning, inquisitive worldwide audience. He knows that the prevailing conservatism is going to be a hurdle. “We are yet to apply for any government funding in Australia as I do think that would be the case,” he admits. “But I have found (sponsors) are open to the concept after explaining that we are not a porn fest. Our films range from romantic comedies to relationship dramas to the more obvious sexual exploration films. I am proud of our program.”