Celebrating its 60th anniversary and first with Michelle Carey as Artistic Director, Melbourne International Film Festival announced its extensive program.
Founded in 1951, Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is one of the world’s oldest and, over the years, has developed into one of the largest.
History of the festival
From inauspicious beginnings at a school hall in the small town of Olinda on the outskirts of the city, where eight films were screened, MIFF has shown more than 12,000 films in its 59 years. Today the festival presents more than 200 films across all genres, although at its height in the early 2000s, more than 400 films were screened across the city.
In the early years, foreign films meant French or Italian, but in 1955 MIFF programmed one of the first Japanese films – Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell – to be screened in Australia, followed one year later by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The festival, along with the recently founded Sydney Film Festival, highlighted the opportunity to see films outside the mainstream and from different cultures that would not receive commercial release.
Foreign films also meant different values to those of conservative Australia and the festival courted controversy throughout the 1960s with the authorities, openly and publicly clashing with the Film Censorship Board on several occasions with its political and sexually charged programming.
Changes in classification rules in the late 1970s resulted largely in exemption for festivals, although censorship of individual films has reared its head on several occasions since.
The mid ‘80s almost saw the demise of MIFF with crippling debts and accusations of elitist programming. But, with an increase in the inclusion of more commercial films and wider marketing to be more inclusive resulted in a turn around for the festival.
Recent political controversies
One of the most admired directors of the festival of the past 20 years or so is Richard Moore, who left in 2018 after five years in charge. His ‘reign’ was dogged by political controversies, but on all occasions Moore refused to concede ground to protests and even, on one occasion, death threats.
Moore rejected the call in 2018 to cancel the screening of Palestinian film Son of Babylon two days before the scheduled exhibition after the producers protested against the festival’s cultural partnership with Israel. Veteran British director Ken Loach pulled his film Looking for Eric from the festival a year earlier for the same reason. Both looked to MIFF to reject the financial support from the Israeli Embassy in Australia: on both occasions Moore likened their demands “to comply would be to submit to blackmail.”
But the single biggest threat to MIFF (and Moore’s greatest legacy) came as a result of the screening of the documentary 10 Conditions of Love, a film that followed Rebiya Kadeer and the plight of the Uyghur people in defiance of the Chinese government’s demands.
Police involvement due to hacking of the festival’s website, an abusive email and phone call campaign, even death threats were received by Moore and festival staff. But the festival director stood his ground, supported by the Board and colleagues, and the screening went ahead. The decision won Moore plaudits and admiration around the world for his refusal to give in to outside interference and political pressure.
Michelle Carey’s first program as artistic director is unlikely to attract the same kind of political attention as Moore’s last two festivals.
Opening night gala film is the Belgian/French co-production The Fairy, the film selected to open the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, with Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, closing proceedings two weeks later on 7 August.
In between there’s a host of local and international goodies, with most local press attention centred on the world premiere of The Eye of the Storm. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis and Charlotte Rampling, the film is veteran director Fred Schepisi’s first Australian film since 1988’s Evil Angels and is an adaptation of the 1973 novel by Nobel laureate Patrick White.
But there’s plenty for everyone – sections within the festival include International Panorama, documentaries, shorts, This Sporting Life, Backbeat (traditionally one of the most popular sections targeting music fanatics), Accent on Asia and Prime Time (dramas made specifically for television).
Feature film highlights include the recent Sydney Festival winner A Separation by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, Cannes success Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel), Ken Loach’s latest Route Irish and Edinburgh Film Festival opener The Guard.