Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Interview: Clare Stewart (Sydney Film Festival)

Mere days away from the opening of the 57th Sydney Film Festival, director Clare Stewart is practically buzzing. The articulate, fast-talking, veritable film encyclopedia is brimming with enthusiasm for this her fourth festival.

“I’m feeling very excited. I couldn’t be more chuffed with our line up for this year and that’s just had a big boost that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took out the Palme d’Or at Cannes on the weekend,” she says. “We had that, and had it programmed before Cannes and will actually be having the first screening in the world after its win!”

Call it prescience or just good planning, Stewart and her team are making a habit out of drawing the best from abroad to be part of the festival’s Official Competition. “It’s the third year in a row that we’ve attracted three films direct from Cannes (The Tree - the Australia/French co-production -being another and Xavier Dolan’s wonderful film Heatbeats, which was in Un Certain Regard),” she says, “I think that speaks volumes to how [the Official Competition is] taking hold internationally and certainly we find on an industrial level that we’re attracting more and more sales agents to trust us with those screenings as well, which is a very important factor.”

“[We] have those kind of films up alongside those films with name directors like Michael Winterbottom for The Killer Inside Me and Todd Solondz for Life During Wartime – two highly anticipated films, along with Berlin Film Festival winners How I Ended This Summer and If I Want to Whistle I Whistle and Chris Morris’ outrageous comedy Four Lions.”

Stewart is also delighted to add that Morris will be taking part in the festival’s free talks program. “[The Chaser’s] Julian Morrow is going to be hosting the talk with Chris Morris and [actor] Kayvan Novak, who is also coming out, which is great. That’s an incredibly rare coup because Chris doesn’t do many public talks at all, so we’re really excited that Chris has decided to do one for the festival.”

Stewart considers attracting filmmakers and talent to accompany their films on the oftentimes-lengthy journey to Sydney a vital component of the festival. “It’s the people, it’s the filmmakers, it’s that sense of excitement that really builds the festival environment,” she says. “Another one that I’m really looking forward to is that Shirley Henderson, the wonderful actress who has been in a bunch of Michael Winterbottom films actually, but whose one of the stars of [Todd Solondz’] Life During Wartime, she’s coming out and will be participating in a talk with Christine K Walker, who is the producer of both Life During Wartime and HOWL – that’s certainly one to look forward to.”

This robust female filmmaking contingent is also a clear source of pride for Stewart.

“Margaret Pomeranz is hosting a talk for us with [directors] Gillian Armstrong and Shirley Barrett and our official Jury President Jan Champan around the restorations of Love Serenade and the Last Days of Chez Nous. I think that’s going to be an incredibly powerful talk about women directors as well,” she says. “Something I’m really excited about with this year’s line up is that there are so many strong films directed by women. To be opening and closing with films by Shirley Barrett [South Solitary] and Lisa Cholodenko [The Kids Are Alright], while the films were definitely chosen for the strengths of their merit for those positions, to be opening and closing the festival with films directed by women is something that I feel very passionate about.”

South Solitary also marks the first time in years an Australian film has received opening night honours. “[The Opening Night film] is without a doubt the most complicated choice of the festival, because you have so many different people and tastes to try and please in that opening night crowd. And every year there are a couple of films that really sparkle in terms of delivering on both the entertainment level but also having a lightness of touch that kind of makes people feel like partying afterwards – something very important!”

“My personal view is that the festival is an international festival, so everything we do is about internationalism, and to lock down into particular patterns is never a good thing because you become predictable [and] you don’t want to be that. So the opening night slot is something that should rotate, and just like the international competition should include Australian films, because Australian films are participating in the international arena, so to divide the festival into international and Australian is not I don’t think doing the best thing by the films.”

“With all of that in view I’m really delighted that it’s also created so much excitement to have an Australian film back on the opening night and a world premiere at that, and the first film to be directed by a woman for a very long time.”

Another obvious feature of the festival is the curious return of the canine. Indeed this year’s festival theme is “unleashed.”

“We decided that following on from the incredible success of the pug last year that, when at a good wicket, times it by six, so [that means] canine ambassadors for each one of our pathways. My personal favourite (and everybody has one) is Cooper who thinks that Lars Von Trier’s films are totally soft.” “Truly I think that Sydneysiders are very much a dog loving city, so it definitely seems to tap into the imagination,” she concludes “And it’s been extra fun to run a campaign with those characters running alongside us…unleashed!”

Published by Street Press Australia

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