Posted July 28, 2017

5 Minutes With the Programmer of MIFF

The Melbourne International Film Festival is an event jotted down in every movie aficionado’s diary. It gives us a chance to see all the best local and international productions and continues to put Melbourne on the map as a reputable cultural hub.

With over 358 films representing 68 countries to choose from, the 2017 program is vast. Luckily, we had the chance to sit down with the Programmer of the Festival, Al Cossar, who gave us a rundown of his top picks, what went into selecting this year’s films and what makes MIFF such an exciting event for Melburnians.

Tell us a bit about how you got into your role as Programmer and your own love of film.
This is my 7th festival in the role of Programmer here at MIFF, and I love my job! Being part of something that really contributes to the cultural heartbeat of such a vibrant city as Melbourne; being able to present and support new, unique and diverging voices in film and storytelling, and curating works which I think will make audiences respond to – argue, fuss, fight, enlighten, jump out of their chairs. Film is something vital,conducive to transformation, surprising, and transporting – that’s what.

In terms of how I got into it – like most career arcs within the Arts, it’s interesting to consider where you started and where you get to, which can be two very different places. I originally got into the creative/technical side of film as an Editor/Assistant Post Production Supervisor back in New Zealand – I loved film and my first love within that was editing – as the physical act of ‘writing’ a film, and the last line of opportunity to perfect your story before people actually see it – a creative, technical, and very relational process in terms of all of the interests that practically go around the construction of a story.

Once I moved to Melbourne, around 13 years ago, I started to run different film nights and events in collaboration with a couple of close friends (we started an events company), which developed into more and more ambitious events, and led me into different sides of managing screen culture events, and different opportunities – my aspiration became to work for MIFF. I was one of the people who started the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF), was Program Director for the Portable Film Festival, was Festival Manager for Flickerfest, worked in Public Programs at ACMI. I’ve also been a film reviewer at ABC News Breakfast as well, so between the post production side, some teaching, criticism, event production and programming, I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to develop my love of film, as well as working in it, from different angles that offer different professional and creative perspectives. Plus I really like popcorn.

What is particularly exciting about this year’s program?
Where to begin?! MIFF presents a bona fide cine-extravaganza of over 350 films within our 66th edition, and there’s a lot to be excited about this time around – an all-night Sci Fi movie marathon at the Astor (see Bill Murray in space!);the whole of Top of the Lake: China Girl (with Jane Campion in attendance!); a Pioneering Women strand celebrating female directed Australian films of the 80s and 90s; a live score event with Krakatau performing to Fantastic Planet; the return and expansion of MIFF’s future forward virtual reality program; a talks program featuring Australin screen luminaries such as Magda Szubanski, David Wenham and Greg MacLean. And that’s just for starters, that is.

What sort of things do you need to always have in your mind when you’re picking the films that go into the program?
One thing that is instrumental to the way that we work is the simple fact that everything we curate, negotiate and place in the program isn’t an individual decision – programming decisions always happen in the context of the whole program, and how individual films inform that as it grows incrementally over the cycle of a year. Along the lines of diversity, representation, subject matter, their topicality (either new or retrospective films), how those films themselves speak or have interesting contrasts or conversations to other films in the program; what opportunities they give audiences individually and in combination.

I also think of how films will play in a theatre with a packed room of people responding to them; the dynamic of people watching films together, and how the MIFF audience becomes this sort of community in itself, that’s something that’s centrally important to how we think about programming. One of our tenets is really that cinema is for everyone – there are films placed to give people an entry point into a program that can be overwhelming; there are those for audiences are hardened, adventurous cinephiles, looking for that formal adventurousness to be reflected in MIFF’s selections, and we’re always considering ways of striking balance and stoking intrigue – keeping audiences excited about what is waiting for them in the program and giving them opportunities to discover, take risks and fall further down the rabbit hole into the festival’s program!

What are your personal top picks?
There’s so many to recommend! But I’ll briefly mention a couple of films that I was completely taken by and I hope audiences don’t overlook on their way through the program guide. I highly recommend people check out Sonia Kronlund’s Nothingwood, a hilarious and engrossing documentary straight from Cannes about Afghanistan’s ultimate b-movie filmmaker, Salim Shaheen, working on his 110th and 111th movie at the time the doc is being made. Shaheen is a larger-than-life character truly befitting a documentary treatment, and described by one trade magazine as seemingly being a cross between an Afghani Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal! The film is a joyful, fascinating and often hilarious take on why we’re compelled to tell stories to each other, even in the most difficult or unlikely of circumstances.

In the Sci-Fi Retrospective, I’d strongly encourage your attendance to Karel Zeman’s INVENTION FOR DESTRUCTION (aka THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE), from 1958. An adaptation of Verne’s little-known 1896 novel Facing the Flag, it’s regarded as the first steampunk film, as well as being the most successful Czech film in history. All up it’s just a delightful, unfettered burst of imagination that will remind you of cinema’s capacity to wield pure creativity. At the festival, you’ll also have the chance to see the film in matinee mode (11am on a weekend placement) within the grandiose surrounds of the Forum Theatre, a picture-palace style environment truly ideal to enjoy it.

Why should people go and see a movie at MIFF?
There’s really no substitute for MIFF in a Melbourne winter – the audiences frantically scurrying between sessions five or six times a day; that energy you get in the room with a full house; those ‘one-time’ opportunities you have to see particular films and unrepeatable cinema experiences, or to rediscover and celebrate the legacy of little known corners of cinema at scale on the big screen.

There’s so many ways to multi-task your media these days, all competing for your time and attention – streaming, time-hopping catch-up services and the like. But the great joy of the festival continues to be the opportunity to lose yourself at pace across 17 days and a full program offering so many different experiences – as our tagline this year says, ‘Explore New Worlds’!

Make sure you come to ACMI to see one of the many films screening during Melbourne International Film Festival.