Amanda Slack-Smith: Bringing BIFF Back to Brisbane

October 3, 2018
The Brisbane International Film Festival returns with a vengeance in 2018, with a new vision, a new Artistic Director and a new home.

“With the tight turnaround, it’s a bit fast and furious, but to quote Maxwell Smart, ‘and loving it’.”

That’s Amanda Slack-Smith, who has been a curator at the Australian Cinematheque at Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) for over a decade, and earlier this year was appointed Artistic Director of the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF), with QAGOMA also the home of the festival.

Slack-Smith’s appointment comes at a rebuilding phase for BIFF. First running in 1992 and attracting a loyal following only rivalled by Melbourne International Film Festival, in 2014 it was replaced by the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF) in the Queensland Government’s hopes of making Brisbane the centre of the Asia Pacific region. Even though BAPFF had a solid program of films, its hard arthouse/foreign film approach failed to attract a substantial enough audience, and last year BIFF returned, spearheaded by a dedicated team and Palace Cinemas. The rebuild began, but the contract went to tender and QAGOMA won the day, with 2018 the first of its 3-year agreement with the Queensland government.

Having worked on the cinematheque component in Brisbane for so long, Slack-Smith is excited about broadening her scope with BIFF. “We do a lot of curated programs at QAGOMA, but you’re turning that into a festival format and new release films; it’s different in some ways and similar in others.

“It’s going to be interesting to see who our audience is. We’re giving them a wide variety and a rich experience, and then we will learn from that. The wonderful thing about having the festival for 3 years, is that we’ll put that learning into next year, and really define and refine what we do for the audience. In the end, it’s the audience that are the most important; that they get access to international content, but also really great experiences.

“What is it that we love so much about film?” she asks. “It’s sitting with an audience and experiencing it in a cinema with that energy, and being able to talk about it afterwards, and having opportunities to gather and wrestle and argue. That’s the fun bit. That’s why we all do 4 or 5 films in a day. We mainline so that we can then have this amazing conversation.”

Showing her commercial and industry savvy, soon after getting the gig, Slack-Smith reached out to director Bruce Beresford to be a patron of the festival, and at the same time approached producer Sue Milliken, both pre-success of Ladies in Black.

Slack-Smith is delighted at how active both have been since accepting the honours. “Bruce is having an in-conversation with Li Cunxin after a screening of Mao’s Last Dancer, which is the first time they have ever spoken publicly together,” she says referring to the author of the biography on which the hit film was based. “Sue is chairing that. Sue and Bruce will have an in-conversation after a screening of Ladies in Black. Sue is also on a panel on how to find funding, with Rosemary Blight [Upgrade, The Sapphires producer] and Tracey Vieira from Screen Queensland.”

How does the newly minted Artistic Director intend to put her stamp on the festival and make it ‘her own’? “We definitely brought the cinematheque aspect in because it’s important to us,” she answers. “The purpose of a cinematheque is to look at film as an art form. We look at it in the broader sense of film culture, and what it says about us and what filmmakers are saying about the current times that we are living in. So that’s really important to us.

“In a general sense, I was very keen for this to be a citywide festival. We have 8 different venues. Obviously, GOMA is the home of the festival. This festival belongs to the city, it’s very beloved with a really long history, and it’s about giving it back to the city so that you can see a lot of things in many different places.

“I love performance and event cinema, so we have 3 live music and film events, we’re working with VR; we’re working with the Brisbane Powerhouse on Frogman, which is a mix of VR and live performance. We have panels, which is more traditional, but one of our panels, the cinematographer panel, is looking at the artform of cinematography in light of James Turrell’s work, who has just launched a lightwork at the gallery – discussing what light means to cinematographers and how they capture that. So, it’s not about who they’ve worked with and locations and what cameras they use, but it’s about the creative energy that they bring and the creative vibe when they’re actually doing cinematography work. I think that’s a theme that comes through, which is looking at film from different angles as much as possible.”

And what of her personal highlights?

The Teiji Ito performance,” she says without pause for thought. “It is a world premiere, looking at the composer Teiji Ito, who has passed. He worked a lot with Maya Deren, who he was married to, so this is experimental New York filmmaking… He used to record on tracks rather than writing them down. Michiko Ogawa is the Japanese clarinettist, who has actually translated all that and has written an app for it and brought together 7 musicians to perform with. We’ll be performing with the 16mm films, which is how they were shot. That encapsulates a couple of things for me – it’s the archive, it’s reinvigorating something that people have never had the chance to see, especially live; and also, the live component. I just like that energy; the musicians are feeding off the energy of the audience, and you’re both feeding off the energy of the screen. It’s in synch and in simpatico, and an amazing feeling that you can only get by sitting in the cinema and experiencing it, so it’s very special.”

The Brisbane International Film Festival is on October 11 – 21, 2018.

Main photo by Chloe Callistemon, QAGOMA

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