“When this all broke, you had the Prime Minister saying, ‘Give me a six-month window’, and we were always on the outside of that six month window,” says Amanda Slack-Smith when we ask whether there was a wait-and-see approach to this year’s BIFF. “We were fully engaged from January onwards, and you can’t not keep going, it’s a freight train, so we were always working towards it happening. And then as things got more stable, especially in Queensland, it was, ‘Okay, I think this is going to be a possibility.’ And so, by June, beginning of July, we were pretty sure, and then our media release went out July, and that’s when we were fully committed. As soon as you’ve gone out to the public, you’re committed. You really can’t put a pause on it and then try and pick it back up again, especially with all the destabilisation in the industry.”
This destabilisation included no Cannes Film Festival, among others, where the best of world cinema traditionally premieres. Luckily, Slack-Smith is also the curatorial manager of the Australian Cinémathèque at GOMA, and through her relationships, she has managed to put together a top-notch program for 2020.
Some of Slack-Smith’s recommendations include documentaries P.S. Burn This Letter Please (“There was a casting agent in L.A., quite a heavy hitter, passes away, then in the storage unit, they find all these letters from the 1950s. And it’s from friends of his back in New York, and the underground drag scene in New York. And they actually manage to find a lot of people and have conversations about it. It’s just delightful, lots of interesting characters, but really warm. It doesn’t discount, obviously, the raids and AIDS, and all the things that weren’t great, but overall, it’s just really joyous.”) and Miracle Fishing, “which is about a dad, who is exploring food security, looking at rice production in Colombia during the ‘90s, when kidnapping was huge, and he gets kidnapped, and it’s right at the very end though, when the company decides to stop paying, so his family have to actually raise the money to get him released. And one of the sons picks up a camera, because he was a filmmaking student, and films it. You get all this insight, and it sounds really grim, but it’s not. It’s tense, but there’s also these very human family moments that happen.”
In terms of narrative features, Slack-Smith points to Edson Oda’s Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner Nine Days, which is part of her ‘Transcendence’ strand at the festival. “Essentially, it’s about this liminal space between life and, well, souls and Earth, and being, and auditioning to be the next person to be born.
“The Transcendence strand is looking at themes of ‘moving out’,” Slack-Smith explains. “We’ve gotten so caught up in minutiae and just daily life at the moment, so we’re really keen to just bring together a couple of films which will talk about bigger philosophical questions and pushing out of yourself. And actually, it’s a theme that runs through a lot of the festival – joy and togetherness. We also have strands called Release, Belonging and Homecoming.
“There’s 70-plus films,” Slack-Smith proudly proclaims. “If you’re not in the mood for something which is really meaty, and you want comedy, well that’s in there. Most aren’t going to go to SBS On Demand, or Stan, or Netflix, or that sort of thing. Some will, some won’t. There will be films, particularly international ones, which will disappear. If you don’t see them at the festival, you just won’t get to see them. And another year will pass and another layer of films will be laid.
“It’s a really good year, I have to tell you. For all of COVID, and all our struggles, I feel like we’ve actually delivered the festival we would’ve delivered anyway, maybe slightly reduced, COVID trimming the edges of how we present, but there’s some really great films.”
“Unfortunately, because both of them are locked on the other side of the border, we won’t have them here, but they are going to be doing their pre-recorded messages to play before their selected films, which is great. Both have worked on High Ground, which is opening the festival. We will have guests for High Ground, both the director and producer, and also three of the actors from Northern Territory.”
Things are boding well for BIFF in 2020. “We did our best sales on day one this year, so I think that there is a real need and appetite in Queensland in particular. Every time there’s a bit of a flare up here, people feel a little bit more cautious. But generally, up here in Queensland, it feels good. People are being cautious, but we’re pretty functional as a state, in a way that obviously, Melbourne and Sydney are struggling with. Queenslanders, by nature, love getting out and about. And that’s what a film festival, even a socially distanced one, can do, is give you that sense of enjoying a film with other people. You can enjoy the film with an audience, but you can also be safe about it.”