“It’s about finding community, even if it’s for a short time,” says Amanda Slack-Smith, Curatorial Manager of the Australian Cinémathèque at GOMA and Artistic Director of the 2019 Brisbane International Film Festival.
She’s talking about what she loves about the film festival experience, though she may as well be talking about the state of the world right now, which is also resplendent in the program that she’s put together for the 2019 fest.
“I love to be challenged by documentaries,” she says. “For Sama really resonated: a woman who is a journalist, a professional person, who obviously then develops a relationship with a doctor who has to stay in Aleppo. And then, they get married. Then, they have a child. I felt the conflict of that was interesting; her role as a mother is just one part of her, and who she is as an activist and a journalist, is also important.
“One Child Nation, I had a fascinating instance in Sydney where, in the Q&A afterwards, I’m pretty sure someone from the Chinese government stood up and was denouncing the film. I’m like ‘wow, it’s obviously hitting the mark’.”
Slack-Smith also cites Berlin prize-winning Sudanese documentary Talking About Trees among the documentary highlights of the 2019 program.
One of the unique aspects of the Brisbane International Film Festival and Slack-Smith’s role in it, is the festival’s relationship with Brisbane’s jewel in the cultural crown, GOMA. This year, there’s even a program strand that aligns with an exhibition that she has curated, Setting the Stage.
“The curated strands are very short, sharp lines of an idea. But they are kind of particular and considered rather than just films about music; they’re quiet specific. Setting the Stage is looking at artists who use the artificiality of TV, and theatre, and film to situate their message in a way that is digestible. Similar to the way that some artists use humour because it breaks down people’s barriers.”
In the case of Setting the Stage, the four films are fest opener Judy & Punch; Angelo, the true story of art and slavery among 18th century European aristocracy; Love Me Not, an update of Oscar Wilde’s Salome; and The Trial, from the director of Donbass, which cuts together footage from Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s, to reflect on our own contemporary fake news political culture.
“Everything is fake except for the consequence to those engineered,” says Slack-Smith about The Trial. When people sling fake news as a catch phrase, I’m like, ‘you have got to see this film, you have to see what that really means’. It’s a lot of footage, there’s no voice over, there’s no context to it, but you just sit there going ‘what was happening to these men in their lives behind the scenes that pushes them down this path’, it’s scary.”
The Trial is exactly the kind of film that you will only be able to catch at a film festival such as BIFF.
“It gives us purpose,” says Slack-Smith. “It’s bringing audiences things that they won’t see really in any other way. And then you pepper it with films that will get releases like Almodovar’s Pain and Glory.”
A believer in the audience participatory, experiential aspect of cinema, one of this year’s fest highlights is a screening of Russian sci-fi cult classic, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), accompanied by a new live score by beatboxer Tom Thum.
“It’s going to be futuristic science-fiction amazingness,” says Slack-Smith. “Those crazy sculptural costumes and amazing sets! It is exciting because it’s something different that we’ve never really done.”
Currently shooting his Elvis Presley biopic in Queensland, Baz Luhrmann has been invited to curate a BIFF strand as well, putting forward Fellini’s 8 ½, Fosse’s All That Jazz, Coppola’s Apocalypse: Final Cut, and Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, “which is, I might add, looking popular. It warms the cockles of my heart I have to say,” she says about the 7 and a half hour long 1966 Russian Tolstoy adaptation.
The program for the 2019 ranges from such epics to short films and everything in between. In fact, to Slack-Smith, the length of the film isn’t really a qualifying factor.
“We’re always looking at that bridge between art and media. I suppose I don’t see length. You can get feature length video works now that are extremely long or extremely short. I don’t think it’s undervaluing what the film is if it’s 40 minutes or 60 minutes. In a world where we are seeing, streaming services content created to match the length of what the narrative needs to be, rather than an arbitrary length, you are seeing more interesting things come out because the story is more of what the story needs to be. It doesn’t need to be 24 episodes, or those episodes don’t need to be the same length, to get your point across’ do it really well and move on, rather than putting a lot of padding. I think viewership has also changed.”
For Amanda Slack-Smith it is ultimately about “engagement. It’s about being able to walk out and hang out at the bar with people and just go talk.” In other words, community, as she told us earlier.
Photograph by Chloë Callistemon, QAGOMA