This is not Nashen Moodley’s first rodeo. Having made his bones running the Durban Film Festival in South Africa for some 11 years, the passionate cinephile has since decamped to Sydney, here he is currently elbows deep in assembling his eighth Sydney Film Festival – and the 65th edition of the festival itself. Recently the first salvo of program highlights hit the media, including new works from the likes of Debra Grasnik (Winter’s Bone), Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), and Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of my Mother). But, as Moodley reminds us, as exciting as the early announcements may be, they represent perhaps 10% of the total program yet to come.
“I would say that this year’s program once again will be a program of diversity,” he tells us when we ask if a theme or commonality has emerged in the selections so far. “This is the 65th year of the festival, and we’re thinking about those 65 years and the more than 9000 films we’ve played over that time, and the range of stories that have emerged: from the films, from the filmmakers who have been here, from the audience members who’ve experienced these films and whose lives have been changed in some way. I think once again we will deliver that – we’ll deliver that diverse program that has all these stories from all over the world.”
It is a massive undertaking, requiring countless person-hours of work to assemble the program for the festival, which this year runs from June 6 – 17, juggling films, guests, venues, special events, masterclasses, panels and more. Moodley sounds almost relieved when he emphasises that it is not a one man job. “We have a fantastic team at the Sydney Film Festival – thankfully I don’t have to do it on my own! Everyone works really hard and with a great deal of passion to make it happen. People are very passionate about what they do. What we aim to do every year is to make the festival more accessible to people – to have more and more people come through the festival and that’s why we expand in terms of venues.”
Indeed, this year sees a new venue added to the roster of locations across Sydney that will host the sprawling festival – Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, which will be home to screenings of family films and movies from SFF’s Screenability Program, which showcases works from filmmakers with disability. “We feel that Hoyts Entertainment Quarter is a perfect place for families. It’s easy to drive to and get parking and there’s plenty of entertainment around for young people, and the cinemas at Hoyts EQ have more space for wheelchairs, for instance, and are easier to access. So that’s why we have a new venue – to make the festival more accessible.”
The early announcements also boast a large number of strong female voices and performances, led by the National Film and Sound Archive’s restoration of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, something Moodley chalks up to both changes in the wider industry, and an increased awareness of the importance of gender representation in the program.
“We want every year to present our audience with the best films that we possibly can,” he says. “We want to create a really quality selection and we scour the world to find the best films we possibly can. I think the gender disparity in the making of cinema has been discussed for a number of years now, and though there’s still a long way to go, we are finding, in some countries certainly, in their funding of films, have started to make a great deal of progress. I certainly saw what I feel are a greater number of films by women directors in the last year or so, and all absolutely wonderful films.”
Elsewhere, the Festival makes a home for the more outre and occasionally grotesque genre offerings with the Freak Me Out program, this year spearheaded by Piercing, starring Australian Mia Wasikowska, and the British anthology chiller Ghost Stories, starring Martin Freeman. With the recent critical and commercial success of a number of genre outings, including Get Out and A Quiet Place, horror definitely deserves a home at SFF.
“I’m not sure if it will take more prominence but certainly it has prominence already,” Moodley tells us. “And there’s a very eager audience for these films. They’re really high quality genre films that we want to celebrate. They’re really fantastic films that often work on a number of levels. I think there can be these tremendous, innovative genre films and we always try to find a space for them.”
Following on from last year’s successful Akira Kurosawa Retrospective, this year sees SFF offer up Essential Kaurismäki: Selected by David Stratton, a look back at 10 films from the long career of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki curated by the renowned critic, which was partially inspired by the warm reception Kaurismäki’s latest work, The Other Side of Hope, received at SFF 2017.
“We love Aki Kaurismäki – I think that’s the first thing.” Moodley says. “David Stratton loves the films of Aki Kaurismäki, I love the films of Aki Kaurismäki, my programming colleagues do too. He’s really a unique filmmaker, one who has stubbornly clung to his style and his morals. He’s someone who’s really unusual and rather wonderful in the world of cinema. We thought it was a great time for people to revisit those films on the big screen in 35mm, but also to introduce Kaurismäki to an audience who has never seen his films on the big screen and some of whom have never seen his films at all.”
It’s clear that this year’s Sydney Film Festival intends to spread a wide net, with films on offer to suit almost any and every palate – which is, Moodley assures us, the plan. “We have such a diverse audience, starting from age 5 and going to beyond age 80. We want to get people in early on and hope they’ll love the festival as young children, and hope that they’ll be with us 75 years from now still attending the festival, and that it will still be an important part of their lives.”