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Brisbane International Film Festival arrives with a storm and lands where it should

Sarah Ward

Battered by change, the Brisbane International Film Festival can now build for the future and give the city the festival it deserves.
Brisbane International Film Festival arrives with a storm and lands where it should

Plenty has hampered, derailed and even shuttered the Brisbane International Film Festival over the pasts, from staff and government changes to being temporarily replaced by the now-defunct Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. But while BIFF’s newest iteration launched on a particularly grey and stormy day in Queensland, the worst of the weather held off for the festival’s opening night. That’s as good an omen as BIFF has enjoyed of late.

With Ben Hackworth’s Innisfail-shot Celeste doing the opening night honours, GOMA’s main screen was filled with sunshine and shades of green, as well as a luminous performance from Radha Mitchell. Although the film premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August, it proved an understandable choice for BIFF’s debut at the gallery — showcasing a Queensland-made production in the space where Queensland’s major film festival was perhaps always destined to land, at least since GOMA opened its doors at South Bank in 2006.

Much of the speech and ceremony favoured that idea. “It feels like something our Australian Cinematheque was always destined to do,” announced Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art director Chris Saines in the first of the night’s addresses. Arts Minister Leanne Enoch, in the last official speech of the evening, hailed the coming together of two of the state’s great institutions. Those with memories going back only a few years will remember other government officials happily killing off BIFF in favour of BAPFF, but the sentiment that BIFF really is back and where it belongs doesn’t play as empty rhetoric.

In cancelling BAPFF in early 2017, then controversially funding Palace Cinemas to revive BIFF that same year, the Queensland Government and state screen agency Screen Queensland acknowledged something that neither had wanted to voice for four years: that Brisbane deserves and needs an large-scale international film festival. BAPFF’s showcase of filmmaking from the Asia-Pacific region came with worthy aims, but it was telling when the festival broadened its remit to include a small selection of European and American features in 2016. The city’s cinemagoers hadn’t responded strongly to entire event with such a narrow focus, which tracks with Brisbane’s history. Indeed, from its origins back in 1992 under Anne Demy-Geroe through to its three-year run under Richard Moore between 2010 and 2012, BIFF’s most popular films have always been its most marketable — aka those with recognisable names and star appeal.

Perhaps that’s what was on Tracey Vieira’s mind during her opening night speech, with the Screen Queensland CEO name-checking a host of big-budget blockbusters that have never screened at BIFF and wouldn’t fit in any serious international film festival program. BIFF won’t be dedicating its screens to the likes of Star Wars, Spectre or a film featuring Hannibal Lecter any time soon, but under artistic director and Australian Cinematheque acting curatorial manager Amanda Slack-Smith, it has compiled a 2018 program that successfully balances populist, artistic and experimental fare. 

The Melissa McCarthy-starring Can You Ever Forgive Me? falls into the first camp, global festival hits such as Ash is the Purest White and The Wild Pear Tree into the second, and the likes of Madeline’s Madeline and Aussie mash-up [CENSORED] into the third. With the dreamy Blue Velvet Revisited, BIFF ticks all three boxes — and ties into its other major nod to cinephiles in recent years, 2015’s David Lynch: Between Two Worlds exhibition.

Vieira also called this year’s BIFF “a spark for the festival that will follow”, a statement that applies as much to opening night kicking off an 11-day program across the city, as to 2018’s event sowing the seed for further years at GOMA. After the festival was put out to tender following Palace’s 2017 edition, GOMA’s winning bid secured BIFF’s future and location until 2020. With the announcement only made in late April, there’s no doubting that this year’s festival is the result of a condensed preparation period.

Of course, GOMA and BIFF have crossed paths previously, with sections of the festival’s program screening at the gallery’s Australian Cinematheque under directors Demy-Garoe and Moore. BAPFF also partnered with GOMA and held opening nights there. Though run by a completely separate group, Queensland Film Festival included GOMA as part of its lineup of venues in both 2017 and 2018. Staging its own festival is new territory for the gallery, however, and while 2018’s BIFF won’t be perfect, it is a firm and decisive step in the right direction.

Even before it had screened a single film, BIFF suffered from a case of bad timing. Exactly when to place the festival has troubled the powers-that-be ever since BIFF was moved from its original July/August time slot to October/November to somewhat awkwardly align with the Asia Pacific Film Festival — and while running at the same time as the Adelaide Film Festival won’t trouble the bulk of BIFF’s audience, it does invite comparisons between the two event’s programs. The likes of The Nightingale, Hotel Mumbai, Emu Runner, Roma and At Eternity’s Gate are all significant inclusions on the Adelaide lineup and noticeable absences from Brisbane’s.

That said, after what can be characterised as a tumultuous period at best, finally giving BIFF a stable home for the foreseeable future is a crucial first step to returning the festival to its former glory — to a festival that can proudly sit alongside Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide’s annual events. Even if thunder and lightning had dampened opening night and its admittedly odd set-up (screening Celeste twice with a party in the middle of the two sessions, all to work around GOMA’s limited cinema capacity), that feeling would’ve remained.

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Flicks Australia, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay