MIFF and me: waiting for the 2022 fest is agony and ecstasy

MIFF's 70th anniversary marks its first time back in cinemas in three long years, which is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking.

When the nights get long and dark, and the cold seems to sink into the city’s bones, you know it’s about time for the 70th Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) (4–22 August). All of a sudden, the impossible thought of venturing out into the wilds unwinds, allowing palpable excitement to spill out at the thought of queuing on windblown streets. Just so you can grab good seats to the latest masterpiece imported straight from Cannes or the buzziest hit fresh out of Hollywood. And then all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

As brilliant as MIFF’s ‘pivot’ online was in the winter of discontent that was 2020 – ‘opening’ with the Australian premiere of Kelly Reichardt’s sublime First Cow, no less – streaming at home and only sharing our thoughts on social media wasn’t quite the same.

MIFF is, after all, so much more than the movies. It’s the mad dash between venues to make an impossibly ambitious schedule work, inhaling a bowl of ramen in 15 minutes flat in between if you’re lucky.

It’s those stolen conversations with total strangers in crowded foyers, or the best friend just to your left before the auditorium dims. It’s hearing from beloved filmmakers after the movie, and the chance to ask them how they made it all happen.

Stephen A Russell. Image supplied.

Little did we know, in 2020, just how long those suddenly silent projection rooms would lie dormant. Far greater sacrifices were made, of course. But our collective sorrows were strung together from both the darkest crises, and many smaller losses that hurt all the same.

The final hurdle collapse of the 2021 Festival’s supposed return to cinemas was a particularly cruel blow, snuffing out the briefest flame of hope it lit.

But thank goodness for the MIFF team’s valiant effort in creating a digital playbox in those years that weren’t. Cinema has always been a window onto the world. And so long as we could stream stories sung from the furthest reaches of the globe while sinking into the saggiest corners of our sofa, there was still some sense of being in this together.

Read: MIFF 2022: program highlights at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Synching up sessions with friends spread out across Australia and then jumping into chat rooms to debrief afterwards made living alone, in my particular case, a little more bearable.

A life in film

I can’t exactly remember the first time I sunk myself into a cinema seat in the near dark, surrounded by movie-lovers holding together in that hushed collective shiver of anticipation. My parents weren’t big into film, so much of my early introduction to that wide-open world unspooled on VHS (sometimes quite literally, in a tape-shredding mess of disappointment). That’s certainly how my little brother and I learned to quote great swathes of The Lost Boys at one another. ‘My own brother, a goddam shit-sucking vampire!’

Read: MIFF 2022, Al Cossar: We’re looking to the future with Bright Horizons

But as magical as swaddling oneself in a doona (or duvet, back in Scotland) in the dark in front of a television can be, it’s nothing on the electric thrill of that big screen experience. Popcorning up at the cinema was a ritual I fell into later in the 80s with friends, often waiting in line to slip into screenings underage, with much the same fingers-crossed prayer to the gods of celluloid that would, a few years later, be offered up to those of the nightclub.

This year’s festival will be the first held in person since 2019 (pictured). Image: MIFF.

It’s a passion that has never left me, not even when my mother advised that perhaps I should pursue a career that offered more job security than acting. Back then, journalism did, and we’ll leave that tragicomic plot twist for another time. But if it wasn’t written in the stars that my name would light up on the glimmering canopy of an Art Deco picture house like the Astor, then at least fate conspired to ensure that I’d spend my career speaking to the stars whose names are.

Read: Goran Stolevski, director: ‘It’s surreal to be opening MIFF 2022’

I’m eternally grateful for the tiny part I get to play in helping turn the cogs of this great industry. And so it is that I find my fingers crossing once again in anticipation of MIFF’s long-delayed glorious return to cinemas. And could the timing be any better, with a sweet 70th anniversary to mark?

A sweet return, did you say? Image supplied.

Opening with a queer love letter to the city’s suburbs in Goran Stolevski’s soaring Of an Age, the three weeks that follow will explore every nook and cranny in a remarkable Melbourne on Film strand that reaches way back.

Beyond 70 years to the very start of cinema itself, with the silvery 17-minute sliver that survives of the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. This year also marks the Festival’s biggest footprint, with satellite venues across town and nine regional centres.

Sure, we’re by no means out of the woods yet, with case numbers (and deaths) steadily rising amidst the spread of scary new Covid variants. We’ll all make our own calls on how best to navigate what lies ahead.

I’ll be masking up, staying home if I feel sick, and testing regularly. And bless the fest for maintaining a brilliant MIFF Play line-up, with many of the program’s biggest hits available online for those who feel safer watching at home.

Whatever way we embrace it, at least we’ll all be together in MIFF’s cinematic glory once more. And that is worth celebrating.

The Melbourne International Film Festival takes place 4–22 August, 2022. MIFF Play, the festival’s streaming platform, is available from 11–28 August. Tickets go on sale to the general public on 15 July. MIFF’s regional program runs in Bairnsdale, Bendigo, Bright, Castlemaine, Echuca, Geelong, Mildura, Sorrento and Warrnambool from 12–21 August. Find full details on the MIFF website