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Bringing a mix of darkness and humour to the big screen

Ahead of the Melbourne International Film Festival, artistic director Michelle Carey speaks to Neos Kosmos about how Greek film stacks up in the international market

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I hate roller coaster rides and things like that, but film is my thrill
28 July 2017

That time of year has come again, when cinephiles pour over the pages of the Melbourne International Film Festival's (MIFF) much-anticipated programme, short-listing their favourites – no simple task when faced with 368 carefully selected titles from around the world.

Kicking off on Thursday 3 August, this year marks 65 years since the festival first made its mark, making it one of the world's oldest film festivals and without a doubt, the leading event of its kind Down Under.

This year's film festival is a particularly significant one for artistic director Michelle Carey. A love of film saw the Adelaide-born Greek Australian move to Melbourne to work at ACMI, and then to work as Programme Director of the Adelaide Film Festival, before being picked up by MIFF in 2008 where she was appointed artistic director in 2010.

"Ten years this year, I can't believe it! It's gone so fast. It's been a huge part of my life, it really has and I've learnt so much about the world and about myself, it's a real home for me. I love it," Carey told Neos Kosmos.

After months of watching and deliberating over thousands of films with her colleagues and volunteers, Carey is full of anticipation for the 17-day programme to get underway.

"We're so lucky to live in Melbourne. People who live in Melbourne are really appreciative of culture and all the different events and festivals; and even though MIFF is in the middle of winter, people really embrace it," she says. "They bring their scarves and hats out, and their umbrellas – we certainly have the lost property to prove it every year! – and they join the queue because they love that whole ritual."

We spoke to the director about what it's like putting together the impressive programme, what she thinks keeps people engaging in the communal film experience and about why she is so impressed by the work coming out of Greece.

This year's MIFF programme has 368 films in total, including 90 short films and 17 VR works, running over 17 days. What does the process of putting together such an epic programme entail?
We have a very small programming team of four and we basically start the process after every festival, so it goes all year round basically; our looking at films, considering them and discussing them and getting second opinions. It sort of builds in phases according to different festivals. Berlin (International Film Festival) is a big festival for us, so we have a lot of films out of there and then Cannes is the next big one that we take a lot of films from. So the programme just sort of builds from there.

Last year you had quite a few films surrounding the refugee experience. Have you noticed any trends emerging in content this year?
Yeah, certainly, and that's always the interesting thing as you go along and watch films. My colleague Al who's our programmer noticed a lot of animal documentaries, so he thought why not have an animal documentary section? And we also have a big true crime documentary section.

There's always a lot of things on about what's happening in the Middle East with ISIS. We have this film called City of Ghosts, which is about this guerrilla group sort of fighting ISIS and because a lot of these groups are constantly taking a lot of footage with their iPhones, it makes for really rich storytelling these days. Also noticing a lot more films around identity. We've got a great documentary called Unrest by Jennifer Brer which is almost like a video essay about her personal experience being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Those things can be quite political because it's saying 'this is my story' and it deserves to be a film.

Given that people are increasingly engaging with film online, how do you consider this when selecting films to feature in the line-up?
That's a very big issue for us. We're a big international film festival, so we have to have the premier, we can't just screen things that are online unless it's a retrospective. It's become a real thing; it's not just online, it's Netflix, which is obviously a big one as well. So for all new films it's really important that when we are negotiating that the rights-holders understand that if the film does go online that it becomes ineligible. That seems to be more of a problem for the short films than the feature-length. But look we haven't lost too many this year; I think filmmakers know now when you want to do the film festival circuit you can't put your film online, you have to wait until your film festival run has sort of run out.

There is a perception that people are increasingly consuming film at home. Since coming onboard MIFF in 2008, do you think this is being reflected in audience numbers?
There's more and more people each year, which is terrific and it seems to be a trend with festivals in general. They're just getting more and more popular. So I think it's really really interesting when you hear stories that people are increasingly staying at home and watching Netflix or whatever. I don't see that reflected in the festival; I see more people coming out every year. I wonder if it's that thing that film festivals are more than watching a film, they really are an event and it's quite a social thing and if you want to be a part of the conversation, even if it's an online conversation, you've sort of got to be the first to see these films. So it's interesting, I think festivals are getting more popular.

Considered one of the biggest film festival's in the world, how do you think MIFF is perceived abroad among the film community?
I think Melbourne's obviously a long way away from a lot of major centres of filmmaking. I think people are very aware of it; in fact I get pleasantly surprised. When I met Yorgos Lanthimos, he was like 'Yes, Melbourne, I've heard about Melbourne' and that's always lovely to hear. We feel so isolated down here, but people I think are aware of it, but it's not a festival that directors are going to come to every year like they go to Cannes because we're a very different type of festival. We see ourselves really as a festival for Victorians. We're about bringing the best films from around the world to Melbourne, whereas a festival like Berlin, they're all about the world premier, red carpets and we certainly do that kind of thing, but it's not our main focus. But we have a great reputation.

There are a few films screening at MIFF this year by Greek directors, both local and from Greece, including the award-winning The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos. What do you think about the films coming out of Greece?
It's interesting, there seem to be two main types of film produced in Greece, which I don't think is different to any other country. There are the films produced for a local market, which is what they would see there and they tend to do very well at the box office and have lots of local stars, maybe from TV. Then there are these completely different, more international films that are often less commercial, more artistic and they tend to go round to the big film festivals and you've certainly seen I think in the last maybe around eight years the rise of a very small group of young Greek directors who actually come out of a theatre background. Lanthimos is probably the most well known, there's also Athina Rachel Tsangari, Babis Makridis, there's a whole bunch of them, and we shouldn't forget Efthimis Filipou, who is the actual scriptwriter on a lot of these films, so he's not a director but he's really crucial. People call it New Wave, and these directors deny that. I think they're really talented and they're internationally recognised because international audiences want to see new types of filmmaking. It's not just the story that's being told, it's how to tell it, how to keep the audience on edge a bit. Some of these films are some of my favourite contemporary films ever; I think they're really amazing. I'm really happy to see them succeeding and Lanthimos now has been picked up for some TV stuff on HBO - so the world's taking notice.

There are other types of Greek films and it's not that they're bad films, they're just more conventional. I think for a big international film festival there's probably less interest, but they still have their place, like there's also the Greek Film Festival here, which is fantastic as well. Melbourne has such a big Greek population, so we're lucky that audiences can see these films on the big screen in some way.

Over the years you have been exposed to films from around the world, so it's impressive when you say they are some of your favourites. What is it that you enjoy so much about this New Wave from Greece? Is it a style you have come across before?
I think the thing I really respond to in a lot of these films is actually the black humour, and I guess if I were going to compare it to other films - it's still very unique - but I don't know if you're aware of a lot of the Romanian New Wave films from the last 10-15 years? It reminds me a bit of the Romanian humour, which is interesting because they're such different cultures. It's actually quite influenced by people like Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm which no-one would ever think, because everyone thinks these films are so dark, and they are, but I guess what I love about them is that mix of darkness and humour. And I think having an appreciation for the Greek language and the culture a bit more maybe makes me appreciate them even more. I have sort of a deeper insight into them. A lot of people have commented on these films dealing with the GFC or what's happened in Greece economically; I don't necessarily think they do, certainly not directly what they're about. I just see that they're about people and the foibles of people, and isn't that the origin of western civilisation? Socrates was talking about human behaviour and thoughts. So I see this as that kind of lineage with a very big dose of black humour which is right up my alley.

MIFF artistic director, Michelle Carey.

You formerly revealed that your love of film started in Paris in the late 90s. Since your trip to Europe all those years ago, how does it feel to be in the film industry? Has it changed?
It's really changed a lot; I think when I was first going into film, I guess like a lot of young people, you're quite insular and you're attracted to the margins, which I still am. But I guess since being at MIFF I've had to be exposed to a lot more sort of mainstream things that are happening both in Melbourne and just in culture in general. Television for example is something I never watched until recent years, so I think I'm a lot more open to different types of filmmaking and storytelling now, and I actually really genuinely love a lot of the mainstream stuff, whereas in my 20s I wouldn't have had a bar of it. I feel like there's this whole period of culture in the 90s and early 2000s, not just film but music and all sorts of things and I have no idea what was happening in the mainstream culture, so I'm sort of still catching up on it, which is really great. I love trashy TV as much as anyone or trashy music.

So after watching so many films, what is it that keeps you loving the medium? And why do you think it is so important that film be a shared experience?
That's a great question. I really connected with film and when I did discover it, it was learning different perspectives on life, on politics. One can write and read an essay, but film actually shows different perspectives, different lives. It's not to say I think film is necessarily 100 per cent truth. It's still a filtered version of an experience, but I find that combination of perspective, looking at a situation but in an artistic way, or an entertaining way, or a thrilling, horrific way. I love intensities as well. In recent years I've gotten more into horror, and really intense, dark cinema. I think it's good to embrace that. And I'm not a depressive person at all! I'm quite the opposite. I just love getting the intensity and my thrills through film I guess. I hate roller coaster rides and things like that, but film is my thrill.

MIFF takes place from 3-20 August, 2017. To see the full MIFF programme and book session tickets, click here.

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