Richard Moore, former Head of Screen Culture at Screen Queensland, explores the collapse of a broad-based international film festival in Brisbane.
What goes when you lose a film festival? Image: photo from the Uummammaq Polar Institute of Inuit people watching the Greenlandic fim Inuk on an iceberg.
Last week an announcement came through from the offices of the unfortunately named BAPFF, (Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival) that the screening program at Brisbane’s major film event would be cancelled. It has come as no surprise almost three years after the state’s funding agency, Screen Queensland, pulled out of the long running Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) in 2014 and opted to pay Brisbane Marketing an annual $600,000 to hold BAPFF.
Why Screen Queensland ever ejected BIFF and elected to subsidise the marketing arm of Australia’s wealthiest council to stage a festival of films from the Asia Pacific in Brisbane was always a mystery. On paper the BAPFF screening program was intended to complement the Asia Pacific Film Awards (APSA). Noble only in aspiration (to deepen our understanding of Asian Pacific cultures through film) APSA remains the most pretentious event on Australia’s film calendar and a prime example of cultural dollars missing the mark. With the cancellation of the BAPFF festival screening program one wonders how long the political forces sustaining the APSA charade will persist.
I’m writing as an ex director of BIFF for three editions, 2010-2012, after having been hired by the former CEO of Screen Qld, Maureen Barron, to bring the festival back on line after an eighteen month break. In those days the organisation also funded a film festival for school audiences (Cine Sparks) and a night to celebrate short filmmakers from the local film community (QNFA) Both those events have also disappeared off the calendar, just to add to Screen Queensland’s defunding of QPIX.
Despite his curmudgeonly demeanour the editor of Screen Hub, David Tiley, is a decent person and politely asked me not to be too negative about APSA or Screen Qld and its charter to support screen culture, but to ‘be positive, and talk about what a film festival can contribute to a community'. Now that Brisbane no longer has its own film festival it is indeed an apt question.
Maureen Barron, who moved on to head up Screen NSW (before it got gobbled up into a super department of the Arts), took great pride in BIFF and waxed lyrical about the fact that, as the only Australian screen agency operating a film festival, Screen Qld had a real advantage in being able to use BIFF as a way of interacting and engaging with the public. And engage the public it did. After a rocky restart in 2010 with new venues, a new ticketing system and a new team, the BIFF audience grew 17.5% in attendances over three years. Positioned later in the calendar year than its southern counterparts, SFF and MIFF, it offered a distinctively different program, with its own international partnerships - e.g. Cannes Critics Week, Austin’s Fantastic Fest - and a real contribution to local film culture by researching and producing original programs like the history of Australian surf movies.
BIFF also set out to distinguish itself in other ways; in 2011 it launched its own documentary prize with a $25,000 award for Australian and international feature documentaries. Called BIFFDOCS the competition called for submissions for productions that ‘stimulate, entertain and provoke’. For local doco makers, as well as the internationals, BIFFDOCS provided a launching platform. How joyous it was to be able to support the Qld local community by sending their productions out into the world through big screening events packed to the rafters. As part of the demise of BIFF, the competition no longer exists.
It would be simple to trot out all sorts of motherhood statements about the importance of a film festival with a seriously curated program to a city’s civic pride; that argument seems to work in certain cities but given its recent history, obviously not in Brisbane. But to provide another way of answering David Tiley’s challenge I’ll just mention one film and the rare and wonderful cultural exchange that happened as a result. As a festival director you are always on the look out for distinctive voices and when I saw the first film in the Inuit language, called Inuk, I invited it for the programme. It’s a simple, optimistic tale of teenagers growing up in Greenland, about ongoing community social problems and the value of connecting back to traditional culture through the learning of age-old skills.
Following the invitation the filmmakers got in touch and asked whether we would be interested in a group of the children in the film coming to Brisbane to present Inuk and show their culture. (The fact that they had their own funding made the decision easy). Two months later when the teenagers, the director and chaperones arrived in the middle of a Brisbane heatwave, team INUK presented their film dressed in traditional winter clothing for seal hunting. We all perspired in cultural sympathy as the teenagers dripped buckets of Inuit sweat.
Read More: Inuk - a strange and wonderful production
To give the teenagers a deeper understanding of Australian culture the BIFF team set up a cultural exchange between the Inuk teenagers and primary and secondary school students at a local Brisbane indigenous college. It was initially a shy meeting until both sides presented their traditional dances. The physical dialogue struck up between the seal hunters and the kangaroo hunters seemed to melt away teenage reticence and all semblance of cultural difference. Soon they were connecting as human beings, laughing, exchanging addresses and talking about the future.
I don’t know whether these students from completely opposite ends of the world, have stayed in touch but the exchange seemed to me emblematic of one of the other assets a local film festival could give to a community - an opportunity to engage with world cultures in an intimate and mature fashion.
The Brisbane nay sayers will argue that ‘there a film festival on every week at Village or Dendy or Palace’ but they’re wrong. For the most part the programming at these venues is selected with only a commercial perspective in mind. Nothing wrong with that, they re running commercial enterprises but it’s a totally different animal from a festival committed to the local community and interested in its audience’s tastes, to a festival that works together with local institutions (the screenings at Brisbane’s Planetarium were notable) and supports the local screen industry to present its work out in the world. I’ll also bet my bottom dollar that a film like Inuk would never make it onto the commercial circuit.
If there is one thing I’ve noticed in my career of producing and directing events and festivals; once an event is gone you never get it back. Farewell BIFF, BAPFF, Cine Sparks , QNFA …... I wonder what will be next to fade out on Queensland’s screens?
Read More: Brisbane Film Festival down the tubes