Castlemaine Documentary Festival Director Claire Jager Talks About Building Communities Through Film and More in This Interview

The Castlemaine Documentary Festival (C-Doc) is now in its ninth year, and with the 2023 festival, Festival Director Claire Jager embarks on her fourth year. The festival has long been about bringing the Castlemaine community together through the art of filmmaking, reinforcing the idea of real stories, real issues, real characters, and real conversations. Due to COVID, the festival pushed into the online space, encouraging audiences from all across Australia to engage with films and with one another.  

Ahead of the 2023 festival run from June 16 to 18, Andrew caught up with Claire to talk about what goes into creating a festival like C-Doc, and how important that notion of community is for the festival. Additionally, with events like Sensilab and the new film experience in The Yurt, Claire talks about the need to be innovative and push the festival forward with ideas and programs that encourage journeys of the mind.

The 2023 festival is full of excellent films, from the stellar Trained to See, to the community focused and community enriching Equal the Contest. Additionally, there’s lighter fare with films like The Thief Collector and in the Yurt program, Mongolian Bling and Keep Stepping.

The Castlemaine Documentary Festival runs from June 16-18, and tickets are available right now for in person screenings, as well as online screenings for those attending remotely.

What is the process that goes into running a festival like Castlemaine?

Claire Jager: As a festival director my responsibility is to create the programme, and once the programme is set, that’s the springboard for everything else to kick into gear. We only screen over two days and three nights, so it’s a very tight programme. That’s the great pleasure of getting it done.

This year we’re introducing a second venue, which is a bit experimental, The Yurt. It’s a mobile home used by nomadic people for 1000s of years. This one doesn’t come from Mongolia it comes from Adelaide that a friend has built. It’s a beautiful structure. It 60 people comfortably, and it’s heated so it’s warm. It’s a very different kind of intimate atmosphere to be able to screen films in. It will be placed in a spot that’s only about a minutes’ walk from the Theatre Royal.

The programme doesn’t compete with the Theatre Royal, it’s a different kind of programme. It’s a mix of things that we think in the morning will entice family friendly audiences – a funny natural history film, Secrets in the Scat,and things like that across Saturday and Sunday morning, and then we move into youth films (Keep Stepping) and then some offbeat, experimental stuff in the afternoon and evening (Castlemaine Warriors, Terror Nullius)

I imagine one of the hard parts of being a festival programmer is deciding what gets to be part of the programme. What kind of criteria do you set as you’re reviewing films for inclusion?

CJ: Craft, excellence, beautifully told [stories]. It’s got to hold its length. There are always things that we miss out on because we come between Sydney and Melbourne [film festivals]. But, Trained to See, for instance, has an Australian premiere [at Castlemaine.] I found it a really interesting and intriguing film about three characters and what they went through [in WW2].

In a way, they’re the criteria. I try to be absolutely open and let myself get flooded. And then it starts to take shape. When you’re looking internationally, you’re looking very broadly, and then you’re looking for what is going to resonate for this community and this region. And that’s a mix. I looked for something that was about Afghanistan. I couldn’t find anything that was going to work. Then we got Watandar My Countryman, which was a perfect fit. The story touches on Afghanistan, but it’s not set there.

I generally look for really strong storytelling which is complicated. I don’t want the black and white so much, and there’s a lot of that out there. Each of the films create their own impact. When I saw something like Trained to See, to me, those women were giant trailblazers in what they were attempting to do. It is of its time, [and] it doesn’t try to put a contemporary context or spin on it. It doesn’t make excuses for things that we may not necessarily agree with from our vantage point. And it does have contemporary resonances right now, and it’s important to recognise those historical figures. That film is going to open the festival.

We have a silent film from 1924, Grass, on the closing night. What we’ve done is we’ve got a duo, ZÖJ, based in Ballarat, who are exceptional musicians, Gelareh Pour, who is a composer and a vocalist, and plays the Persian Kamancheh, and Brian O’Dwyer on the drums, and they’re creating a live score which they will perform in the Theatre Royal. That’s going to be stunning. That’s a way of saying, here’s this country, and here’s this tribe, the Bakhtiari, who were migrating for 1000s of years before these American ethnographers came along and followed them, and it is an endurance test of survival. That’s how they live their lives. And they don’t all survive it. It’s one of the great annual migrations of people and animals across the planet that has been going on for millennia. Because it’s silent, and there’s no narration, it’s got the box texts [explaining what’s on screen.] Of the many films we’re curating, I’m looking for things that will resonate or mean something to our audience here and if there’s something we can build around it.

I’ve been to my fair share of film festivals, and when you’re drenched in films for a few days, it’s surprising the conversation that happens between the films. The opening night film is almost in conversation with the closing night film. That experience of stumbling out of the darkness and talking with a stranger about what you’ve just watched is why we go to film festivals. I’m curious for you how important that conversation between the films and the people who watching them is?

CJ: I love that you say that it’s a conversation between the beginning of the first film and the ending of the final film. For us, it’s the foundation of why we do what we do. It’s why we don’t have competing screenings for people, so that when you run into someone and say “Did you see such and such?”, it’s more than likely that they have, rather than when you’re at huge festivals, and you run into someone street, and all you’ve got time to say as you dashing to another cinema is “Oh, no, I’m sorry I missed that one.” For us, it’s always real people, real stories, real issues, and real conversations. This year’s tagline is ‘no one has the last word.

We operate year-round now. Since COVID began, we ran a very small festival which we call ‘In the Clouds.’ First of all, we cancelled [the in person screenings], and I just couldn’t bear doing. I could not be daunted, so we did it online, which was huge. And then we did it online again. Well, as it turned out, in 2022, we were all set to go and our messaging was ‘We’re Back on Terra Firma,’ and then we were shut down. But we had the plan B, which we never thought we would have to activate, and we switched that messaging around in three days to ‘The Festival to Go to When You’re Not Allowed to Go Anywhere Else.’

We learned a lot from that time. We still do online. The reason why we do it is that there are always going to be people who can’t come to Castlemaine. If you can’t come to us, we will come to you. It’s geoblocked to Australia. There are lots of people who can’t, for whatever reason, come to a cinema, so it’s important that we’re as inclusive and broad as possible. That’s why we do it.

I want to talk about the Locals section as well. That engagement with local areas and telling local stories on screen is important. Can you talk about what it means to the festival?

CJ: How it came about was that you know, I would have this ‘contact C-Doc’ [form] and messages would come asking, “Can you help with a cinematographer?” “Do you know an editor?” I thought, this is interesting with all these practitioners out there. I’d be asked, “I’ve got a short film. Can you have a look at it?” “I don’t know what to do with this next, can you help?”

We can’t programme a short before the feature, there’s not enough time, not when we do a panel afterwards and we need to do four films each day. So, we set up a [program] called Club C-Doc, which is for screen practitioners and doco lovers, and it was for during COVID when small groups of people were allowed to meet. We would hold workshops and screenings. We would screen a film with a director and editor in conversation about the director and editor relationship and how that worked, which was fascinating. You could run that again and again, and it would never be the same, always giving new insights.

I knew that there was work out there. What we decided to do was call for submissions, and curate a programme of that work. Last year we had nearly 37 submissions. There were some bottom drawer things that people had made a few years earlier, but it was great to get an overview of all of that. We screened 17 on the opening night, and each of those filmmakers come, and there’s an emcee and they’d hop up and say what and why they did it. Then we have an audience favourite award, and everybody votes for the top three. Last year was won by an 11-year-old for a one-minute animation called Dogs! Now that’s a mainstay.

We then have a networking lunch on Saturday, and all of those people are invited to come to that. It also engages with youth as well. Castlemaine runs ‘The Coscars,’ which is for short films. They now have a separate doco category. We’ll continue to run that.

Locals was a way to tap into the community here and both service and be rewarded by that. We love it and so does the community. We did Locals Reloaded during the Fringe Festival, what happened here recently, and every two years there’s a Castlemaine State Festival, which I think is Australia’s longest running [flagship regional arts] state festival. Thirty years ago, Fringe started and for that inaugural Fringe, it was called Walking the Fish. They had a parade with people dressed with fish heads and all sorts of wacky stuff. There was a film that was made about that, Walking the Fish. We helped the filmmaker gather the footage to do it, he was one of the founders of Fringe. We’ll programme Walking the Fish again in The Yurt.

There’s a kind of a push when you think, “Okay, you’ve got a cinema going audience who will serve me with the news to go into Theatre Royal.” Then you’ve worked and they’ll come to Locals that how enticed are they by the rest of the programme?

It sounds like you’re creating a festival that reacts to the community. It’s not just a festival for a festival’s sake, it is part of the community. It sounds very personal for you. Is that correct?

CJ: It does mean a lot. I think after a filmmaking career, working in broadcasters and funding bodies and covering a lot of ground and a lot of oceans, I would say to have landed in this spot is very interesting. It’s rewarding. It’s only as rewarding as all the people that I work with who are fabulous. We have a great team. Now that the programme is set and printed and the ticketing is live, that’s that major phase over. Now we’re into that next phase, and this is when the volunteers come on board.

It’s fun. Castlemaine loves to party. Locals is a good party night. Saturday night is a great party night, and Sunday night will be a different kind of celebration. Saturday night has The Thief Collector which is a bit of a hoot. It’s not a music doc, per se, that’s what we’ve used for the last few years, but it’s set in the 80s and it’s a pretty quirky story.

We partnered a couple of years ago with Monash University School of Media, film and journalism. That is a wonderful partnership and I’m sure it will be long term. We’re into year two now, so it’s building. We monitor the interns who come to the festival, and they record our panels with a three-camera set up. They cut them, edit them, and package them for online. Which is wonderful for us and for Monash. It’s a naturally aligned partnership which is exactly what you want. We also have pop up screenings and clubs that C-Doc beams virtually bi-monthly across the year.

I’ll just go back to Locals for a moment; last year was such a success, but I knew that people really rummaged what they had and would they make another film, and how many people were in that group who were actually going to embark and craft on something again, and could do it within that time frame? So we ran a development workshop where thirty people turned up and that was run with Tony Jackson, who’s a filmmaker and a board member, and Kate Pappas a producer from Melbourne, and Bergen O’Brien, who’s a fabulous editor who lives in Castlemaine. Bergen cuts our festival trailer every year, and he creates all the DCPs which are no longer sent to a cinema, they have to be created. We have people like that around who are just extraordinarily talented. I have someone who helps me with the programme liaison with between distributors, and once that’s negotiated they make we’ve got all the press kits.

There’s also Sensilab, which is a Monash University research lab working across art, science, and technology. It was set up by Professor Jon McCormack. He’s enormously interesting. This year, we have an event on the Friday afternoon from two to five, and we’re hoping that this will entice youth and schools from whole region to come. It’s a way of understanding what virtual reality, XR, VR, AR, all of those acronyms, mean for us. How are these technologies going to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives? How do you begin to filter out of that? Where did it come from? Where’s it going and what’s in store for us in the future?

We’ve got presentations on the Friday afternoon, and Oscar Raby is part of that. Oscar is creating a downloadable AR app for your phone, and for people who don’t know what to do, we’ll have a table set up at the Theatre Royal for anybody who needs some help. It’s an AR experience of a walking tour around Castlemaine. I think it’ll be fun. Oscar is also doing a workshop for ten participants only during the festival, and that’s an introduction that we want to build on in future years because these are things that do not usually come to our region.

We’re only an hour and a half away from Melbourne and lots of people commute, catch the train to work, and you can get really good coffee at the station, and there’s a quiet carriage if you want too. But, still, there’s this distance, so you want to bring things [to the region.] That’s exciting.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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