MIFF Artistic Director Al Cossar Talks About Opening Night Film Shayda, Critics Campus, and Supporting Filmmakers in This Interview

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is back for another jam-packed year of stellar films, immersive theatrical, XR, and VR experiences, as well as the tenth anniversary of the Critics Campus. Launching in cinemas from August 3-20, with MIFF Play returning online from August 18-27, and regional screenings taking place on August 11-13 and 18-20, MIFF features a wealth of important, powerful, searing, and comedic Australian and international films, alongside a welcome array of short films.

MIFF Artistic Director Al Cossar chatted with Andrew on the morning of the ticket sales opening up to the public, which saw films sell out within minutes. Across this discussion, Al talks about the importance of spotlighting a film like Noora Niasari’s essential feature debut Shayda, the role that the planetarium plays in MIFF, as well as what ten years of Critics Campus means, and what the accompanying Critical Condition retrospective will bring to audiences.

In short, if you throw a stone at the programme for this years MIFF, you’re going to hit a winning film. Make sure to visit MIFF.com.au for all of the ticketing information and for further details on the festivals events.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

I saw that the session for Sunflower sold out within the first three minutes of tickets going on sale.

Al Cossar: I think that was officially the first sold out session of the festival as well. The very first ticket sold, directly after programme launch within the members period, was a ticket to The Rooster. It’s really nice to see the first films off the mark are local films and Melbourne films.

MIFF is well known for showcasing stellar Australian films. This year you have The Rooster, Sunflower, but also the opening night gala film Shayda, by Noora Niasari. Can you talk about having a film like Shayda as an opening film for the festival?

AC: Shayda occupies a big place within MIFF this year. It’s an amazingly empathetic, well-crafted human and character drama. It’s world class Melbourne filmmaking. Noora is someone who’s come up [through] the festival, and has had multiple shorts at MIFF (Tâm, MIFF 2020; Waterfall, MIFF 2017), and was part of our Accelerator programme a number of years ago. As part of the MIFF Premiere Fund, Shayda is something that we supported and invested in as a minority co-financier within this year’s Premiere Fund slate. MIFF is that setting where you’ve got a lot of paths for talent amplification. Filmmakers come to the festival with a short, and then perhaps they get into Accelerator, as Noora did – and there’s an incredible alumni for Accelerator in terms of Justin Kurzel and Taika Waititi – and then they go through to their first feature. Noora’s got the Premiere Fund support for that, so she’s had that kind of build with MIFF over the years.

Obviously, Shayda is a film that comes to us with an international reputation. When your first film is the opening selection for Sundance and is the Audience Award winner in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, it’s repped locally by Madman and picked up internationally by Sony Pictures Classics, that is formidable in terms of making a mark with your debut feature.

It’s got an extraordinary ensemble cast. I think [it’s] one of the strongest Australian and international ensemble casts that I’ve seen in a number of years; Za Amir-Ebrahimi, who was at MIFF last year for Holy Spider, and she won Best Actress at Cannes for that film, Jillian Nguyen (Hungry Ghosts), Leah Purcell (The Drover’s Wife), Osamah Sami (Ali’s Wedding), Mojean Aria (Reminiscence). It’s an extraordinary performance piece and an actors piece too, but it’s a film that has the specificity of that cultural experience in terms of the expat Iranian community; you have those layers of expectation and those layers of community judgement that flow around the main characters in a way that’s really interesting and specific to that culture.

It’s such a universalising story. It’s a mother daughter story. It’s a story of a family trying to remake itself, trying to remake its own possibilities, trying to turn the page, and trying to work out their new life. It’s incredibly emotionally universalising in terms of what is at its core. It reminded me a little bit of the 2017 French film Custody (Xavier Legrand), it had a little bit of the character of that for me in terms of the menace of the husband and how he remains in orbit of them in their lives. It doesn’t flinch from some of its darker themes, but there’s some much joy in it as well.

Last year we had Of an Age (Goran Stolevski) as our opening night film. I always like to look local and at Melbourne as a first port of call and priority in terms of ‘who do we celebrate.’ Shayda is one of the films of the year in terms of Australian cinema, but it’s also one of the films of the year full stop.

Not only is Shayda the opening night selection, it’s also a Bright Horizons selection competing for the $140,000 prize in that setting. That was introduced last year for our 70th anniversary, and it’s a film competition specifically for breakout and emerging voices [who are] first and second time filmmakers. [It’s] for those who build their names and their reputations emphatically with their first steps into features. This is a space that very much suits Shayda. We’re very proud of what the Bright Horizons competition is.

Shayda will be screening right throughout the festival. I think it’s pretty much doing every regional setting that we’ve got as well. I hope it’s an amazing experience for the film team. I think it’s something that people will come out of MIFF talking about in terms of Australian cinema.

You’re talking about that building a relationship with the filmmakers over the years through the Accelerator lab and programs like that. Can you talk about how important it is for you as an Artistic Director to have that kind of relationship with filmmakers in showing their films and growth over the years?

AC: It’s very important. It’s amazing to be a part of the trajectory of someone’s development as a filmmaker and a storyteller and to see where they go, not only in the world stage, but to see what kind of creative path they follow or creative risks they take. Filmmakers are eclectic, and a festival is a place where people get to take risks and try different things, so to not only see filmmakers, but also see them experiment or try different things in the context of who we are, as opposed to say a commercial release, is an interesting kind of format.

Someone like Goran Stolevski with Of an Age is another brilliant example in the same way as Noora is of that ascent, or someone like Justin Kurzel who is another Accelerator alumni who’s come through with films like Nitram which was supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund. We also have his next film, the feature documentary Ellis Park, about Warren Ellis from The Dirty Three and his Wildlife Sanctuary in Sumatra, which is coming up via the MIFF Premiere Fund next year, which I think is going to be just incredible.

I think for [the filmmakers], wherever they go in the world with their films coming back to MIFF, there’s nothing quite like it in terms of the audience, in terms of where they built their names, where they learnt [their craft] as a filmmaker. That’s the thing, you learn [your] craft, you build networks, you have the experience of audience, and you take that with you as you build your work on screen. For a lot of the people who have had those trajectories, MIFF is very meaningful to them, because it was so instructive as to who they have become creatively.

Then we’ve got Robert Connelly and the ambassador special screening of The Bank. That takes us all the way back to 2001. How important is it to have somebody like Robert return to the festival after all this time as an ambassador?

AC: It’s hugely important. Rob is so supportive not only to us, but he’s an incredible inspiration but also a mentor figure to many young filmmakers. What Arenamedia (Robert Connolly’s production company) do in terms of the films that they produce – I’m thinking to things like Sweet As by Jub Clerc, or Chloé Brugale produced Because We Have Each Other by Sari Braithwaite – is just brilliant.

The Bank was MIFF’s opening night films twenty-two years ago, and to have that come full cycle with a restoration [and bring] a new context to a new audience maybe generationally is really interesting. I think it adds a whole new relevance and context in terms of the cost-of-living crisis and broader financial crisis we find ourselves in in terms of how we see banks and those institutions around us that control or manage our financial capacity, and the view and the confidence or otherwise that we [do or don’t] put in them. There’s a whole setting that you can talk about with that film now that perhaps is much different from when it’s first arose. So, to see the film itself garner a new relevance or context is a really interesting one.

Rob as an ambassador is just amazing. He’s an absolute icon of Australian cinema in terms of what he has accomplished, what he continues to accomplish in terms of films like The Dry and its sequel, but I’m also thinking about works like Tim Winton’s The Turning, which is three hours long, and features seventeen short stories, those sorts of things are majorly ambitious Australian works. To have him in the fray as a MIFF ambassador, he is someone who inspires us. He inspires not only the local industry, but also audiences.

You need people to help you build paths through the programme, and to create something that I think is special. I think specifically this year in terms of continuing COVID recovery and in terms of giving people a reason to get out of the house and into the cinema, particularly under the financial duress that many people are under, as well as the changed audience behaviour in terms of streaming and the like of the last few years, is you’ve got to give them a reason to show up. You’ve got to give them a reason to be part of a collective and I think that artist to audience connection and that Ambassador to audience connection that we have at MIFF is hugely helpful to us and I think really attractive and appealing and beneficial to audiences.

Can you talk about the Planetarium section of MIFF too?

AC: That’s been a mainstay of MIFF. I joined staff in 2011, and the whole time I’ve been part of the festival, it’s always been a special event element that we do every year. We work with Museums Victoria, we work at the planetarium, and we’ve done a lot of different things. Some have been more geared towards the galactic, outer space angle, but a lot is an alternative to that and what their regular programming would be. Some of these things are [an] experimentation, they’re very visual. They’re very much journeys in a cinematic form. It’s different to a lot of what the rest of the programme is. There’s also been a lot that has been very much geared around the sound and music. I view Fulldome experiences maybe almost as a precursor to some of our VR or XR programming in terms of its place in the programme, in that it’s a very immersive experience in terms of a cinematic experience.

Why we want to have it in MIFF is that similar to some of the IMAX or virtual reality [experiences] that have played since 2016, it’s an area which isn’t given a lot of attention within international film festivals. It’s an area where we think there is a distinctive voice to be recognised, where there’s a voice of an artist to be recognised, as opposed to that kind of content being for purely educational purposes which might be looked at in that setting, or some people look at virtual reality in terms of a trade show or technology purposes, but we think there [are] stories to be told and voices to be heard within those areas as well.

With MIFF, one of the things that we try to do is build an eclecticism of cinematic experiences, and to create a difference in contrast between the things we do, and I think that Fulldome is a really contrasting experience as a cinema going experience. We do two collections of it and they’re always popular and they always sell out. People love them and keep coming back. Sometimes it’s the only time in a year that people will see that kind of film. They won’t go out to the museum. They won’t go out to Fulldome. But they will make it part of their MIFF experience, which is always something that’s really curious to me as well. The opportunity is there in the festival, so they take it.

It’s also the tenth anniversary of the Critics Campus. I’m curious if you can talk about the importance of that, and the importance of supporting critics as a film festival. It seems like a rarity in Australia that a film festival eagerly and actively supports film critics.

AC: Thank you so much. You’re right, I don’t think there’s a lot in Australia like it. There are some things in an international festival context that it’s possibly closer to. To me, it’s about the ecosystem that we exist in. It kind of runs part and parcel to what we were talking about before about MIFF being a point of amplification I think iteratively with things like Accelerator, the Shorts Awards, Bright Horizons and the Premiere Fund, and how all of these things interlock and create a chain and an ecosystem for people to develop professionally and be amplified and to take opportunities.

Critics Campus is an integral part of that system as well. It’s parallel to it. You want to build opportunities for filmmakers, but you also simultaneously want to develop a culture of a professional response to cinema and professional development opportunities, because one is tethered to the other. They’re not two different things. They exist in the same space. That is in its 10th anniversary now, and we’re fortunate to have support through VicScreen to enable to keep it going.

There are eight people who are chosen every year from applications to attend. It’s a setting where a lot of people who have [been part of] it have gone on to do some amazing things. They get to use the festival space [in a] sort of boilerplate like context to create content and create a response. It’s an amazing setting to be mentored within because there is so much going on and there is so much potential to respond to.

It’s also a way to strategically get MIFF in the global visibility of publications overseas. We get to bring over international trade critics and they get to experience MIFF, and then we get to position ourselves internationally in terms of global significance, which then has downstream benefits of getting particular films or getting particular filmmakers or building the reputation of the festival that then unlocks different things as well. People from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are coming this year.*

It’s about promoting a culture of response, and it’s about promoting a culture of professional opportunity which is part and parcel to films being made and films being received. Critics Campus is something we love, but it [has the ability to] stay in the background a little bit; the general public don’t really know about it, or they don’t really have the opportunity to interact with it. We wanted to bring it out more into the fore, we want to put it on centre stage, we want to sing its praises and state its importance. So, Critical Condition, a retrospective program, was something that we put together. It’s programmed by our Critics Campus producer Luke Goodsell, in cooperation with a lot of the attending mentors and film critics.

The programme is [focused on] films where the critical reception and conversation is an indelible part of that movie; you can’t separate it. What people have [said] around that movie cannot be separated from it. It’s an event-ised retrospective where every session has a conversation and an intro [alongside] a panel discussion. The whole point is to bring people together and to [run] retrospective screenings [where] people talk about film and [where] the films themselves are the subject of that conversation. We’ve got films like Fassbinders final film Querelle, Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, and of course William Greaves Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. There’s a lot of great stuff in there for cinephiles, but hopefully there’s a lot of conversation that will flow [from these screenings] that will deepen people’s understanding of how you read a film and also the value of criticism itself. Hopefully that helps put it in the spotlight and helps audiences [find out] more about it, and also to think more about the role of criticism or potentially becoming a film critic, and how you respond to a film full stop.

*The 2023 Critics Campus mentors are Guy Lodge – Variety, Phoebe Chen – Artforum, Isabella Trimboli – The Saturday Paper, Dr Kelli Weston – Film Comment, Keva York – ABC Arts, Michael Koresky – The Criterion Collection, Michael Sun – The Guardian, Philippa Hawker – The Age

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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