Sydney Film Festival Director Nashen Moodley Talks Sustainable Futures, Diverse Programming, and Opening Night Film: Here Out West

After an extremely online 2020, the 68th Sydney Film Festival is back this November in full roaring form. The program boasts 223 entries from sixty-nine countries across a variety of genres, including fifty documentaries and seventy-two short films. Among the big features are Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, and the vastly differing spectacles of Titane and Dune.

On the homegrown front, Leah Purcell’s directorial feature debut The Drover’s Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson comes to Australian audiences after its SXSW premiere earlier this year. And even closer to home, the opening night feature is Here Out West, a film of eight interlinked stories directed by eight female directors, made and set in Western Sydney.

Nisha-Anne caught up with Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley to talk about this year’s line-up, and the importance of accessibility to film across city, state, and country.

How are you? Are you run off your feet at the moment?

Not completely. After the program is launched and finalised, it’s a great moment and of course there’s a flurry of activity. But for the moment I’m actually working on next year’s festival for the most part, doing quite some press on this year’s festival but really focused on next year’s festival. Because of course we’re much later in the year than we usually are or than we intended to be so we’ve got to be working on next year’s program. Because the festival returns to June in 2022.

[The festival] was entirely virtual last year. Did you find there were more people or less people? How was the feedback?

It was a very good response, actually. Not on the scale of the in-cinema event but more than we expected. And the response was extremely positive to our virtual edition and awards. But at the same time, we got the real sense from the audience that they wanted very much to return to cinemas.

Yes, of course. I’m super excited about Here Out West being the opening night feature. And I wanted to ask you: how did that happen?

How it happened was we were presented [with] the film, of course, and contacted by the filmmakers who very kindly arranged a screening for us. There were a few of my colleagues – I think there were four of us who went to watch the film, and we all liked the film very much. But the opening night selection is always one that happens quite at the last moment. It’s one we take a long time to decide on because we want to see everything. There are many films that want to be in that position so it’s something we have to think about very carefully. And we all agreed it was a very good film and a film that would be a great opening film. Because we like to open with an Australian film. And in this case it was not just an Australian film but a Sydney film and a film set in Western Sydney and also was a portrait of a multicultural contemporary Australia that we don’t often see on the screen.

The process through which the film was made was also very unusual, focusing on eight talented writers who applied to be part of this process and then bringing together a creative team to bring these stories to life. So it was a film that seemed to be the perfect film for the opening the Sydney Film Festival, especially at a time where the film industry has gone through such a terrible time. I think this is really an inspirational story of new talent emerging and one to be celebrated.

I’m very excited [for it] and I was so happy to see that all the sessions have sold out!

Yes, that’s right! It’s done extremely well. And hopefully, we’ll come up with more tickets to present to the audience. But it’s wonderful that the film has had such an incredibly positive reaction.

Do you think that will follow on to its cinema release? Or is this just like a Sydney Film Festival thing?

I hope so. I hope it follows on to its cinema release. And I think this is a very good platform for the film. Of course the film is getting a lot of press because it’s the opening film, and I think the film will get great word of mouth from those who see it at the festival so yes, I hope for every film at the festival – I hope that it’s the start of a long run, a long life in cinemas and beyond.

This is the first year [the festival] is doing the Sustainable Future Award.

Sydney Film Festival has over the years screened many films about the environment. And it’s of course a pressing issue. So it seems like – especially what we’ve gone through in Australia over the last couple of years – a time to bring more attention to these films. We’ve screened many environmental films over the years but this prize really brings a focus onto [those]. And these are not just environmental films but films very precisely about the consequences of climate change. So it seemed a very good time to present this award, and Burning is the first winner. But I urge people to look at all the films that were considered for the prize. I think they’re all very powerful, each in their own way.

Is it a bit of a challenge to implement [as many environmentally conscious measures possible]? I noticed the Sydney Film Festival program – they send out the email and they say “You can print it out if you want to, but you don’t have to.”

You don’t have to, yes. Over many years now, you can go through the entire festival without having anything printed, even a ticket. Not even a ticket. So even a ticket you can have on an app to present that. You don’t have to print out a program guide. I still love a printed program guide. (laughs) But you don’t have to have one.

And most people of course book through the website and get tickets electronically delivered. More and more film festivals are going in that direction now. But up until just a few years, many festivals still required a physical ticket. But I think that’s going to change very quickly, and I think film festivals in Australia – we’re far ahead of the game in terms of electronic tickets. There’s still a long way to go in many things that I think arts organisations do, and I think we will – and certainly many other organisations will look at the ways in which we do everything now to try to be more conscious and work towards greater sustainability.

One thing I really like about what you’ve said about the Sydney Film Festival is you like to present the festival with a range of entry points in terms of genres. How do you think that whole process of opening up genres – does that go some way to dismantling the elitism of film festivals? Is that something that’s important to you?

I think firstly it’s based on a misunderstanding of what we present. Just because something is in a foreign language or is subtitled doesn’t mean it fits into this very traditional view of what’s shown at film festivals. I think that’s the first thing that’s incorrect about the perception of what’s presented. Because of course if you’re presenting a Korean film or a Japanese film or a Chinese film or an Indian film, that’s relatively mainstream in those places. They’re still made in the languages of those countries so we need subtitles for them to be accessible to the largely English-speaking audience of Sydney. So I think the perception that those films are all pretentious foreign-language films is incorrect. I think in many ways, those films that are quite commercial in their own countries are an entry point in themselves. Because those are fairly mainstream films, just not here.

That said, we do want to have many entry points and it could be through the family films and it could be through the horror films or other genre films that we have throughout the festival. But they come in different languages. And, you know, Bong Joon-ho said the famous thing at the Oscars last year about this one-inch barrier of subtitles, and he wishes people would get over that one-inch barrier because really that can open your world of cinema. It gives you so much more to watch. And I think if you just look at examples on Netflix, the incredible reaction to Lupin the French series, or more recently Squid Game, the Korean series. When Bong’s film Parasite played all over the world and made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, a real blockbuster, that must have been the first time many people saw a Korean film. And that’s a good thing. If one can get over that barrier, it just gives you so much more to watch and so much that’s so interesting to watch.

I was also thinking in terms of how you’ve extended the venues and now we’re at Casula and another year [the festival] was at Blacktown Drive-In. Is that something you want to continue, expanding out, encompassing this idea of Sydney as more than just the CBD?

Sure. And I think it’s something that’s really important. The geographic expansion is to make the festival more accessible, and we want the festival to be accessible as possible. That’s [also] about the programming, so also having people come in from the time they’re four years old and we have audience members who are in their eighties. So we want to cater for that broad range of people in every possible way. And being easily accessible in various parts of Sydney is of course very important. Our traveling film festival goes to around twenty locations around New South Wales and elsewhere in the country as well. So we do want to bring cinema to as many people as possible. It’s tough because we’re a small team with limited resources but it’s something we certainly wish to continue doing as far as we can.

You know, the in-cinema festival runs from 3-14 [November] and we also have the on-demand festival that’s available Australia-wide, again a way to make the festival more accessible. And that runs from 12-21 [November].

My final question: since you were a music journo, what’s your favourite music film?

You know, one we played a few years ago and it’s not even a music I knew much about. A film called The Broken Circle Breakdown. It’s a fantastic film from Belgium, and it’s not just about music, it’s a family drama in many ways. But the two main characters are bluegrass performers and it’s just a tremendous film with fantastic music. And to give you another example of something that we’re actually playing this year, The Rumba Kings is a film about the music of the Congo, a musical form I knew very little about, I knew nothing about. I had heard some things but I didn’t even know it was part of this tradition. And it’s a fantastic film about this incredible music that had such a role to play in Congolese independence. It’s something you can go into, knowing nothing about it, nothing about the music, even very little or nothing about the history, and you leave the film, loving the music and really interested in the history. So that’s one from this year I’d like to recommend. But maybe my favourite music film of all time is The Broken Circle Breakdown. That’s the one that came first to mind, anyway.

Thank you so much!

Thank you very much for your time, and see you at the festival!

The Sydney Film Festival runs from November 3 – 21. Further information, and to buy tickets, can be found here.


Born in India, based in Sydney, queer nerd who would like to assure you they only put their feet up for the one second it took to get the pic.

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