programmer perks: when watching movies is your job

How many films do you watch a week? At least triple it and you’ll be getting closer to the realm of a film festival programmer. Over the recent months, our dedicated team of volunteers has spent thousands of hours watching films for our 2017 program. It’s not such a bad place to stand, or sit. They get to watch films on a slew of environmental issues, and attend film festivals around the country and world (like that time we went to HotDocs in Toronto).

We think it’s a pretty sweet gig. So we picked the brains of our Program Manager, Nathan Senn on his recent time at Sydney Film Festival, and what he loves most about the role.

Which film surprised you the most at Sydney Film Festival this year?

Because I work as a programmer I attend film festivals in a bit of an extreme way, watching 5-6 films a day, sometimes for 2-3 weeks at a time. Some films you know a lot about going in, and others you go to knowing next to nothing. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and just see something as a matter of rigid timetabling.

Michael Glawogger's Untitled

Michael Glawogger's Untitled

In the throng of a packed schedule, the surprising films never fail to stand out though. This year it was Michael Glawogger’s Untitled. I’ve always been a big fan of Glawogger’s work: Workingman’s Death and Whore’s Glory are both documentaries of the highest order. In Untitled, Glawogger sets out to travel the world for a year and make an experimental film that has no narrative thrust to speak of, but is intended to be a loosely flowing montage of his experiences during that time. Tragically, part way into his journey, Glawogger contracted malaria in Liberia and died. His editor Monika Willi finished the film as a tribute to him, using his footage and interweaving sections from the shooting journal that he kept during his travels. It’s a beautiful, lyrical film that – far from being about nothing – manages to speak to everything that it means to live in the world.

What’s the best part of a film festival for you?

I love the sense of community that film festivals foster. Just going to a cinema is a personal experience – you go with a partner, family members or friends. but cinema was actually intended as a communal experience.

So I think good film festivals do well to promote a sense of kinship – allowing the festival space to be transformed into a hub where discussion can live on after the screening.

I love it when you’re exiting a theatre and a complete stranger will ask you what you thought of the film you just saw. I think this only happens because films move us; they challenge us, and drive us to relate more strongly to one another. Plus, it’s always good to hear a multitude of perspectives and responses to a film, whether you agree with them or not.

What did you learn about Australian film at Sydney Film Festival? 

Mostly that the Australian film industry is in great shape. You might not always see the best of Australian cinema represented at the multiplexes or on Netflix, but there’re a healthy number of Australian filmmakers out there who are really pushing the boundaries of what cinema can be.

Films like Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain, in which she’s teamed with the Australian Chamber Orchestra to create a symphonic exploration of some of the world’s highest peaks really impressed (check this out at MIFF this year). As well as David Wenham’s Ellipsis, in which he work-shopped characters for his actors and then took to the streets of Sydney to film a largely improvised film in only 10 days, the result of which is equal parts Before Sunrise and Lost in Translation.

What did you learn about the current state of documentary?

I think the documentary form is in an interesting and exciting place at the moment. Over recent years docu-fiction has become increasingly popular with emerging filmmakers. This can manifest in a couple of ways: docu-fictions are documentaries presented in a way that’s traditionally associated with narrative fiction films (sometimes to the point where you don’t know if what you’re watching is real or fabricated); or films that are ostensibly documentaries but include constructs that are contrived or fictional. I saw this in a lot of the films I saw at SFF, including Chicken People and You Have No Idea How Much I Love You. I find this blurring of reality really interesting and think it says a lot about the times we’re living in.

Chicken People

Chicken People

What was the most inspiring film you saw at Sydney Film Festival?

The most inspiring film I saw was probably The Last Men In Aleppo. It’s a documentary about the White Helmets, a Syrian humanitarian search and rescue organisation who uncover the bodies of those trapped under rubble as the result of the destruction caused by government-issued air strikes. Instead of trying to push an agenda or bombard the viewing with facts, the film follows five members of the group and puts human faces to the tragic events that are still unfolding in Syria. The film is harrowing but a pertinent reminder that there are some amazing people in the world who truly care about others - I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of those rare films that are only made because everyone involved risked their lives to make it happen, such was their belief in the power of film.

The director was in attendance and although English was not his first language, he spoke so eloquently about film’s capacity to transport its viewers to another place and very simply show them how things are there. This film did that brilliantly. It was also a strange screening because there were strict security measures in place (restricted accesses and guards manning the theatre) as there was the potential for disruptive protest. I guess this just reinforced for me how divided the world is at the moment, and how the very notion of “sides” can obscure the loss and devastation that’s occurring in places like Syria.

If attending film festivals is part of your job, do they ever get old for you?

Luckily for me they don’t, or I would be out of a job. I think there are more film festivals around than ever – any topic you can think of likely has a dedicated film festival somewhere in the world. In Melbourne alone we have so many – MIFF, The Human Rights Film Festival, The Melbourne Animation Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival, The Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, Monster Fest, St. Kilda Short Film Festival and Melbourne Underground, the list goes on.

Oftentimes I worry that film festivals will reach critical mass and people will stop coming, but that’s just not how it works. People go to film festivals for different reasons – some to escape, some to be challenged, some to be educated about and gain access to parts of the world they otherwise wouldn’t be privy to. To this end, I think people will always find reasons to attend festivals, and it’s ultimately a good thing that we’re so spoiled for choice.

Can you give us five films from SFF that we should go and see right now?

The Go-Betweens: Right Here, Happy End, Most Beautiful Island, I Am Not Your Negro & Blue.