An institution’s long, rich history

Jenny Neighbour has been the Sydney Film Festival’s program manager for 24 years. With the festival celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, she shares how the event has evolved in a piece that first appeared in Encore.Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 10.53.39 AM

I started at the Sydney Film Festival in November 1989. My first day on the job coincided with the Melbourne Cup and then-Festival Director Paul Byrnes’ departure for the International Documentary Festival in Leipzig. 

It was a small team in those days: just a festival director, director’s secretary, administrator and company secretary, secretarial assistant and a combined role of publicist and travelling film festival manager. Around this busy core, there were myriad committee members from technical to delegates, information desk to publicity. As the festival drew closer others came to the party, including projectionists and the all-important film handler (Neil Angwin, who still fulfils this role). The festival home was a shabby terrace in Glebe Point Road, with the kind of filing cabinets that tear your nails off, and cupboards bursting with piles of yellowing paper and projection paraphernalia. The hours were long, the computers were old and so very slow, but from my very first day I loved it. But I didn’t think I’d still be here almost 25 years later.

In 1990 Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, starring Kerry Fox as the young Janet Frame, screened on the first Sunday of my first festival as an SFF employee. The screening introduced me to the world of pain that is technical presentation; the print, newly arrived from the lab, slipped around the gate like an eel in a bucket. Nonetheless, the crowd at the State Theatre adored the film, loudly applauding Campion (now a Festival Patron) and producer Bridget Ikin. This was also the year we screened Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, a documentary made up of profiles of people who died from AIDS as remembered in the Names Project quilts; festival guests (now Oscar winners) Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman stood at the back of the theatre as the credits unspooled and 2000 people reached for a tissue. I couldn’t mention the 1990 festival without including that year’s Preston Sturges retrospective: eight sublime comedies introduced by Variety critic Todd McCarthy and Kenneth Bowser, writer and director respectively of a documentary on the Hollywood master.

In 1991 director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There) and producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry) won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with Poison and came to Sydney with actor James Lyons – and an illicit print of Hayes’ 1988 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. UK film-maker and artist Isaac Julien was also a guest that year, with his Queen’s Jubilee-set Young Soul Rebels. However, the film that created the most controversy was a 15-minute documentary called Dick – multiple images of various members that gave the censors the willies. The front room of the festival office in Glebe Point Road had been converted into a cinema; the projectors sat on a raised floor (underneath being home to stray prints – how did we end up with reel five of Splendour in the Grass? – and a blue-tongue lizard). In those days, when prints could linger in the country more than a few days after the festival, we screened a handful of titles post-fest for the weary staff; that year we watched New York filmmaker (and 1991 festival guest) Philip Hoffman’s films, which were part-travelogue, part-diary. It was a memorable festival wind-down.

In 1992 Greta Scacchi hopped into the State Theatre briefly for opening night (in support of Robert Altman’s The Player) but the guests that stayed longer – both in hotel nights and in the memory – were Kenneth Anger and Donald Richie. The late show at the State was titled An Evening with Ken and Tom, and there was a full house of buff men in leather and chains when Anger stepped on to the stage in a colourful jumper depicting all the planets (Saturn was a prominent feature on his chest). The ‘Tom’ part of the night was a documentary on Tom of Finland entitled Daddy and the Muscle Academy. Writer and critic Donald Richie was at the festival to present a retrospective of postwar Japanese cinema: gems such as Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Ozu) and Late Chrysanthemums (Naruse). Richie also presented that year’s Ian McPherson Lecture on Western perceptions and misconceptions of Asian film and the Occidental kiss.

Up until 2005, the festival produced a catalogue of around 90 pages, detailing all the films in the festival, including full cast and crew, director biographies and photos. One year, it was late and was only delivered on the opening day of the festival (rather than the day before). Only one day late, but the resulting outcry haunted festival staff for years. Up until 1995, I was not just gathering the credits and bios and typing in Paul Byrnes’s elegant film notes, but typesetting the text and sizing the photos. Staff and volunteers were co-opted into proofreading, and I fondly remember Susan Wilson, the festival’s publicist and Travelling Film Festival manager, making a special trip to the fish market at 4am to buy bacon and egg rolls for the proofing team.

Ang Lee (The Life of Pi) was a charming festival guest in 1993 with his feature The Wedding Banquet. I was waiting to take him on stage for the intro, but he was running late – he had dashed back to the hotel to change his tie, worried it wasn’t appropriate for a State Theatre screening. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle was also a guest that year. Although raised in Sydney, he hadn’t been back for a couple of decades; it wasn’t his tie the audience noticed, but his six-inch platform shoes.

In 2010, the board and staff decided to reduce the length of the festival – down to 12 days, nowhere near the marathon 17-day events of years past. The festival had gradually got bigger and longer, until we reached the point where audiences were drifting off on weekdays and the media was at saturation point. The shorter festival was a hit with everyone – audiences, film-makers and media alike. There were fewer complaints, and the staff didn’t come down with mass flu post-festival (as I recall, the audience didn’t cough quite so much either).

Just a few of those special festival moments from 2011: an impromptu performance by Chad Morgan (subject of Janine Hosking’s I’m Not Dead Yet) at the Grasshopper bar, where his wife managed to sell a stack of CDs to Bushra, the glamorous Egyptian star of Cairo 678; being the straight man at the post-screening Q&A with Phil Rosenthal, director of Exporting Raymond and creator of Everybody Loves Raymond; discovering that we had shipped – at considerable expense – a 35mm print of a 154-minute film (weighing more than 30 kilos) to Sydney, while meanwhile the film-maker had arrived with a digital copy in his suit pocket.

Since 1989, the environment in which the Sydney Film Festival operates has changed dramatically. The office is now watertight, and we’ve enough power to run an air conditioner. Correspondence is by email not telex; thousands of festival goers read about the event on our website, Facebook and Twitter – they don’t rely on a letter in the post. Ticket sales don’t involve cheques in the mail, but credit cards and clicks online. Films are submitted as online links or DVDs, and no longer do we screen from 16mm or 35mm, or even Beta tapes; rather we’re shipping in digital drives and juggling passwords.

Once it was said that DVDs (or video on demand) would be the end of film festivals, but the opposite has happened: there’s been acceleration in the number of film festivals of all shapes, sizes and languages in Sydney. We used to have a New Yorker cartoon pinned to the office wall depicting an archetypal European town, perched on a steep hill, the caption said: “What this place needs is a film festival.” Internationally the pattern is repeated; from Tribeca to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many new and significant festivals have joined the circuit since the 1990s. The global environment in which the SFF operates has changed as a consequence; an overseas sales contact once told me that festival requests for a given title are dealt with on an alphabetical basis – and since Sydney begins with ‘S’, we would hear back in three weeks. The festival is fortunate that its long history means relationships with sales agents, film-makers and distributors go back in time, often across many film titles – and that Sydney is more often than not the first city that comes to mind when they think of Australia.

The SFF’s reputation, a tribute to the professionalism of past and present staff, combined with the global awareness of our city and of Australia’s love of cinema, means that directors and producers are keen for their films to be considered for our festival. Long may this cinematic love fest continue, because there’s nothing quite like sitting in the dark with a couple of thousand people all looking in one direction – at the big silver screen.

This is an edited extract from Jenny Neighbour’s essay 24 Years at Sydney Film Festival. To read the full essay and others visit the festival’s A Living Archive online.sffarchive.org.au


Encore Issue 9This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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