Opening a film festival with a movie as broad as “Paddington 2” is bold move and, in the case of the Intl. Film Festival & Awards Macao, was a carefully calculated decision. It suggests that commercial films can have artistic merit, and signals that Macao, in its second year of existence and first under a new director, intends to be audience friendly as well as smart.
“It is a delightful, five-star film for audiences of all ages. It makes for a playful opening that says: ‘Let’s have some fun before we get down to the serious business,’” says Mike Goodridge, who was appointed as the festival’s artistic director over the summer. “Unlike Hong Kong, just across the river, Macau doesn’t have a strong arthouse tradition. We are going to have to build audiences.”
To that end, Goodridge, who officially took up his position only in September, has been busily pounding the pavements in Macau and meeting regional media since unveiling his initial selection in early November. Masterclass events in recent weeks with Hong Kong directors John Woo and Pang Ho-cheung have been well-attended, and are intended to build a profile for the festival within the enclave.
Macau is a special administrative region of China that was once a sleepy Portuguese colony. [Macao is the Portuguese spelling and is the name of the festival.] In recent years, it has been the site for an unprecedented boom in casino gambling, which makes it a bigger gaming hub than Las Vegas. Casinos have made the territory rich, but have made Macau’s economy and image heavily dependent on a single industry.
Having a cultural festival, which has hefty government backing, is intended to demonstrate and cultivate other aspects. After several previous festival initiatives came and went, the IFFAM last year became Macau’s biggest scale film effort to date.
In addition to the usual list of teething problems for a first-time festival, IFFAM also endured the resignation of high-profile chief selector Marco Mueller only a day before the lineup announcement. Despite — or because of — that apparent setback, IFFAM made a bright start, with a strong film selection, well run set-piece ceremonies and an enviable project market.
Goodridge plans to build on that by keeping many of the elements from the previous selection structure, while putting a greater focus on emerging filmmakers. “Film training and teaching courses are starting to emerge in Macau. Our focus on young talent brings a structure of support to young voices,” he says. “We have an amazing jury. Having them judge and award a $60,000 cash prize shows that we are taking first- and second-time filmmakers seriously.” Jurors include Laurent Cantet, Jessica Hausner and Joan Chen.
Away from the competition, the best-of festival selection includes a healthy sprinkling of young Asian talent. Australia’s Warwick Thornton (with “Sweet Country”) and China’s Vivian Qu (with “Angels Wear White”) have been acclaimed this year. Macanese filmmakers get their own showcase for Lorence Chan’s “Passing Rain” and Ho Fei’s “Love Is Colder Than Death.”
Typical of a first-time festival, 2016’s event had its problems, including ground transport and ticketing. Noting these issues, organizers have, while keeping roughly the same number of titles, shrunk the physical scale: Conferences and accommodation have been consolidated on the Macau peninsula.
“Everything is within walking distance. The press center, press conferences and even the industry hub are all in the Cultural Center this time,” says former Variety staffer Lorna Tee, who is the IFFAM’s head of festival management. “And every film will have Chinese subtitles this time.
“We have not yet achieved all the things we want to do, but we have put down some really good roots that will serve in future editions,” Tee says. “We have worked with Fox on film-TV crossover and will have a sneak preview of miniseries ‘Stained.’ We don’t have many mainland Chinese films and it may take a while for us to be seen as useful to the Chinese industry. But we are really pleased to have been able to persuade Netflix to screen ‘Okja’ [after it has been launched on VOD]. That is the kind of movie that can really build audiences.”