In Australia’s self-proclaimed “cultural capital,” the Melbourne Intl. Film Festival occupies a significant place in the city’s artistic calendar.
Part of it, admittedly, might be due to sheer size: Now in its 58th year, the fest runs a formidable 17 days — by some measure, the longest-running film fest in the Southern Hemisphere — and unspools more than 140 features. Annual admissions top 185,000.
After years of distinctly Asia-centric programming under former artistic director James Hewison, current fest topper Richard Moore has taken the fest in a different and broader direction. While still aware of its regional ties (via an Asian section cannily titled Neighborhood Watch), MIFF seems intended not only to serve as a showcase for innovative programming, both current and retro but to reflect the personalities and passions of its selectors.
This year it opens with Robert Connolly’s drama “Balibo”, starring Anthony LaPaglia. about the shooting of five Australian journalists during Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975.
“I’m not necessarily obliged to take a local film for the opening night,” says Moore, “and my natural predilection, to be honest, would be to open with something perhaps more upbeat and celebratory. But ‘Balibo’ is just an exceptionally strong drama — the best film Connolly’s made — and it’s also an important political statement, for Australians and for our region.”
In addition to LaPaglia, East Timorese president (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Jose Ramos-Horta will attend the premiere.
Moore also cites a new section called States of Dissent. Composed of documentaries of “a political or activist inclination, often filmed either clandestinely or under conditions of extreme duress,” Dissent’s offerings range from the Buddhist monks’ protests in Anders Ostergaard’s Sundance hit “Burma VJ,” to N.C. Heikin’s “Kimjongilia,” in which 13 North Korean defectors relate their experiences in the dictatorship, their testimonies set against a backdrop of state-sponsored propaganda imagery.
“There are lots of political talking points in this year’s festival, and I think it’s something our audience want,” Moore says. “They tend to be very political and cosmopolitan, very engaged in issues both inside and outside of Australia, and it’s what they expect of an arts event like this one right now.”
MELBOURNE INTL. FILM FESTIVAL
When: July 24-Aug. 9
Where: Melbourne, Australia