After 18 days of in-person screenings, over 370 movies and the allocation of a new prize fund totaling $210,000 AUD (approx. $145,000 USD) the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has to be one of the lengthiest, liveliest and now most lucrative film festivals in the world. The winning films were announced at Saturday evening’s closing gala, with Afrofuturist sci-fi musical “Neptune Frost,” a U.S.-Rwandan co-production directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, taking the Bright Horizons top prize of $140,000 AUD ($100,000 USD). Jub Clerc, the Indigenous Australian director of coming-of-age road movie “Sweet As,” scooped the Blackmagic Design Australian Innovation Award of $70,000 AUD ($45,000 USD).

This is the first year of the Bright Horizons competition. After being selected from an exceptionally strong 11-film lineup, which included festival favourites like Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” Laura Wandel’s “Playground” and Natalia López Gallardo’s “Robe of Gems,” Williams and Uzeyman were clearly moved while accepting the award via Zoom.

“It was a film we made with all of our hearts, and we are so thrilled that it touched you,” they said. The debut feature was praised by the jury, comprised of Australian filmmakers Shareena Clanton and Lynette Wallworth, alongside cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Indonesian writer-director Mouly Surya, for “penetrating deeply into your heart and soul” by “disrupting the colonial gaze and connecting the rising influence of technology in all our lives.”

The Blackmagic Design Australian Innovation competition is also in its first edition and was engineered to recognize and inspire emerging Australian film talent, whatever their sphere of expertise. Five film creatives were nominated alongside Clerc: two other directors, a screenwriting team, a production designer and an editor. Accepting her award for the direction of “Sweet As” onstage with many of her collaborators present, Clerc said, “This is not my film but our film,” before joking “Not the prize money, of course, that’s all mine.” She went on to mention her Indigenous heritage: “Storytelling is in our blood. We never had a written language; we sang, we danced and painted all of our stories, and now we have a new medium,” she said, indicating the screen behind her. Her remarks were echoed in the jury statement, which highlighted how Clerc’s film “helps show just how resilient and beautiful Indigenous women are.”

Speaking to Variety as the marathon festival crossed the finish line, an “exhausted and exhilarated” Al Cossar, MIFF artistic director, was delighted with the results, as emblematic of the new competitions’ remit to champion emergent talent.

“MIFF is a huge program,” he said. “But one of the principle motivations for us is building that sense of outright discovery. I think this space supercharges that mentality.”

Cossar also mentioned the challenges specific to MIFF, which ran in physical form for the first time since Melbourne emerged from one of the longest and harshest lockdown periods in the world.

“We’re of the mindset that we’re not through COVID, but living with it for years to come… It’s a big step in the right direction this year — to be back in the world — but to get back to that full scale of audience is going to be incremental for a while yet.”

But Cossar is optimistic. “We have a very determined, adaptive mindset at this point,” he continued. “Certainly [the pandemic] propelled us to look in the mirror and ask fundamental questions… that will help expand MIFF’s own access and inclusivity in a way that’s much broader than being a response to COVID.”

The innovations this year, particularly the lavish prize fund, are designed to raise MIFF’s international profile, but the festival is also trying to strengthen its regional roots. Philippa Hawker, a cornerstone of the Melbourne critical landscape who writes for The Age, The Saturday Paper and Senses of Cinema and was part of the 2022 MIFF Critics Campus, alongside international mentors Jessica Kiang of Variety, Jourdain Searles of The Hollywood Reporter and Danny Kasman of Mubi, said “It is good to have a shiny new prize for early-career filmmaking, especially one as lucrative as this.” But she especially wanted to shout out MIFF 2022’s local strands, adding “In the festival’s 70th edition, it was so good to see a program of significant and sometimes unpredictable examples of filmmaking from the city’s past.”

As the festival continues in an online format for yet another week, hopefully more attendees, near and far, will be able to marvel at a vastly elastic program that encompasses the local, the global and all points in between.