The 60th Melbourne International Film Festival was held during July and August 2011. I spoke to Festival Director Michelle Carey for ArtsHub.

Michelle Carey

When Grease hit Australian screens in 1978, a young girl was so enthralled and excited that whenever a song came on, she would rush to the front of the cinema and jive alongside Travolta. Decades later Michelle Carey, still enamoured by the silver screen, is sharing her love of cinema with Melbourne as the artistic director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Since then, Carey has worked behind the scenes of MIFF and numerous other film festivals, all leading to her appointment in 2010 as this year’s artistic director. When asked how she found herself in the director’s chair, Carey puts it down to, ‘ten plus years of experience building up to such a role, more sort of behind the scenes programming, getting to know international sales agents, getting to know cinema and filmmakers and just really learning about the industry.’

This idea of hands-on experience and learning on the job reflects Carey’s autodidactic nature. You would assume that the artistic director of a film festival would have a degree in cinema, but Carey is primarily self-taught. ‘I did one year of film study in my twenties,’ she laughs, ‘But I have to say, it was quite boring.’ Though she insists ‘I’m not anti-academia. Don’t get me wrong, I love theory, I just thought I was better off reading books and doing it myself. I taught myself about film and film programming, [starting] by volunteering.’

Now she sees hundreds of films a year, travelling the globe to attend film festivals and select what we see at MIFF, but her favourite festival remains Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. It’s ‘fairly non-A-list,’ she explains, ‘but it was the first international festival I went to so… I have an attachment to it.’ When it comes to the big ones though, the best ‘hands down is Cannes for the quality of the films.’

But it’s not all glamorous parties and hobnobbing with celebs when attending events such as Cannes. For Carey, it’s business and the business of securing films to be screened at home in Melbourne. This year 25 films from Cannes are screening, more than any other year, so how does Carey decide what’s worth seeing? ‘I guess I’m looking for something to have an impact on the audience’ she says. ‘It could be a whole range of emotions,’ that a film elicits in its viewer, but they must leave an impression according to Carey, be it revulsion or delight, ‘there’s nothing worse than… coming out of a film and going, “yeah, that’s fine but generally forgettable.” That’s the key… impact.’

As an example of this impact, Carey cites Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the famous story of existentialist godfather Friedrich Nietzsche witnessing the whipping of a horse. The movie, shot on 35mm film, is the equine’s tale. ‘It’s a really dense work, dense and minimalist at the same time,’ she says. ‘It’s so intense, it just pulls you into this vortex… it’s akin to seeing an opera.’ It’s no wonder the film screens at this year’s MIFF.

Other highlights for Carey include, the opening night film The Fairy, which she describes as ‘a very visual, wonderful film,’ The Eye of the Storm, the new offering from Fred Schepisi, ATTENBERG from Greece, which is ‘very strong and unusual,’ and Tomboy from France.

In celebration of MIFF’s 60th birthday, Carey has helped select the best films to have been screened over the six decades for MIFF 60th Retrospective. One of those films is Carey’s all-time favourite, An Autumn Afternoon, a Japanese film from 1962. ‘That’s the first film that I circled in my schedule,’ she exclaims. ‘It’s very personal to me. I could watch it over and over again. I’m definitely not going to miss that.’

Aside from films, Carey is also ‘looking forward to some of the panels, particularly… the censorship panel,’ which she thinks ‘will be really interesting and actually quite dynamic and maybe even explosive,’ and the ‘massively expanded Talking Pictures program.’ Another important facet of the festival is the MIFF 37 Degrees South program, which ‘started out reasonably modest and has really grown and is pretty insightful for the public…’ giving them a chance to ‘get an idea about the whole nature of cinema.’ Featuring workshops and lectures about the industry from film insiders, the program also serves the festival by ‘[bringing] a whole host of… international guests into town [who] get to see what our festival is like and then go back and spruik it overseas. It certainly has a very positive flow on.’

With Carey at the helm, this year’s festival is set to be a dynamic showcase of the best recent film releases, especially with Carey having a major hand in selecting the program. As she admits, ‘there’s not enough space in my brain to remember bad films. I only remember good films,’ which bodes well for those of us in the audience.