Today heralded the end of a great Australian festival that has lasted over two decades. I’m not referring to the Big Day Out, whose cultural capital was irrevocably eroded by the influx of teenage, Australian-flag-wearing bogans a decade ago and has limped its way to extinction ever since. No, I’m talking about the Brisbane International Film Festival, a twenty two year old event cut down in its prime to be replaced by the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival.
There’s an argument to be made, I’ll concede, that this is not entirely bad news. The early press on the festival – including an Asghar Farhadi showcase and a remaster of The Housemaid – is undeniably promising. But the deletion of “International” for “Asia Pacific” has larger ramifications than narrowing the geographical focus of the festival.
Last year’s BIFF was my first film festival experience, and it was a wonderful introduction to the world of cinephilia, a welcoming shallow end of a vast and deep pool of film. It marked, for me, a turning point in my appreciation of cinema. It made me want to immerse myself in the medium, to go beyond flipping through racks of DVDs at JB Hi-Fi to writing about cinema, to making it a part of my life. And it wasn’t just the films – though I saw many great films there, from The Act of Killing to Short Term 12 – but the environment.
I attended BIFF because I was excited to see Steve McQueen’s latest, critically lauded release, 12 Years a Slave. I attended BIFF because the prospect of a controversial Palme d’Or-winning French film featuring gratuitous lesbian sex well-and-truly piqued my interested. I attended to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (disappointing) directorial debut, Don Jon. In short, I attended the festival out of an interest in, by and large, mainstream films. But the festival opened up my eyes to a larger world of cinema (not too large, admittedly – there are films from the program I’m, in retrospect, kicking myself for missing) and, significantly, an introduction to cinema culture.
Would that have happened had the festival avoided such marquee names, and included only films like the aforementioned Act of Killing or Norte, the End of History? I’d love to say that I would have been as involved, as excited … but I’m not so sure. Would I have been so infused with the spirit of cinema, the sense of a cultural community in love with film if the screenings had avoided the gorgeous Palace Cinemas’ venues to shift to the city’s “cultural hub”? Again, I’m not so sure.
I don’t know the motivation for the abandonment of this great festival, which I was able to experience ever so fleetingly. These announcements smack of cost-cutting, demonstrating Brisbane’s nervous, inexact approach to creating and sustaining a cultural community – and more’s the pity, because last year’s BIFF was one of the first times I saw how this city could have the same magnetic aura as Melbourne at its finest. I don’t know how successful the festival will be, though I’m sceptical of an Asian Pacific festival ability to bring the same crowds, especially given previous (free!) APSA events struggled to attract large numbers. And while I’ll be in attendance, I’m not sure if I would have been a year ago.
I do know that I’ll miss Brisbane International Film Festival, however briefly we crossed paths.