The SFF Hub has been running now for 3 years within the Sydney Film Festival, and each year has drawn more and more of the local and international film community and the general public to its doors. We sat down with Matt Ravier, who is the brains behind the Hub and is the director of The Festivalists, a not-for-profit group that puts together other great Sydney events and festivals such as Jurassic Lounge and the American-Canadian film festival Possible Worlds. Be sure to keep an eye out for him at The Hub and to say hi.
So what’s behind the concept of the Hub?
I guess the idea for the Hub is to give the festival a physical place in which audiences can interact with the program. I feel like the festival is this amazing communal experience because thousands of Sydney siders go to it and enjoy films together. But at the end of the day you’ve still sat alone in the dark.
Which weirdly is front and centre this year through the festival’s tagline.
Yes that’s right. But look how colourful the audience looks! [gestures at the SFF guide which he always keeps handy in his bag for impromptu inquisitions on what the best picks of the festival are]
But I’ve been going to movies for as long as I can remember, and what I love almost as much as seeing a film itself is the chance to chat about the film with people that have also seen it. And that is very important I think to me and is very important to the festival. I think that’s what makes it a festival, that we’re celebrating film and we’re celebrating our collective love of film and to have a place in which to do that with like-minded individuals is really important. So the Hub is designed as a meeting place, a place to talk about the films but also to meet the makers. So while there are Q&As after a lot of the the screenings, sometimes you want to go a bit deeper than that.
What talks are on offer this year?
We’ve got a program of about 20 talks, so those includes panel discussions around a particular topic like ‘Can Documentaries Change the World’ or ‘The Death of Horror’ – is the genre dead or is does it still have the ability to frighten us? But it also includes in-depth conversations with some of our international and Australian guests, so for those who’d like to drill down further than the Q&A and to unpack the process of how the film was made and where they’re coming from.
A lot of our guests – film-makers, actors, distributors, producers – come quite a long way to present their films, and I think part of the thrill for them showing films at festivals is seeing what the reaction is around the world. I think it varies quite a lot. In the past couple of years that I’ve been running the Hub, some of the most interesting feedback I’ve gotten is how interesting it was to have a place to have a drink with members of the audience, to get a real sense of what they thought about the film. And it’s the kind of feedback, that if you’re doing a Q&A at the State Theatre under the spotlight, you might not get such a sense of. I also realised that a lot of the people last year felt that some films were so fascinating that the Q&A’s didn’t do justice to the appetite for conversation. People would often informally walk down to the Hub after the Q&A to continue it on the couches there. I remember Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, who is one of the most eloquent filmmakers out there, coming back to the Hub with a group of 20 hardcore fans of his films who really wanted to know more about the process.1
Because the process is such a big part of a film like that.
Right and so you want to unpack that and unpacking it over a glass of wine is the civilized way to do it so that’s part of what the Hub is for as well. But you could also look at the Hub as a new point of entry to the festival for audiences that perhaps that haven’t had a chance to experience the event. I know that the program when I first started going to the festival felt a bit intimidating and if you’re not used to attending festivals, sometimes its nice to have a point of entry like this where, say you can come in see the Rosebud exhibition you have going on, meet friends for a drink and maybe destigmatise the whole process of attending the festival. One thing we have inside the Hub is a $10 discount box office, and that’s a great way to take a chance on a film you’ve heard nothing about. We really like to encourage newcomers who want to sample the festival to come in and just buy a single ticket, and take a chance.
Does that happen often? I’m curious about that. The side of the festival I’m exposed to is often that you prepare it way in advance, you try to get the best seats and everyone knows what they want, whereas it’s interesting to hear about the newcomer’s perspective.
I think you’re talking as a film buff, and I completely sympathise. Before I used to work at the festival it was a ritual that I adored. That the first day you got the program guide, to sit down with a cup of coffee and circle everything you want to see and have a rigorous planning session, avoiding scheduling conflicts and and programming your week to maximize your chances of seeing great films. That’s definitely a big part of our audience. But there’s also a whole audience out there that don’t necessarily go see the world cinema that the festival showcases, but they’re much more spontaneous in their choices and they’ll happily seek guidance. And that’s why we’ve introduced the program gurus. The program gurus are film buffs that know the program by heart and have been going for a few years. You get to sit down with them for a free 10 minute consultation, where based on your movie going profile and your interests and what you like and what you don’t like, they suggest a couple of titles you might be interested in. So it’s a good way to get some help navigating the program, I mean there’s over 160 films I think so it can be a little bit overwhelming.
Are the guru’s volunteers?
Yeah, they are but they’re an elite squad of volunteers that have been selected after a rigorous process and then trained to basically become program ninjas.
They are the program.
They basically are, that’s right. And they’re also super friendly and super talkative, so they are volunteers that are passionate about film and like nothing more than the opportunity to share that enthusiasm with complete strangers!
Is the volunteer program a big part of the way the Hub operates, and in the festival as a whole?
I think every film festival I’ve ever been to around the world, would be a complete failure without the help, support and dedication of volunteers. For volunteers, and I know because I’ve volunteered at many festivals before getting my first job, it’s a great way to learn how the organization works from the inside. I try to make myself as available as I can to the volunteers so that they can learn as much from the process, as much as I did when I volunteered for a film festival.
Out of curiosity, which festivals did you volunteer for?
The first, which changed my life, was called Inside Out. It’s the Toronto Gay and Lesbian film festival. That was in 1998/1999? I volunteered with them for a year, and was very lucky to work under some very inspiring people who became mentors and with whom I’m still very close to today. They taught me everything I know about festivals. I think back then, especially working in a queer film festival, it felt like you were fighting for a cause – well it felt like you were fighting for two causes. You were fighting for more diverse identities on the screen and you were fighting for a cinema that was often ignored, and that really energized me and made me feel like working at a film festival was a really worthy pursuit
So do you feel like your experiences with that festival spoke to a more ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ cinema?
I think festivals facilitate that dialogue, that conversation. And that’s part of why I love festivals moreso than just going to the multiplex or just the cinema, because over the past 3 years I feel that we’ve developed it as a place for conversation. I mean, the films that good festivals tend to showcase and defend are interesting because they can be confronting, because they can be upsetting, because they can open your horizons and provoke. For me, on their own, these films don’t fulfill their potential. It’s enhanced with conversation. Whether that’s with the filmmakers, with critics or with friends. But that’s part of how you get the full experience out of the film, about the thinking that goes into the experience.
And the arguing.
Yes and the arguing.
I have to ask, what are your favorite picks for the Hub this year?
I’m most excited about the Vladmaster Viewmaster Experience.
Yep, the Vladmaster Viewmaster Experience. So viewmasters, you’re too young to remember this, but viewmasters were these plastic devices where you insert a round wheel of photographs of the slides, and you click and it changes the view.2 They were handed out or sold at all the touristy sites as a way to take home some of the sites. So they’re a very nostalgic device. But there’s an amazing artist from Portland, called Vladimir, and she put together these stories which we photographed and then hand-made wheels of these photographs and created soundscapes and narratives to really immerse you in the story. So we’re going to do sessions where the entire audience will be sat in the Hub with their own viewmaster and enjoy the story communally as a group. And were doing that in collaboration with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. For me it’s very typical of what the Hub is about, in that it’s a communal experiences, its interactive and fun and a bit low-fi.
Like the VHS event last year.
Yeah like that VHS party last year. So the Hub is all about celebrating cinema in all its forms, including the less likely ones and I like the Vladmaster Viewmaster experience because it broke down cinemas into its many parts and reassembled them in a way that were not used to. And that’s kind of fun.
And that’s another example of everyone sharing the same story, but experiencing it individually.
Yeh definitely. And another thing I think will be fun will be the cinema burlesque performance, where burlesque performers perform acts inspired by cult films. So for example we’ve got Diesel, she’s performing Tarantino’s Death Proof and another inspired by From Dusk ’til Dawn. So again, another cheeky and slightly irreverent way to celebrate cinephilia and to show that cinephilia can take several different forms. It can be about rigorous film criticism, but it can also be about burlesque and pole dancing with snakes.
You were sent by Sydney Film Festival to SXSW, was there anything in particular you brought back to the Hub and to the Sydney Film Festival in general?
So SXSW is three festivals in one, it’s a film festival, it’s a music festival and it’s a festival dedicated to new technologies and interactive. So I go there for two, well three reasons. One, in a way the whole festival is an inspiration for the Hub, which also aims to be at the intersection of music, film and new technologies. I’m very interested in the process, and in how audiences cross over between the various elements of the festival. It’s about convergence and about cross-disciplinary collaborations, and what people can learn from each other outside of their respective fields. So for example there’s a panel in the Hub called Cross Pollinations: The Hive Project, and this panel is specifically showcasing artists that have created work that showcases collaboration with other disciplines, or that showcases other disciplines. While this panel doesn’t come directly from SXSW, some of the programming in the Hub was inspired by what I had seen. And then I also go because Nashen (Moodley – SFF Festival Director) always likes second opinions on films. It’s a really interesting place, it feels like you’re travelling 2 years into the future. The conversations I had there were very inspiring.3
With the actual creation of the Hub, do you work with Nashen closely to track down particular speakers, or do you do your own thing?
It’s tricky, half of the Hub I’d say I program myself. And is not strictly dependent on the film program. And the other half is inspired by the films and the guests we’re able to fly to the festival. So I work in collaboration with Nashen and Jenny Neighbour (SFF Programs Manager) and also Lisa Kitching (SFF Guests Manager). So together we look at which guests are coming to the festival and what we can get them to do in the Hub.
I was excited to see that Desiree Akhavan was coming. She’s part of that new generation, and is Dunham-esque. I don’t like using that description, but it is fitting.
For me she’s the typical Hub guest in a way, in that she’s part of a new generation of artists who like to try everything. So in this case she’s known for having created a webseries, and is coming to the festival to present a film shes written, directed and stars in and I think she’s going to be a huge talent. And we get this rare chance to spend some quality time with her in the Hub. We’re doing a 1 hour conversation with her in the Hub, which I think is designed so that we can meet people like her.4
Considering that you’ve lived in Toronto, San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo-
-How do you know all this?
Background research, perhaps too much. However, relative to those places, what do you think of Sydney’s film culture?
That’s a trick question.
No, no. Do you think it’s a strong film culture? Or do you think it’s a niche group, like the people who get the program and sit there and circle the films and take two weeks off work just for the festival.
I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for film in Sydney. I think, with the different cities I’ve lived in, such as Paris or Toronto, Sydney doesn’t have the most thriving film culture by comparison. Toronto has a winter that goes on forever, so it’s comfortable to go sit in a cinema. Whereas here, half the time you’re competing with the beach, which is a hard battle to win. But certainly I feel like sites like 4:3, which encourages conversation and has a really strong editorial line, in terms of the films that you think are worth getting excited about, is incredibly vital and it does part of the job we do at the festival, but it does it on a year round basis, which is also how you develop a film culture. So I’m very optimistic, when I see sites like yours come up and the level of enthusiasm and conversation that exists around those platforms. I think there’s also a third platform, which is – I need to put this quite carefully –
-you’re on the Dictaphone…
I know. Film commentators, who are more interested perhaps in breaking news and in helping publicists promote blockbusters than they are about having a serious conversation about film. And I think all of these things are important, but we need diversity in the discourse around film. We need people who are academics, and we need people who are fans. We need men, we need women, we need people who are reverential and people who are irreverent. So any new addition to that conversation is really welcome.
You keep mentioning the word ‘irreverent’. Is it something you feel about the film culture in Sydney, that it is too inaccessible?
No, not at all. I think the critical discourse about film in Australia could use an injection of the serious. I’m not in any way ‘rebelling’ against that form of discussion, I just think that there’s also a space for irreverent discussion of cinema, even if it does take the form of a burlesque performance. For me, what I’m most interested in, is hearing from a variety of people rather than just from Margaret and David (with all the respect I have for them!). But it’s about plurality of voices, including dissent.
Do you think theres potential in Sydney for a permanent form of a Hub-like space? Like the cinematheque francaise in Paris, or the Lincoln Centre in New York. And obviously those are huge cities with very strong film cultures, but do you think theres a potential for that in Australia. Do you think Australian film is strong enough to support that?
I think it has nothing to do with Australian cinema itself, those spaces you mentioned are dedicated to world cinema. I think it would be fantastic if Sydney had a year-round space, that was more than a cinema, that included exhibition space and a bar and included programming that went beyond what was being distributed. Whether that is a cinematheque program or films without distribution, short films, student films. So basically, one that was run, without an exclusively commercial imperative.
But how likely do you think it is for a space like this in Sydney?
I think it will happen, I think the 140,000 tickets that are purchased at the Sydney Film Festival each year show that there is an appetite for world cinema, beyond what is distributed commercially in Australia. I think the attendance at the Hub shows that the appetite for a social space and an exhibition space that is themed around film. The City of Sydney’s support of the Hub by lending us Town Hall, for example, shows that there’s also great will-power at the local government level to create spaces like there. I’m pretty optimistic it will happen. The sooner, the better.
What are your opinions on film beyond the screen. Especially with things like World Secret Cinema, and Underground Cinema?
We ran two of them, one in Melbourne and one in Sydney last year. I think we haven’t we haven’t even begun to explore the potential for programming around the simple screening. From secret cinema to viewing parties to Golden Age, which does a great job of that.5 There’s lots that can be done and I hope that more people will follow in those footsteps.
With your company The Festivalists, which was started in 2005, do you feel you now have more of a general focus on the ‘festival’ as a whole?
We started out in film festivals and now were branching out to cultural festivals in general. I feel that the spirit that underpins everything we do is to make culture more accessible. And that can be done any number of ways, from film festivals that are made more accessible to people with disability, to festivals such as Young at Heart, which are for seniors, who often feel excluded from the culture. Facilitating participation in culture is really important to me, so access underpins a lot of what we do. Any opportunity to celebrate diverse culture and to bring diverse audiences to new artists is one we take seriously.
Are you thinking of moving away from film festivals at all?
No no, we already run 4 film festivals and are about to take over the Windows on Europe Film Festival. Our commitment to film is unwavering.
Last question, did any films from the program, that you’ve already seen, stand out at all?
I really loved Eastern Boys which is a French film that manages to be about queer identity, class, immigration all at once, without feeling preachy or didactic. I think that’s one of the best films of the festival I’ve seen. I also liked Born to Fly. It’s a fantastic documentary on a choreographer called Elizabeth Spec. She does a form of extreme dance that I find fascinating, also because it subverts gender roles. It’s a documentary on her and her dancers, but its also about who gets to take part in these sports.6
Did you hate any? Not sure if you want to very publicly condemn a film.
You know what, I would happily tell you if there was, but of the films I’ve seen, there was nothing I disliked enough to make a point about it. It’s a testament to Nashen and Jenny’s programming – there are no duds. There are films you won’t like, and that you will like, but I challenge anyone to find a film that will leave them indifferent or that they feel has no value.
That’s good to hear. Thank you so much for your time.
No problem, I’ll maybe see you around the Hub in the next few weeks.
The SFF Hub launches on the 5th of June and is open daily. You can read more about it over at the official website.