May 05, 1988

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

ARTS | Festival can choose from the best films in the world

Sydney Film Festival Opening Night at the State Theatre


COME June, the Sydney Film Festival will open for the 35th time. But how seriously it is taken by the rest of the world is not a question its director, Mr Rod Webb, has really thought about. 

“I don’t know if we have any major international impact,” he said. “Some film producers couldn’t give a damn about Sydney. The French and the Italians don’t want to know about us. Yet I get calls every day from the United States- they think it’s very important. So I don’t know.”

The festival, according to Mr Webb, is different in that it is non-competitive. It is designed to bring the best of the world to what he calls the “desert island” of the Australian film scene. Australians are isolated from the hub of world film activity, and the festival gives Sydneysiders a chance to see films that would not have been distributed commercially.

“We rely on the audience to pay for the festival, therefore our orientation is very much towards them,” he said. “In Cannes, the orientation is towards the international press and (film) buyers, and Venice is entirely a press event. Each of these can only show films that have not been shown elsewhere -the festivals compete with each other.

“Sydney, on the other hand, has more of a film-society aspect. We’re free to choose the best of all the films that have appeared at festivals throughout the world, and we do. We also premiere Australian films and, on a rare occasion, a foreign film nobody else has got hold of. That (freedom) enables us to get a nice spread of countries and styles.”

Three types of films don’t get shown - those that are considered sexist, racist or that originate in South Africa. The festival also promotes films that have been banned or censored in their own countries.

Although more of a “film society” gathering, the Sydney Film Festival is professional and still impresses many people.

“The big difference that amazes international guests is the State Theatre. It is the most splendorous film festival venue in the world, a 2,000-seat cinema that had Jimmy Stewart stunned when he came out. I have not been to another film festival anywhere as good and grand as this.”

He should know - globetrotting through every major film festival, travelling six months of the year and viewing some 1,000 films. Living out of a suitcase can be depressing, but he loves to cook and does so whenever he gets a chance.

When in Australia he compiles film notes in his Apple IIc computer and views local film entries during the day, and at night makes calls overseas to distributors and directors.

“I have to be in here till late at night ‘cause of the time difference,” he said. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job.”

The festival, with its $400,000 annual budget, derives 70 per cent of its funding from ticket sales and the rest from corporate and government sponsorship.