Meet the boss: Sydney Film Festival director, Nashen Moodley

1 June 2018

Image: Sydney Film Festival director, Nashen Moodley taken by Vincenzo Amato
Image: Sydney Film Festival director, Nashen Moodley taken by Vincenzo Amato

The doors of the Sydney Film Festival will open from 6 - 17 June in cinemas across Sydney CBD and the greater Sydney. In celebration of this iconic annual Sydney event, Film Studies Honours students caught up with the ultimate film guru, Sydney Film Festival director, Nashen Moodley.

Nashen lives and breathes cinema - his impressive career in the industry has seen him work on film festivals across the world including South Africa, Dubai, India, Asia, South Korea, Mexico, and for the British Film Institute in London.

But how many movies has Nashen seen and what is his all-time favourite? Our students found out. Here's what he had to say.

1. How do you begin planning the festival?

We have a broad structure for the festival. Some things don't change very often, such as the Official Competition, feature film, and documentary sections. We start by thinking: what country do we focus on? Who should be the subject of the retrospective? Or, do we want to add a new program? For instance, the Art + Film program is something we've wanted to explore for some time.

Then we start watching films. No, before we start watching films, there is also the structure of the festival in a physical sense. The festival will comprise of close to four hundred sessions, beginning at the State Theatre. So we have to consider, do we need a new venue that is more accessible, or better for families? That is how we made the decision to move the Screenability and family films programs to the Entertainment Quarter. You have this massive matrix of places where you need to book films. You get a sense of how many films you need, then you start selecting films.

2. We know you travel around the world to scout films for the festival. What is the scouting process like, and how many films does a festival director watch in a year?

The scouting process is done by myself and my colleague, Jenny Neighbour, travelling to many festivals. I start in August with Venice and Toronto, and then Korea, Japan, and India. At the start of the year I go to Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin, and then to Paris for private screenings. That is the travelling component. We're also sent hundreds and hundreds of films. Thousands, actually, through various sources: submissions, sales agents, Australian distributors, contacts we have with filmmakers and producers. We have long relationships with many of them, and we make the selection that way.

In terms of the count, I once counted eight hundred films, and I thought that was way too many and it sounded really sad [laughs]. I watch fewer films now. At the time when I watched around eight hundred films a year I was also watching lots of short films, and now I don't watch as many short films, but still I see several hundred films a year.

3. What is the process for the selection of films?

We have many curators we work with. We work with David Stratton on the retrospective, and for Freak Me Out we have Richard Kuipers, but primarily the selection is made by my colleague Jenny Neighbour, who programs the documentaries, and I program the feature films. We have an independent committee who chooses the short films for the Dendy Awards. All these things are very clearly timelined. We've got to hit certain milestones in terms of our selection, because when there is such a big selection, you can't say, right, these are the three hundred films I want, and then they magically appear. It's a lot of negotiation. Some are easy to secure: the biggest films, the best known films. The very newest films are the most difficult to secure.

4. Do you have autonomy over the film selection for the festival, or do you have certain interests you have to negotiate?

We really have complete autonomy over the selection. There are no impositions, but there is a desire to have a diverse program. We want to show films from all over the world. We want to say we have films from at least fifty countries, and this year we have sixty-five. That is something we really want to do, but that also influences our decisions. We'll say, ok, we don't need ten films from this country, we need something from somewhere else, or from this region. But we have great autonomy in the selection, and you're right to ask because that is not to be taken for granted. I think film festivals are very much effected by issues of funding and censorship.

5. Is there a particular theme you consider for the festival?

The festival never has an established theme. As the selection process progresses and develops, we see many themes emerging at other festivals. I think last year's program [for SFF] was far more overtly political, and the year before as well, they're really overtly political.

6. This year is seemingly political as well, particularly in reference to the #MeToo movement.

It is, but I think more through the personal. So yes, political issues, but seen in very intimate ways. I think that is the difference.

7. What are your thoughts on the role of the film festival in society?

I think film festivals have many roles to play. It's important for the audience to be exposed to cinema from all over the world. Theatrical release is becoming narrower and narrower, and we have more superhero movies than anything else in cinemas sometimes. I have no problem with that, but I think festivals provide access to films from all over the world.

Festivals also provide a really important platform for filmmakers to show their work, to engage with an audience, and to be exposed to cinema from elsewhere. To filmmakers who are working with maybe less money, or far more money, or no money, or approaching a particular subject. I think filmmakers can learn from other filmmakers through watching their films and having discussions with them.

What I hope this festival does, is what the first festival I encountered did to me, which was really open me up into this entire different world. I grew up in South Africa, at a fairly terrible time in the history of that country, where everything was very closed and very narrow minded. To be exposed to all these cultures of the world, I really felt that I'd, through the cinema, and not even the cinema in general, broadly speaking, but just going to one festival in one venue, I could see these great stories from all sorts of different places and cultures and styles and it really opened me up to the world.

Australia in 2018 is a different situation to Durban in the '90s, but I still want the festival to have that influence, that piquancy. There is an entire world out there. I think what I've discovered over time, is though you think you're different, or we're different, here, the more you see and the more you encounter, you realise that the fundamental concerns of most people no matter where they are, are very, very similar. They want dignity, they want shelter, they want to have love and understanding. It's quite simple. It's what we perhaps take for granted in a largely privileged society like Australia. But I think the concerns are quite similar no matter where you come from. So, film festivals can do that, too [chuckles].

8. A few of the films at this year's festival were banned in their own countries. How do you feel about being able to present those films here, in Australia?

Well, I think it shows that we are privileged. There's nothing to prevent us from showing what we want. We have free speech, we have artistic freedom, and those are things not to be taken for granted, because free speech and artistic freedom are under threat all over the world, in many, many places, in ways subtle and unsubtle. It's something we should protect in every country that we have it, and we should try to fight for it in countries that don't.

I think it's ridiculous that Rafiki is banned in Kenya, I think it's a regressive, idiotic decision. It's hypocrisy to celebrate Wanuri for being the first Kenyan to have a film in the Official Selection in Cannes and then say the film can't be shown to Kenyans. It's a fantastic film. It's a very brave film, and beautifully acted, and it really gives you a sense of Nairobi.

9. Do you have any highlights for this year's festival?

There are many, many films. There are many films I was really surprised by, and when you watch that many films and you do the selection every year you don't think you'll be surprised that often. I don't want to pick one out because I think that's unfair.

10. You've programmed some wonderful durational films, such as the Gangs of Wasseypur in SFF 2012.

Thank you! We thought no one was going to go, because it was so long, and it was a strange Indian film and no one here really knew the director. It is a fantastic film. This year there's a Chinese film called An Elephant Sitting Still that's four hours long and it's just magnificent. Sadly, the filmmaker took his own life before the film was finished. It's his first and sadly only film, and it's just tremendous.

11. Do you have a favourite film?

I have many, and I give different answers at different times, but the one I use mostly and I go back to it, so maybe it is my favourite, is Rashomon. I love Rashomon, the Kurosawa film. It's one of those things where I saw it and my life changed instantly. My interests changed instantly. I wanted to watch every Japanese film I could watch, and I wanted to go to Japan, and I wanted to read Japanese novels, and I wanted to eat Japanese food. It was also an entry point into this different form of storytelling and different form of filmmaking. I think he did some incredible things with that film.

12. What are your thoughts on Sydney Film Festival's relationship with Sydney University?

Well, of course you know the festival started at Sydney University all those years ago. The relationship is broadening. We've had a great partnership with Sydney University over the last few years and we're looking at expanding that partnership. There are many ways I think in which the students and the faculty - interested in cinema, teaching cinema, studying cinema - can interact with the festival and our festival filmmakers, who are here every year. We want students from the university to see more films, of course, but I know it's always difficult because of our timing in relation to the exams, which is unfortunate.

13. What does cinema mean to you?

Oh, wow! What does it mean to me? I think cinema is the world. I love many art forms, I'm not only interested in cinema. I'm interested in literature, in cricket, which I think is also an art form, I'm interested in theatre and television… but for me, what cinema can do so magically is that, in ninety minutes or two hours you can be completely immersed in this other world. You can learn something completely new. You can encounter something that you've never encountered before. In two hours, you can leave very fulfilled, and on a new journey. It can set you on a completely new path. I think that's what cinema means to me. Cinema is the world. It reflects the world. Like all good art it helps us make sense of the world.

Do you want discounted tickets to the Sydney Film Festival?

A limited number of discount tickets are available for University of Sydney students and graduates. To get the code, email for details.

For more information about our partnership with the Festival, visit the USYD Sydney Film Festival website.

The Sydney Film Festival is held from 6 - 17 June across the CBD and greater Sydney. The University of Sydney is an Education Partner of the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.