Watching films at the Palais Theatre, 1968 (© News Ltd., courtesy of the State Library Victoria)

On Screen and in the Cinema

The magic of the festival is reached through its screens. These are places and spaces that captivate our attention, providing windows where films come to life before our eyes. As portals to the world, the festival’s screens allow us to travel the globe, move through time, and see through another’s eyes.

Yet these screens also remind us of home. They are fixed in place, in our memories and in our city, as the places that make the festival ours. The venues of the festival remind us of cold winter nights, of by-gone eras of grand cinema palaces, and the uncomfortable seats that are part of their charm. They remind us of quickly eaten meals, of long talks over drinks, of navigating the city and its suburbs in search of cinematic treats.

“One aspect of the festival is the great journey of life: traveling from one cinema to another, sometimes using public transport, sometimes running very fast, and hoping the queue was slow at the other end.”

Peter Flanagan, former board secretary and long-time festival attendee

For many who return year after year to the festival, it is the venues and the films that they watched there that resonate most strongly. Here the festival takes form, the films flicker to life, and the atmosphere builds. If the festival is a journey, the screen is its destination, and through that we travel beyond to new worlds and unexplored destinations.


Places and spaces

For over 70 years, MIFF has been the home of cinema in Melbourne. And Melbourne has been the festival’s home. From the blue gums of Olinda to the St Kilda foreshore, and into the heart of the city centre, MIFF has carved out its place within the city.

The places of MIFF indelibly shape our memories. From the carpet at the Greater Union cinemas, to the stunning atmospheric decorations at the Forum, and the grandeur of the Palais wreathed in fog, the venues of the festival stand out strongly in how the festival is remembered.

For many, these venues are recalled with fondness, of remembered screenings and the thrill of new experiences. The furnishings and decorations stand out alongside the frames of favourite films or memorable events. For others, though, it is the less salubrious elements of these venues that stand out. The discomforts and inconveniences, the technical challenges and shortcomings that must be endured or navigated to reach the goal of seeing a desired film. And for others still, it is the journey to and from these venues, or the adjacent spaces of restaurants and street corners that most mark the festival.

Through the places and spaces it creates and activates, the festival transforms the city. For three weeks of the year, there is nowhere quite like MIFF.

“I mean, it’s really all about the venues. That’s where we spent most of our time when we’re working there – when we weren’t in the office. There’s always that memory of the empty cinema, but knowing there’s queues of hundreds of people at the front. That’s quite exciting. As the staff are running around trying to pick up rubbish and get it already.

There was a whole period there as we were transitioning from analogue to DCPs. That was incredibly nerve-wracking. Before each screening, I have to say, there were some technical problems. There was one year in particular we had a lot, and the media made a big deal out of it. And I realise with hindsight that was happening all over the world. But I think being a festival you’re a lot more vulnerable in that way because you’re dealing with a number of different venues. They all have their own flavour – going up to Palace Kino, the Forum, ACMI, even Greater Union, bless it; they all had a different feel.

I love the venues, I love being out there. I guess I always think of them at night time. Maybe because it was very dark in Melbourne, in July, August. But I always sort of had this nocturnal vision of bright lights and garish carpet. That and audiences in their big coats.”

Michelle Carey, former MIFF artistic director (2011–2018)

“I’ve got to say at Greater Union, the launch of The Sapphires – when was that? About 2012? – that was such an amazing night, but I couldn’t believe that out of all of fabulous picture palaces in Melbourne, they chose to launch that film at Greater Union. But it was quite spectacular because the film was on simultaneously in a number of packed cinemas. So you could hear the audience response from different cinemas, slightly out of sync.

And then we had the best opening night party that I’ve ever been to at the festival around the corner, that amazing venue where you go through a little door and this kind of hidden space opens up and I just can’t remember the name of it [The Plaza Ballroom – ed]. But it’s a gorgeous place. And all the women who whose stories were told in The Sapphires, plus the performers, were there; Jessica Mauboy and her band were there. And the champagne was flying extremely freely. And there was a lot of dancing and singing. It was the best opening night I’ve been to.”

Felicity Collins, screen academic

“Well, the Comedy Theatre, which looks lovely – and I prefer to see [MIFF films] in an old cinema rather than a new one – but it’s really not that comfortable. Yet it captures the vibe somehow a lot better. There’s something about the contemporary venues that doesn’t feel as, I don’t know… the atmosphere is not as inviting as other venues. In fact, Adam Eliot said to me: I’m never going to any more screenings in that theatre. Some people, I guess, react really strongly. I get lost in the film once it’s started so mostly, I don’t notice. But you can notice, say, if you do three films in one uncomfortable venue, like the Comedy, then you kind of feel it in your back.”

Lisa French, film academic and former MIFF board member


The films

Each year hundreds of films flash up on MIFF’s screens, offering up a feast for hungry cinephiles. And each year these films are devoured, watched at a rate of five or six films a day by the most avid festival-goers.

The task of navigating the festival’s offerings is not for the faint hearted. Festival programs are consulted, dissected, and ordered into lists of must see films – all to be disrupted as a new recommendation throws well-ordered schedules into chaos. Then there is the joy of an inadvertent discovery. The film you booked on a whim, or didn’t expect to see but which, it turns out, will change your view on the world forever.

The films that stand out in the memories of MIFF’s audiences are the ones that surprise. They are the ones that delight, and revolt, the ones that provoke thought, or ignite discussions that last for hours, days, and even years.

These are the films that stand out among the thousands that have been screened at MIFF over its 70-year history. And everyone’s list looks a little different.

“I have a great physical and emotional memory for what I’ve seen or what I’ve experienced. I don’t always remember the names of the films, nor even the directors, but I do I have clear memories of motion. So there’s one film that I saw in the Forum – I’ve mentioned the Forum a few times – and in this film there is a really long period of time where we’re watching a young girl in a large communal bedroom, and she’s getting ready, and it goes for about 10 minutes. It is the most divine piece of cinema I’ve ever seen.

The other ones I guess that that stick with me are standards, you know, so the black and white, anything black and white just gets me. I just I go in and I float. And I come back out with motions and visions and memories that are all disjointed, but connected, because they all, in some way, connect with my heart.”

Erin McCuskey, artist and MIFF volunteer

The Final Member. I always remember that screening because it speaks to the broader experience of communal viewing. MIFF is one of the few times that you tend to be in a packed cinema, and seeing a film like The Final Member in a packed cinema, and listening to every single male in the audience just going ‘argghhh’ [gulping breath] throughout this film every time there was some kind of discussion of cutting off a penis or whatever. It was just this visceral experience of living this with so many other people in a cinema.”

Melanie Sheridan, former MIFF program guide editor

“I remember one woman I met, she pulled out a film festival diary, and I said ‘What’s that?’ And she says ‘Oh, I work at The Printing Works. And I’ve made these festival diaries. And I write in every film I see. There is a page for each film.’ And I said ‘Well, how many films you go to see at this festival? You know, there’s 101 sessions?’ She says, ‘Well, probably about 95. And I’ve got these diaries for the next 30 years.’”

Peter Flanagan, former MIFF board member and long-time festival attendee


That festival feeling

Watching a film at MIFF is not like watching a film at any old screening. Something happens at the festival that transforms the experience – there is a feeling, an atmosphere, a vibe.

There is a thrill that passes through the audience of a packed festival cinema. It creates a charge that can be felt by all in the room. This charge heightens the experience, making each moment more felt and more seen than it might otherwise be.

Sometimes this vibe erupts. A hiss at something in a film that isn’t liked, or directed at a person making too much noise, or the projectionist who has let the focus slip. Or perhaps it is the applause, which erupts spontaneously at the conclusion of films, a celebration of cinematic art that has been thoroughly enjoyed. Or perhaps it is the laughter, the gasps, and the collective sighs that run through the room in response to stories well told.

For many, it is the recollection of this atmosphere, this sense of connection and the thrill of the moment that remains long after memories of specific films or particular screenings fade.

“These days, I take it a bit more easily, you know, I go to one film or maybe two films, and absorb it. But in the old days I would dash around from cinema to cinema. It’s not until afterwards that you really can sit down and look at what you’ve seen, and rate them into various categories and things like that, which I used to do. I mean, I would see maybe 40, 50 films out of the festival. But there were people who would see up to 100. There were people who would go to every session every day, they’d take a fortnight off work, they’d book a bed and breakfast and stay somewhere in Melbourne, and that was it: they would just live at the festival the whole two weeks.”

John Turner, former MIFF committee member and Federation of Victorian Film Societies representative

“I remember being at restaurants like the Scheherazade, in Acland Street, and you’ve all come out of a morning session, or 10 o’clock session, at the Palais and you’ve gone to have lunch. And there are people debating and arguing and, you know, being very volatile about what they’ve seen. I remember going to see In the Realm of the Senses, the Ōshima film, where there’s a scene where a woman cuts off the penis of her lover. It’s quite vivid. Visceral. And I remember ‘aahhrr’, people screaming, women screaming in the audience. It was very, very strong, very loud.

And then going out afterwards, in the street you could hear people really discussing the film, whether they liked it, whether they didn’t, whether it was too much, et cetera. That’s probably my strongest memory.”

Trevor Graham, filmmaker, recalling attending the festival in the 1970s

“In the days when I used to see a lot more than what I have in the last decade or so, if you saw a film in the first couple of days, if it’s still resonating with you at the end of the festival you know that it is something outstanding. And of course, sometimes it’s a shared experience as well because you can feel that the whole audience is hanging on every second of this film, so that makes it sort of more enjoyable.

I remember very clearly the sensation of sitting in a full cinema for certain films, and it was almost like the experience of watching it with a group of other people was tantamount. That was the most memorable thing about seeing this film, because you knew everybody else in that cinema was hanging on every word and every scene in that film as well. It’s kind of a very shared joyous experience.”

Kieron Ogdon, regular attendee since the early 1990s

From the Festival Files

Making the Festival

The Melbourne Film Festival began as the idea of a few passionate individuals. A sub-committee, formed from delegates to the 1951 Australian Council of Film Societies film weekend, suggested that a small festival of films in the tourist town of Olinda should be held in 1952. The resulting festival was a testament to the do-it-yourself initiative of the Olinda festival committee. As some 800 festiv …

You Had to Be There

The thrill of the festival happens in a moment. In the shared moments created in being present at the festival, and in sharing experiences with others in the MIFF community. These moments are the instances that set the festival apart from the everyday, that remind us that we live in the present, and that some experiences are just too unique to replicate. … Each year, we return to the festival to …

The Living Festival

What would a festival be without its audience? There wouldn’t be a festival at all! … People are the beating heart of MIFF. It was the coming together of some 800 people in Olinda in 1952 that gave birth to the Melbourne Film Festival. Since that unanticipated outpouring of community love for film, MIFF has become an annual gathering space for film enthusiasts and the cine-curious from Melbourne …