Audiences arriving at the Centerpiece Gala, Comedy Theatre, Melbourne CBD, 2018

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 and beyond. The audiences that attend MIFF are more than just regular movie fans. They form a lively and engaged community, one that takes different forms over time and across the variety of program streams and venues that form the festival. At its core, the MIFF community is deeply committed to cinema, to watching it together, and to welcoming new friends into the annual ritual that is attending the festival.

Over 70 years, the MIFF community has grown in size and character. There were the groups of serious film festival-goers, who would gather in their overcoats against the winter chill around the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne through the 1950s. Or the lucky film society members, recent European emigres, and the film lovers of Melbourne who secured the much-sought-after tickets to the Palais Theatre in St Kilda through the 1960s and 1970s, and who would later gather down Acland Street to discuss the latest cinematic wonder. Then the next generation of audiences who arrived with MIFF’s revival through the 1980s, keen to dive into Asian cinema and an expanding music film program. Or the growing numbers of MIFF members, who through the 1990s and 2000s have shown their dedication to the cinema, eagerly lining up to get first dibs on their favourite seats in house.

These are the people who make MIFF a living and vibrant festival.


I’ll meet you at the festival

MIFF is an annual meeting place for many people. As audiences rush between venues, watching as many as five films in a day, the people they sit next to – or spot in the crowd every year, or meet for a drink or some food while discussing the latest screening – often become lifelong friends. A shared interest in cinema has led to marriage proposals, to lasting friendships and even to enduring acquaintanceships: connections that exist within the festival to be revived and renewed each year.

The attraction of the festival as a place to meet, a second family, and a familiar home, speaks to the importance that MIFF holds in the lives of many who attend. For some, MIFF is a pilgrimage, a quasi-religious experience. For others, it is an essential time of renewal, of finding validation and recognition in connecting with their tribe. The community that has built around the festival is one that thrives on the sense of connection, familiarity and solidarity that comes with watching films together.

For all true MIFF-fans, the festival’s dates are sacrosanct. This is when annual leave is taken to ensure days can be spent in the cinema, immersed in films. Or when travel plans are strictly avoided, so priority can be given to staying in Melbourne and attending the festival. MIFF is an event that is worth waiting all year to see.

“I’ve got a group of friends now who I've probably known for 25 years. We started out colonising one of the front rows of what must have been the lounge at the Palais. And even though technically you could not book the same seats every year – because in those days the Palais used to run reserved seats – we eventually figured out a way of subverting the system somewhat [to all sit in] I think it was either row H or row K. And so there's this group of us now, probably about 25 people, who have been going to the film festival in the same group for a very long time.”

Ric Begg, MIFF audience member, speaking of the Palais years

“Meeting the woman who was to become my wife on the ground floor steps of the Palais in the early 1980s during a break between the late afternoon and evening screening.”

Tom Ryan, film critic

“I’ve got such a deep passion and love for the arts in general. For me, it’s something that actually resonates with me as almost one of my core values. I think art is so important in all of its forms in the world. And so, when the festival comes around, I get this feeling of … It's almost like validation; a sense of validation. Like, this is the important time for us now.”

Jodi Rosenthal, MIFF audience regular


In the queue

Nothing says MIFF more than seeing queues winding their way around city blocks in the depths of winter. It is a sight to see! Lines of people huddled against the chill, eagerly awaiting entry into the next screening at the Forum, or Capitol, or even the city’s commercial movie houses like Hoyts Melbourne Central and, in by-gone days, Village City Centre and Greater Union.

These queues, glimpsed each year, are visible signs that the film festival in on again. Yet these lines of cinephiles are also an event in themselves. It is in the queue that people meet. Turning to the strangers next to them, MIFF audiences break the ice: what else have you seen? What films did you like? What are you seeing next?

Before social media, the queue was where the MIFF faithful could catch the festival buzz. The hot tip on what films to see, the latest word on stories told by filmmakers at Q&As, stories of who was seen where, or where is good to grab a quick meal.

The festival queue is a meeting place. Turning up to watch your film alone? Not for long: you’ll soon meet someone to talk to and share your passion for films!

“I suppose when I go to MIFF, my memories are of long lines sort of snaking around the block, and sort of marvelling that so many people value film like I do. Because it takes commitment: it's cold nights and – this is not an insult to MIFF – their seats can be quite uncomfortable, especially after consecutive sessions. Some of these venues have the, let’s say, old-fashioned charm, but they’re not in the most comfortable places for sitting.”

Kevin Lee, MIFF audience member

“You can pick a MIFF member or MIFF festival-goer from miles away. You can see us as we congregate together and then move apart. They’re probably easier to spot than a football crowd, I would think. And the queues! Oh my god, the queues were fantastic. We’ve tried every year to work out a way to escape the queues. But in those waiting times have been discussions with people about what films they’ve seen: what would you avoid, what would you go to, what’s the film that everybody’s talking about? And you know, you can kind of get that on socials but actually talking to people again, in the queues, is just such a fabulous way to find your way into [the conversation].”

Erin McCuskey, artist and MIFF volunteer

“I’m often a MIFF member, so I don’t have to get in the queue. Quite often, you know, you can go straight through. But I think the thing about the queue is that it does create the buzz. And so even when you get in the queue, and you’re standing there, and you’re freezing – it was always absolutely freezing – that was for me something that was tied to the experience of it. In the queue I often caught up with people that I knew, and you would have the conversation where they would share what they’d seen, what they thought was really good. You know, sharing recommendations.”

Lisa French, film academic and former MIFF board member


Famous Faces

Since 1967, international guests have joined Australian filmmakers and local celebrities in the festival’s cinemas and on its red carpets. Attending MIFF offers the chance to glimpse these famous faces through the crowds, or rub shoulders with them at screenings or gala parties. Post-screening Q&As offer a chance to glimpse the artists behind the screen, to find out more about who made the films and the stories that inspire them.

For many, highlights have included seeing Morgan Freeman in the foyer of the Regent Theatre at opening night in 2001, chatting with Josef von Sternberg or Satyajit Ray in the late 1960s, Wim Wenders in the 1980s, Darren Aronofsky or Jacques Martineau in 1998, and Quentin Tarantino a decade later. A sign of the world coming to Melbourne each year to share in our love of film.

For others, though, it was our local stars who shine brightest. Directors like Ana Kokkinos, or famous cinephiles Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, or even meeting people who would only later shoot to fame – such as Tony Ayres, who was first spied by past MIFF director Tait Brady as he worked the MIFF ticket desk.

Big or small, these celebrity sightings and shared moments are all part of the festival fun.

“Meeting Ang Lee, the two-time Academy Award-winning film director, [was a highlight, when] his second film, The Wedding Banquet, opened MIFF one year. I was there, I was a member at that stage, and I was lucky enough to meet him. A nice enough guy, and 25 years later he’s considered one of the world’s great living directors. So yeah, I can remember when he came to Melbourne with his second film. I also remember [James Hewison, MIFF Director 2001–2006] getting Geoffrey Rush to sit down and talk to the audience after a screening ... It’s been brilliant.”

Kevin Cassidy, regular MIFF attendee since 1985

“With film festivals, you see some great films. And you also see some crappy ones. But that’s the nature of the film festival. And the Melbourne International Film Festival had some of the best. I remember talking to the director Aka Kokkinos. In 1998, she premiered her film at the Capitol Theatre. Head On, which was fairly controversial at the time. The scene where the immigrants were arriving on the big cruise line at Melbourne dock, that really struck a chord with me … she captured the scene brilliantly. And she’s a great director. So I like following directors. That’s what film festivals taught me: to follow the directors, because quite often, in the guides, they will tell you what they’ve done previously. And that was a high recommendation. If you’re really seeing something from that director, you tend to follow them.”

Tony Coleiro, long-time MIFF attendee

“So 2009, I went in the capacity as a volunteer. It was the year that Inglorious Basterds was screening with all of the fancy guests – with Quentin, and I think Christoph Waltz was there, I think Mélanie Laurent was there. And I was doing front of house over at ACMI but I remember when that big session was on, with security everywhere, because they had to close off all the streets. And the other sessions that were happening at ACMI at the time, they were not at capacity. So I got sent over to Forum [where the Inglorious Basterds screening was happening]. I was in my oversized t-shirt, because they didn’t have a t-shirt that fit me. So I was wearing this gigantic dress of a vollies shirt, and I was standing up at the top of the stairs at Forum about this far from Christoph Waltz, and Mélanie Laurent and Quentin Tarantino, and I got to be the person to say ‘you can go in now’ when they were waiting to go and do their Q&A. That was kind of a blast.”

Melanie Sheridan, former MIFF program guide editor

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