Q&A with Al Cossar, Artistic Director, Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)

We met with Artistic Director, Al Cossar, who shared his own fascinating insights on the programme with tips to help you start planning your own festival journey.
August 2021

It's exciting to see that this year MIFF will be both online and in cinemas. Can you tell us a little more about the programme and your top three films? 

MIFF this year is a pretty unique design in the nearly 70-year history of the festival. It’s the first time there's been a hybrid festival, meaning some of the films will screen in cinemas and some online. Last year, we created a digital streaming platform that we're bringing back this year as well. 

We're using nine venues in the Melbourne CBD, five cinemas around the suburbs, one drive-in and eight country Victorian towns simultaneously, so it's very ambitious. Being fully digital last year brought new audiences to us and helped people connect to MIFF who perhaps hadn’t been able to in recent times for whatever reason. Our regional audiences jumped tenfold in a year, so there were some really positive things which came out of it.

This year, MIFF features 280 films from all over the world including 27 films from Cannes and 40 world premieres. Basically, the mission of MIFF is to bring the world on screen to Melburnians and all of Australia as well. As well as festival blockbusters, there are new works from Australian artists and all over the world from New Zealand and Iceland to Turkey and far beyond. It will be a celebration of film and a welcome return to cinemas.

At this time, when people can’t travel and are pretty housebound, MIFF gives an opportunity to experience different cultures and different locations, something of cultural substance which is a really positive thing. It also provides that element of escapism which is powerful for audiences too.

A&K is delighted to be the presenting partner of Roadrunner, a documentary of celebrated chef, writer and adventurer Anthony Bourdain. What are the highlights of this film without giving too much away? 

This is a film made by an incredible documentarian, Morgan Neville, who's featured at MIFF in the past. He's an Oscar winner for 20 Feet From Stardom and co-directed the Gore Vidal film Best of Enemies recently as well. Roadrunner is a tremendous portrait of someone who lived their life so much onscreen but was a larger than life figure in the culinary world, the literary world and the world of television and travel. Thanks to thousands of hours of footage, Bourdain’s story is told in a way that hasn’t been seen before. It’s an incredible portrait of a man, but also illustrates the idea of travel and being a part of the wider world. And I think that's something that will really resonate with audiences right at this moment, for very obvious reasons. 

We have been reading about one of your special events, that's called Those left waiting. The first ever live documentary film by refugees from around the world. What a fascinating concept. How will this work on the night and what can viewers expect? 

This is really something special. It's spearheaded by Melbourne artist, Michael Beets, who works across a number of disciplines. He has three works in the festival this year. Those Left Waiting is an observational documentary which had its virtual premiere in Copenhagen a few months ago but this is really the world premiere taking place in a cinema.

The hour-long event will be live so is really very unique with linkups to five different refugee camps across the globe and people in those camps. The film maker will essentially be filming their lives, filming their stories and what they're doing at that moment in time. On stage, the director will be cutting and editing live. There will also be musicians and performers who will compose the score and play the music live on stage as well.

The project is experimental and unlike any other. It is also very topical with the many conversations that are happening right now on the subject, about marginalised voices and the self-determination of people to tell their own stories. This powerful collaboration allows refugees in camps - from Africa and the Middle East to Asia and Europe - to take control of how their stories are told. It's very bold and adventurous, and that's the kind of thing we love to give our audiences at MIFF. 

Many will be familiar with Henry Lawson's evocative short story, The Drovers Wife. How has the colonial story been reimagined in your opening night film that's written, directed and performed by Leah Purcell?

Without giving away too many plot points on this one, I can say it is a revisionist Outback Western adapted from the Lawson short story. It's had a really interesting creative journey, and Leah Purcell has been at the centre of it all. She's a creative force of nature. It was originally adapted by her into a theatre production, which won numerous awards, then into a book which won the New South Wales Premier's literary award and finally into a film where she has written, directed and starred in it. It is extraordinary and one of those films which you know absolutely welcomes audiences back into theatres with the grand landscape vision of a Western film. On another level, it's historical, but it's really resonant of the moment and has a lot to say about Australia and who we are together and who we could be. It speaks to challenging power structures and is a thrilling story. It's expertly crafted and we think it’s the perfect film to bring people back into the festival, into cinemas and to celebrate an incredible debut feature. 

Many housebound members of the MIFF audience will be dreaming about travel and planning new adventures. Which film would you recommend viewers watch to be virtually transported somewhere beautiful, exotic and far, far away? 

There's a film that I absolutely love called Stray. It's an American documentary by Elizabeth Lo, shot in Istanbul, Turkey, one of my favourite cities. It's a portrait of the city from the view of its stray dogs, everything is at dog’s eye view. You get an amazing sense of the place from this really unique perspective and it also shows how exotic and unusual the city is.

There's another film as well, called Bergman Island. It's direct from the competition at Cannes by Mia Hansen-Løve and stars Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps, seen recently in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. It’s the story of a couple who spend a summer on Fårö, a Swedish island and long-time home of legendary film-maker Ingmar Bergman. What ensues is a social drama with many levels to it, films within films and stories within stories. It's breezy and bright, but also very intricate and considered. And it has an incredible sense of place. 

You were born and bred in New Zealand. What was your favourite holiday destination growing up in the land of the long white cloud? 

As a child growing up, the Waitomo Caves were really magical and otherworldly. I felt like they revealed something very special, and unexpected. And another place in the North lsland, where my grandparents lived, called Ruawai on the edge of the Northern Wairoa River also has fond memories for me as we visited quite often and explored much of the area. It’s a memory that I distinctly associate with my childhood.

Tell us about your dream New Zealand road trip?

My wife had never been to New Zealand until a few years ago, so every time we go over I try to find somewhere new to take her. Napier is a standout. It's got a great personality and just getting there is an extraordinary adventure. 

Well now you're a resident of Melbourne, what are some of the hidden gems you love to show visitors when they're in town? 

Melbourne is such a vibrant place with an exciting laneway culture and great dining options. There’s always something new and unexpected to discover. A place I love, and take people to, is Moon Dog World in Preston, a fun bar and brewery in an industrial back street. Inside, there’s a waterfall, a lagoon, a tiki bar and 72 beers on tap even a kid’s playground. It’s bold and creative and lots of fun to hang out in, very Melbourne.  

I also love the Dandenongs which is a great place for a staycation just 35 kilometres east of the city. We often take a house in Olinda for the weekend and completely get away from it all. The Piggery at Burnham Beeches is a favourite with family-friendly menus and delicious farm-to-table food.

If you could take yourself away on a once in a lifetime luxury holiday anywhere in Australia, where would it be? 

Definitely Tasmania, and in luxury. I'm not the lying on a beach kind of person, although I do love a bit of sunshine. But Tasmania is great, you can drive around in three to four hours and its dramatic landscapes give you a really unique sense of place. Hobart is a beautiful city and a very creative one. If I wasn't living in Melbourne, I would probably choose Hobart to settle down in.

I've done a couple of summer trips there attending events like the Falls Festival in Marion Bay and The Taste Festival and they have such a creative vibe. It’s also easy to find lovely, secluded places which have a sense of exclusivity and occasion about them.

And finally, what we're all dreaming about. When we can all travel abroad again, where is first on your list?

My daughter is 2 ½ now so I'm thinking about where to take her. Japan is high on the list as I haven’t been there since I was a teenager. It’s easy to get to and so much to see. And the food is so amazing.

Alaska and Easter Island are also places that excite me because they are far flung and remote and I think you would really get a deep sense of escapism there.

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Explore the full MIFF program here