End of an era. Melbourne Queer Film Festival director's last hurrah
It’s the end of an era for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Rachel Cook speaks with Lisa Daniel about her time as director as she heads into her final festival.
Not many film festival directors can lay claim to a fan club, but Lisa Daniel can. Some years back a team of avid MQFF followers formed the ‘Lisa Daniel’s Groupies’ club. They created a public Facebook group that gave people a forum to express their gratitude to Daniel and wore T–shirts emblazoned with ‘Lisa Daniel’s Groupies’ at MQFF screenings and events.
Now while Daniel shies away from such adulation, it was a pretty telling moment in her stint as director. Not only was it an indication of the sort of support Daniel garnered from the LGBTI community, it was testament to the public’s understanding of just what she had achieved.
In 1999, when Daniel took over as director, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival was a very different beast. There certainly wasn’t the level of major corporate sponsorship there is now and you didn’t see the Lord Mayor making speeches at the program launch. Different times yes, but it was also Daniel’s intention to take the festival into more polished territory.
“What I did was, and this might sound really wanky, but I took the rainbows out of the festival a bit. I wanted to balance that community event feel with something that was more of a professional event about film,” Daniel says.
This meant quality took precedence of quantity, the artwork became more commercial looking and technology was invested in. The sleepy little festival that always had a captive LGBTI Melbourne audience moved into bigger realms and had the likes of Frameline (San Francisco’s queer film festival) sit up and take notice.
There is no question that the MQFF is now one of the most respected queer film festivals in the world – Daniel ranks it within the top three to five – and while this is in many ways thanks to Daniel’s efforts she is also quick to acknowledge the rise of quality queer cinema.
“We have access to much better material these days. Back then, you could see a shorts package and it would have nine films and only two would be any good.
“When I first started I think we had about 150 submissions and this year we had 1,200. So the sheer volume of stuff to get through is just extraordinary. And we’re only showing 180 films, so it means you are saying no to a lot of stuff.”
However, as many would agree, as does Daniel, lesbian cinema has not taken the same quality trajectory as gay cinema. While we have the brilliant Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same), angst ridden tales of break ups with straight women, break ups over IVF and cheesy wedding films abound in lesbian films. Daniel could be forgiven for leaving MQFF just on the amount of bad girls’ films she has had to endure. And while Daniel does wonder why lesbian filmmakers seem to be “obsessed with the depressing aspects of life”, she concedes there is a good reason why women aren’t making the same amount of good queer cinema as men.
“The simple answer is men and money. It just reflects the general patriarchy of where women are at in society. There is more money for films about men’s issues, even if they are gay.”
Given this, it would have been easy for Daniel to lean the festival towards a white, gay male audience. She could have relied on this demographic and simply catered to their whims, but she didn’t. She saw her role as opening up the possibilities for challenging audiences, and so when some years back she was on the receiving end of complaints from gay men about having to read subtitles for the opening film, she thought that meant it was probably time for more foreign language films.
“They didn’t want to read,” Daniel laughs. “This year the opening and closing night films are both foreign language films, so they will be reading a lot!”
(Watch Madeliene Olnek talk about her new film The Foxy Merkins which is screening at MQFF)
The festival is also now home to great trans cinema, too. The shift away from ‘transitioning films’ has been deliberate and while Daniel says there will always be a place at the festival for films about the hormonal and surgical side of transitioning, there are plenty of worthwhile films where the key character just happens to be trans.
“There’s an embarrassment of riches now,” she says. “I used to cop it years ago for not having enough trans films but I always thought it was about quality and I think it’s kind of insulting to have shitty trans films in just to fill a quota.”
This is Daniel’s final MQFF; stepping into her shoes won’t be an enviable task and the festival has realised this. A restructure is on the cards and it is more likely the director’s role will be divided into two positions.
“My title is festival director, which is all encompassing, and I think what they will do is have an executive director who does all the face of the festival stuff and then they will have a curator who will see films and program the festival.”
After 17 years Daniel says it’s time for fresh eyes. She says with no hesitation she is “exhausted”. Apart from being the face of the festival and the curator, she has also been everyone’s go-to person. Perhaps the main reason the ‘Lisa Daniel’s Groupies’ club eventuated was the fact that she made herself available to anyone and everyone.
“I always wanted to be available to speak with the punters. They have always been able to ring me or I’ll email them, I’ve tried to balance that sort of grass roots approach of ‘this is your festival, I’m just the lucky dude that has been driving it’.”
When asked what she will miss most, it’s quite simple:
“Seeing a full cinema full of queers watching a great queer film is so much fun – you can’t replace something like that.”
Melbourne Queer Film Festival runs from March 19 -30. Tickets on sale now – mqff.com.au
(top image Lisa Daniel photo Craig Francis)