Spanning a wintry fortnight in Sydney, Sydney Film Festival grips the city each year, inspiring hordes of rugged-up festivalgoers to shuffle between grand city theatres, regional hubs and pop-up bars for an eclectic program that features hundreds of selections from every imaginable shade of filmmaking.

Many festival regulars would be familiar with Director Nashen Moodley from his appearances introducing films and running onstage Q & A sessions. A dapper figure with a mellifluous speaking voice, he seems a natural on stage, though that is only a small part of his work, which involves managing the artistic side of the sprawling festival.

Earlier today, Moodley and colleagues announced the opening night gala film of this year’s festival; Australian comedy/drama Palm Beach.

Directed by Rachel Ward, it’s set in Sydney’s northern beaches and features Richard E.Grant, Jacqueline McKenzie, Greta Scacchi and Sam Neill in an ensemble cast. Bryan Brown is also along for the ride, as is daughter Matilda, who plays his onscreen offspring.

Palm Beach promises to start the festival on a feelgood note

“It’s a really funny and uplifting film, a wonderful film about friendship,” Moodley says of the 2019 opening night feature. “It takes in so many different elements of friendship and ageing, what you did right and what you might not have done right. It’s a film that will leave everyone in a very happy mood.”

In some years, the festival team mulls over several possibilities for the prestigious opening night slot and only settles on a final programming decision as the deadline draws near.

With Palm Beach, however, there was no lengthy contemplation required. “As soon as we saw it, we were pretty sure we wanted to invite it,” Moodley says. “”We show films from all over the world, usually more than 60 countries, but we also see ourselves as an important platform for Australian film.”

Now in his eighth year at the festival after stints as Head of Programming at Durban International Film Festival and a consultancy role with Dubai International Film Festival, Moodley reflected on the changing face of an industry dealing with shifting demographics and aggressive competition from the streaming sector.

“The opportunities to see films from around the world has actually narrowed,” he says. “Eight to ten years ago, there was much more variety in terms of country of origin for films seen at our cinemas.

“For the type of films we celebrate at our festival, the room for those kinds of films has narrowed quite a lot.”

Nashen Moodley on the role of festivals in the age of blockbusters

Moodley is well placed to offer an insider’s perspective on an industry increasingly dominated by behemoths like Avengers: Endgame and its Marvel universe stablemates.

“I wish there were space for everything but I don’t think there is at the moment, in terms of what is released theatrically,” he considers.

“We have more and more of these really domineering blockbusters…I do worry that we are increasingly seeing these films in cinemas that were previously arthouses and would cater to a far more diverse audience.

“Ironically, it makes the role of festivals stronger in a way because they become one of the very few places where you can extend yourself with an audience.”

Every festival throws up numerous examples of compelling but under-the-radar films. A few years ago, I bought a ticket to a film called Death Metal Angola based on little more than it happening to be the next festival film showing at the cinema I was at. It proved a complete revelation and a perfect example of the kind of hidden gem that Moodley laments often have little to no exposure outside of the festival circuit.

With this in mind, he urges festivalgoers to take a risk on something they wouldn’t normally see. “I encourage people to take a chance on a brand new filmmaker or a film from a country they’ve never seen a film from.

“For me, that’s how my life in cinema began. I saw something very unusual and it set me off on a path of discovery, not just in cinema, but in literature, food and all sorts of things.

“Watching a single film can spark a curiosity that in my case was life-changing.”

Nashen Moodley with Toni Colette and Steve Carell

Life as a film festival director

At the heart of Moodley’s role is spending ungodly amounts in time in darkened rooms around the world in search of the next festival sleeper hit. In one year, he watched more than 800 films. Does he ever feel tempted to abandon a turkey halfway through?

“I should do that,” Moodley sighs. “But I’m very curious to see how films end. It’s not an ideal characteristic to have in this work, but I do tend to stick everything out.”

When the festival fortnight rolls around, however, Moodley does not have a spare moment to kick back in the cinema. He normally sets himself the modest goal of watching a single film during the festival run and even that often proves a stretch.

“It’s all action,” he says, recounting late nights entertaining visiting filmmakers and backing up for early morning production meetings.

“It’s quite a whirlwind without many quiet moments. But it’s also a really fantastic time to have the excitement of crowds flooding in and being able facilitate a connection between filmmakers and the audience, that is quite lovely. But I do collapse afterwards.”

Sydney Film Festival 2019 runs from 5 to 16 June

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Photo credit: Sydney Film Festival