Macau’s Film Festival Punches Above Its Weight

 It may be unfair, but for a long time Macau’s international film festival was best known for losing its first artistic director, the legendary Marco Müller, just a few weeks before its inaugural event in 2016. Hiring Müller — the one-time head of Rotterdam, Locarno and Venice, and a titan of the festival circuit — was a major score for the budding International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM), so his sudden departure was the only topic of conversation that first year.

The reason for Müller’s abrupt resignation has never been revealed, but now it seems to be water under the bridge. With IFFAM kicking off its third edition in just about a week, the young event seems to have finally found its footing. “We had a number of sold out screenings last year, which was incredibly satisfying,” says Lorna Tee, the IFFAM’s head of festival management. “We had great demand on social media for extra screenings. It’s a nice feeling because the first year was so frustrating.”

Now that it has moved on from its rocky start, the festival is confronted by an even bigger challenge: how to build up a film festival in a city that doesn’t have much of a cinematic tradition. “That’s key for us,” says Tee. “How do we drive audiences into theatres and grow audiences from Macau and the region?”

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Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage – Photo courtesy IFFAM

When IFFAM launched, the sceptics were out in force. A cultural event like a film festival would never fly in the glorified gambling den that is Macau, they said. Hong Kong has dozens of film events, never mind established regional heavyweights like Busan, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Golden Horse in Taipei. Why go to Macau? But the executive vice president of IFFAM’s organising committee, Alvin Chau, is convinced the festival has a role to play.

“With a rich cultural heritage and Macau engaging in cultural and creative industries development, I’m confident that Macao can become the driving force for enhancing the regional development in [those] industries,” he argues. Like Las Vegas, gaming revenues are falling and IFFAM offers some much needed alternatives to the list of “things to do” in the city and broaden its appeal, along with family-friendly amusement parks and branded attractions at the casino hotels.

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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite – Photo courtesy IFFAM

The third iteration of IFFAM is shaping up to be a good one. Highlights include Panos Cosmatos’s psychedelic cult revenge fantasia Mandy, starring festival ambassador Nicolas Cage; Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; stylish Malaysian crime caper Fly By Night (Zahir Omar); Chinese entries Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng) and Up the Mountain (Zhang Yang); and Yorgos Lanthimos’s early awards frontrunner The Favourite. IFFAM’s profile has grown enough to entice Cage to host a masterclass on December 9, and the competition jury president this year is giant Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine). Chen’s Caught in the Web is also screening, which the festival’s artistic director, Mike Goodridge describes as being about “the impact of the Internet on our lives and really ahead of its time.”

The festival’s various sections bridge the arthouse with the commercial. There’s the popular genre-based Flying Daggers section; the Best of Fest Panorama, which brings together the buzziest films from the festival circuit this year; the Director’s Choice retrospective, where filmmakers curate their favourites; and two competition programmes, including the inaugural New Chinese Cinema section, showcasing the best by emerging Chinese-language directors — a section added by popular demand.

“Last year a lot of our foreign guests said, ‘It’s December, we’ve spent all year watching films but don’t know a whole lot about what’s going on in China,’” says Goodridge. “The idea is to show the best of Chinese independents to the international community and show off how impressive it is.”

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Competition entry Suburban Birds, by Qiu Sheng – Photo courtesy IFFAM

It also separates IFFAM from the pack of other Asian film festivals, particularly HKIFF, the region’s oldest public festival and industry market. “We don’t compete with Hong Kong. That’s a classic big city festival with 250 films. We only have 55. We like to look at ourselves as Telluride of the East, and we’re right at the end of the corridor that begins with Venice and Toronto,” adds Goodridge. So we want to give the foreign guests a fairly relaxed event. Everything is walking distance apart, you can engage with the industry. It’s a different festival.”

Altogether, Chau, Goodridge and Tee have roughly 40 years of film industry experience, so perhaps it is no surprise that IFFAM is now hitting its stride. Chau got into cinema the old fashioned way, by becoming enamoured with the movies as a kid. “It’s fascinating to see people’s stories through cinema screens,” he says. Aside from the festival, he’s an entertainment coordinator with Macau’s five-star hotels and is also president of Macau Films & Television Production and Culture Association.

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Malaysian filmmaker Zahir Omar’s slick, stylish debut Fly By Night – Photo courtesy IFFAM

The same goes for Goodridge, a self-described “film nerd” who at various times has been a critic, an editor for trade journal Screen, a programmer, and a sales agent and financier with London-based Protagonist Pictures, which produced critical darlings The Florida Project and American Honey. “I have a strange career,” he says. “The way I look at it is it’s all curation of one sort or another. This opportunity came up and I wanted to connect with an audience. I’d never worked with audiences before.”

Malaysia native Tee started her film career while she was working in theatre. A friend decided he wanted to make a film and recruited her to produce. “I didn’t know anything about producing films and he said, ‘Don’t worry, just find me the money,’” she remembers with a laugh. “So I found money, then it was location, then crew, then food, costumes, gear. It was a really amazing experience.” That film was festival favourite The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004), which led to stints at Variety, as the first Asian Film Awards producer, and with Andy Lau’s Focus First Cuts, which was a pioneer in bringing regional talent together. Tee has been at IFFAM from the beginning, and she was selected because she’s been down this road before, as director of Amsterdam’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

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Opening film and early Oscar contender Green Book, by Peter Farrelly – Photo courtesy IFFAM

The appeal of Macao was partly in the challenge of cultivating an audience in a city where a taste for cinema is subdued. “It’s great that there’s no baggage, but you’re starting from zero,” says Tee. Macau has traditionally been a market for fine arts — dance, music, theatre — but its small population has pushed it to the periphery for film distributors; HKIFF adjunct events and the defunct, tiny Macao International Film and Video Festival were the only outlets for film buffs until IFFAM came along.

IFFAM’s mandate is to grow audiences and support Macau’s tiny local industry. The festival features an Industry Hub and project pitching market, which connects over 200 international investors, producers and distributors with local artists. Tee says that one project was just completed and several are more in production from the Hub’s first two years. Tracy Choi’s fortuitously timed Sisterhood (which was developed while she was a student at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts) screened at the first, and the only shorts on the festival’s programme are all from Macau. Chau says that created a benchmark for how the festival can be used as a platform for Macau productions.

“All these dimensions have significantly contributed to the development of Macau’s film industry, and encouraged more young talent to make a go of filmmaking as a career,” he says. Tee says she thinks the Macau films are “new and fresh. Hopefully one day we’ll have a feature that opens the festival.”

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Portuguese-Chinese co-production Empire Hotel by Ivo Ferreira is a Macao Film Special Presentation – Photo courtesy IFFAM

The International Film Festival and Awards Macao runs from December 8 to 14, 2018. Click here for more details.

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