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Nashen Moodley’s approach to his work may best be described as the unabashed love of a true cinephile tempered with a deep sense of directorial duty. By Ruby Hamad.

Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley

SFF director Nashen Moodley.
SFF director Nashen Moodley.
Credit: Fabrizio Maltese

“When you go into a cinema, you have to go in with a feeling of optimism,” says Nashen Moodley, long-time director of the Sydney Film Festival. “When you start a film that’s a potential to be in the selection, you have to be thinking, ‘This is going to be great, I’m going to see something wonderful.’ And I still have that feeling, it’s never diminished.”

Moodley’s approach to his work may best be described as the unabashed love of a true cinephile tempered with a deep sense of directorial duty. He is something of a romantic when it comes to the power of the cinema to move audiences. “I don’t think it’s easily replicated if you’re watching something at home,” he says. “When you’re in that cinema, and it’s filled with people and there’s something in the air just before the film starts, it’s magical, it’s really magical.”

We are speaking just two days before Moodley is to head to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time in 11 years. “I go to many festivals and I used to go to Cannes before I moved to Sydney,” he tells me. “But because it’s very, very close to the Sydney Film Festival I haven’t been in a long time.” He made an exception for Cannes’ 75th anniversary, and because it was the first major film event since the start of the pandemic. “I thought it was very important to go.”

Moodley had good reason for wanting to witness Cannes’ comeback firsthand. This year marks SFF’s own return to an almost pre-pandemic-style program, with live events and international guests. Before the pandemic, his 11-year tenure had seen the SFF through a period of extraordinary, multifaceted growth. He expanded the festival from its city-centre hub in all directions, with additional screenings in Sydney’s northern suburbs, the inner west, south to Casula and west to Blacktown.

The number of screenings grew from 129 to 307 features and documentaries drawn from 55 countries. Most importantly, audiences responded to his vision. The 2019 festival was its biggest ever, with attendances rising to 188,000, compared with 115,000 in his inaugural year. Then in 2020 Covid-19 forced the festival to go virtual, followed by a muted, hybrid version last year. Combine the anticipation of a world longing for a return to normalcy with the challenges of regaining the momentum halted by the pandemic, and Moodley could be forgiven for feeling the pressure to deliver a seamless comeback. “There’s always pressure to deliver a really excellent festival, with a great program, with a great deal of activity and excitement,” he says.

He believes that fostering public trust in the curation process is his most crucial task: “It’s important that the selection is trusted; that there is a sense of integrity in the selection that is known,” he says. But for Moodley, 2022 is about delivering not only a memorable event but a safe one. “We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. There are still constraints. There are still difficulties and dangers. We certainly do feel that there is a great deal of expectation, but at the same time we’ve got to ensure that people can feel very confident returning.

“We know that there is still hesitancy across the world, so we see the festival as being something to really draw people back in the cinema. This experience of being in the cinema together is such a wonderful one and people have missed it.”

It may be difficult for casual moviegoers to comprehend just how many films – more than 800, he once said – Moodley watches every year. He laughs off any suggestion that this could cause films to lose their magic for him. “Even with the amount that I have to watch, I never see it as a terrible chore. I don’t think it’s a terrible task ahead of me if I have to watch six films in a day, so I’m always very open to everything I watch.”

Of course, this involves one of the less enviable parts of his job – having to reject far more films than the festival can screen. Moodley empathises with the disappointment felt by many hopeful filmmakers but also hopes they understand why festivals make the choices they do. “It’s very important to deal with everyone in a very honourable way,” he says. “Sometimes films simply miss out because we have a film already that’s very similar, for instance. We [also] want to create a range of themes and geographical diversity in the festival.”

In other words, rejection is not necessarily a reflection of a film’s quality. “As long as there is that integrity in the process. When people see the final selection, they can understand why those films are there,” he says. “And [audiences] don’t have to like every film, of course, I don’t expect that and that would not be the ideal.” He pauses. “That’s too safe, I think, if everyone loves everything.”

Moodley laughs when I suggest he has one of those rare and desirable jobs that many people may covet but would have no idea how to enter. “A lot of my friends from around the world who are heads of festivals or programmers have all come from such different, sometimes what could be considered strange, backgrounds,” he agrees. “There’s no path that I can identify. There is no course at university that you can do and then you become a festival director or a festival programmer.”

All of which is to say, he fell into it. His path began more than two decades ago in his home town of Durban, South Africa, as a journalism student who, he recalls, “really loved the cinema from the time I was very, very little”. When the Durban Film Festival was unexpectedly short-staffed, Moodley applied for a part-time job editing the festival catalogue. “There was a list of jobs the festival really needed [people] for with very short notice. So the festival was trying to bring a group of people together to do different things,” he says. “And I was young and arrogant, and said I could do them all. I guess they were in a pretty desperate situation because they let me.”

It clearly worked out. Moodley continued on a part-time basis for several years, while also working full-time at a newspaper. Eventually the festival offered him a full-time position. “I really enjoyed the work … here’s something I could do where I could learn a lot more about the cinema. I could travel around the world meeting filmmakers. But I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to take this full-time job at the Durban Film Festival and do this for another 20 years.’ I didn’t think of it at the time as something that would happen. But here we are. I’m still doing it after 20 years.”

Moodley served as Durban Film Festival’s head of programming for 11 years before moving to Sydney. In that time, he has also advised many prestigious festivals around the world and been a jury member on others, including Toronto, San Sebastian and Busan. Despite his high profile, he reverts to enthusiastic fandom when discussing the filmmakers at the centre of every festival. More than anything, it’s his admiration for directors who push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling that keeps him in love with his job. “The people who make me nervous in their presence are great directors,” he admits. “I’m still very much a fan of filmmakers, so if I’m doing a Q&A with Nuri Bilge Ceylan [Winter Sleep, SFF 2014] from Turkey or Bong Joon-ho [Parasite, SFF 2019] from Korea, those are my real heroes.”

A good director gives audiences a window into a world they may otherwise know nothing about, while also tapping into a common humanity. This, he says, is how filmmakers, like all artists, can influence – or even change – people’s perceptions. “We live in very different circumstances in different places in the world [but] we share the need for love, for dignity, for safety, [the need] to lead good lives,” Moodley says. “What filmmakers do – I mean, in 90 minutes, you can get a sense of a place, of the community there, of people facing challenges, and it broadens your understanding … I often find if I watch a film that I find really interesting from a place I know very little about or a situation I know very little about, I try to watch more films about that region, about that place, about that subject. I’ll try to read books about that, I’ll try to read novels, or a nonfiction work. It can often lead people on a path of discovery.”

He counts Palestinian two-time International Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad, whose latest thriller Huda’s Salon – about a Palestinian mother blackmailed into spying for the Israeli secret service – is screening out of competition this year, as among his all-time favourite directors for this reason. “He is really a great filmmaker,” Moodley says. “I opened the Durban Film Festival with Paradise Now [Abu-Assad’s 2005 debut about a young Palestinian man exploited by a terrorist organisation] many, many years ago.”

He quickly adds that there is more than one way to approach any story. “The film that [Abu-Assad] is best at is the thriller. Whereas a filmmaker like Elia Suleiman, who also makes magnificent films set in Palestine, he uses satire and sometimes outright comedy. His films are sometimes sad and sometimes tragic but also incredibly funny. Both of these filmmakers work in very different forms, very different modes, but both give us a sense of what is happening in Palestinian society.”

Moodley is excited about the potential of this year’s opening night feature, We Are Still Here – an anthology that interlaces eight stories spanning 1000 years told by 10 First Nations directors from Australia and New Zealand – to affect audiences. “There is incredible talent in the film,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Let’s give these filmmakers who’ve done this amazing work a really big profile in the festival on the opening night.’ I think they’re going to have a great time, and the audience is going to have a great time too.”

When it comes to recommending this year’s “unmissable” films Moodley is like a parent asked to pick a favourite child. “My ideal is that people watch 50 films in the festival but –” he cuts himself off and laughs. What he would love, he says, is for audiences to see as many of the 12 films in the official competition as they can. “These are the films that are really pushing the cinematic arts forward,” he urges. “Watch as many of [them] as possible – if not all of them … 12 days, 12 films,” he laughs again.

The word “love” has come up so many times in our conversation it’s little wonder that this year’s program sees love play a central role in many of the films – an unplanned theme that initially took Moodley and his co-programmers by surprise. “Towards the end of the selection, I felt, ‘Wow, these are films that are going to draw big emotional responses,’ ” he says. “They’re going to have people crying in the cinema and laughing in the cinema and being jolted in the cinema and that’s going to be an incredible experience as a collective experience.”

He’s unsure at first whether this reflects a current emotional state that draws the curators to these kinds of films or a wider trend of filmmakers making intimate films as a defiant pushback against the global events of the past few years. “I think it’s a combination of both,” he says finally. “I think filmmakers have responded in this way of making these very intimate, intense, emotional films. And I think as programmers we’ve responded to that and [we] feel somehow that we need that, and the audience needs that.

“The world has gone through a horrid time. It’s something on a really global scale and perhaps we all need a bit of love. We need some sort of emotional outpouring. I feel these experiences will remind people why they love the cinema.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Movie magic".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and cultural critic.

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