Judging the Sydney Film Festival is hard work but someone’s got to do it. One of those people is Grainne Humphreys.
Alongside four other talented professionals in the film world (producers, directors, documentary makers), Grainne Humphreys is in Sydney to watch and judge the Sydney Film Festival’s (SFF) official competition.
Her profession? Director of the Dublin International Film Festival. Which means she knows a thing or two about films – and festivals for that matter.
This year there are 12 films at the SFF that are up for scrutiny, praise and everything in between from Humphreys and her peers. Like the judges, these films are vast and varied, taking audiences from Quebec (It’s Only The End of the World) and Rio (Viva) to the most isolated points of Australia (Goldstone). Humpheys may not have finished watching them all quite yet, but already she’s unafraid to say that they’re “fantastic.”
We sat down for a chat with the bubbly lady. And while we failed to tease out her favourite of the competition, we did manage to get a little insight into the judging process and what other films are worth their grain of salt at this year’s festival.
Q: How did you get chosen to be a judge at the SFF?
I’d been working with Nashen Moodley (Festival Director of the Sydney Film Festival) on an Irish season, so I said to him that this is an important year in Ireland. It’s 2016, it’s the centenary of the 1916 risings.
There’s been a lot of focus on the Irish and Irish culture and because of my position in working on the Dublin Festival I knew it was going to be a fantastic year for Irish film. I said to him, “If there was going to be a year when Sydney might be interested in doing a focus or a celebration, next year’s a good one!”
Q: Have you been a judge at any other film festivals?
I’ve done a couple of juries this year. It’s a really interesting way to see a festival. You really have to be focused. You’re not necessarily hanging out with friends – robust debate does take place. You have that sense of watching a film, knowing that you’re going to have to defend your position afterwards.
Q: How do you personally judge films?
One of the things I’m always really conscious of is that I’m really curious. I’ve always been the kind of person who, when the lights go down, I’m always going to be excited about what’s going to happen. I think that’s one of the things I’ve tried to keep.
I find some of my colleagues are tired. They’re jaded and they’re cynical. I usually start with the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a very good example because it’s a terrible film, but Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds gives everyone an A and says to her students that it’s theirs to lose. I think that’s the approach I give every film I’m about to watch. You have absolutely my full attention and you have my best expectations – you’re the one who can lose them.
Q: Are you watching the films with your fellow judges?
In the same row! Which is really interesting because you’re conscious of other people. Do they twitch? Or do they drink a lot of water? It’s very intense but we have a fantastic jury – they are really WATCHING the films and I’m learning so much from them because I love how they can see a film differently from me, or they read it in a particular way.
I think that’s where the power comes from: the conversations when you are trying to decide. It’s where people come together and they say, “Yes, I agree with you and this point is more important than the other”.
Also what’s lovely is you see the films with audiences. One of the dangers in film festivals or even when you’re programming is that you see screeners. I’ve been programming the festival in Dublin for ten years and before that I programmed a documentary festival, and one of the things that’s really hard is tone. I consider myself as having a good sense of humour but I’ve often seen myself crossing my arms during a comedy, going “that’s not funny!” when the world around me finds it funny. I think that’s one of the crucial elements of it.
Q: What advice do you have for people trying to decide on the films they watch?
I keep saying to people, “Do one that you want to see and then a risk. Then at least you’ll have discovered something.”
People are so conditioned to make decisions to see movies having seen behind-the-scenes interviews, sizzlers, trailers that when you say to them, “Here’s something and I’m not going to tell you anything about it at all”, they go “Oh no, I’m not going to see that.”
I quite like that part where you’re sitting there and you have no idea where it’s going to go.
Whether they’re ones you want to see or are a risk, here is Humphreys’ recommended list of films to watch at the SFF (that aren’t in the competition):
- The Janis Joplin
- Ms Sharon Jones
- The Lure (“It just starts off with this huge explosion of energy and it’s about mermaids and I went ‘Oh my god! I have no idea where this is going!’ And it’s so enjoyable to watch a film like that. That’s what film festivals are about.”)
- Neon Bull (“Really beautiful.”)
- A Monster with a Thousand Heads (“Gripping.”)
- The Commune
- Innocence of Memories
- Closet Monster (“I found it quite challenging. Maybe that’s me. It’s one of those films you either absolutely loved or absolutely hated.”)
- Being 17
- Maggie’s Plan (“That’s a comedy that will make you laugh!”)
- War on Everyone
- Gimmie Danger
- Captain Fantastic (“Really fantastic.”)
- Love & Friendship