Mat Kesting. 

In planning this year’s Adelaide Film Festival, creative director and CEO Mat Kesting and his team put together not just one event, but five.

COVID-related contingency plans – each with its own financial framework – included an entirely virtual festival, a hybrid event, a festival in mini-theatres to keep numbers down and minimise infection risk, and even a festival at the drive-in.

Yet Kesting is both relieved and thrilled they’re able to go ahead with “plan A” – that is, a physical festival in cinemas.

Of course, this will look still different than previous iterations, with chequerboard seating and social distancing in place. Venue partners have been flexible enough to loop in multiple screens and other cinemas in order to maximise audience attendance for sessions. Gala events will also see people “partying like it’s 2020”.

But despite this, a physical event means that people can come together, which for Kesting is what a festival is all about.

While 2020 is his first AFF at the helm, his history with the event goes back some 11 years, having previously worked as its program manager and as exhibition manager at Mercury Cinema. Prior to this he was program manager for Brisbane International Film Festival and produced the 15/15 Film Festival.

He put his hand up for the AFF creative director/CEO position after the departure of Amanda Duthie in 2018, as he realised everything in his career was leading to this point.

“Film festivals in particular, but all festivals across all artforms, create space to recognise and platform the work of artists. And of course, artists are at the forefront of progressing humanity in big, broad terms… being a part of that nourishes my soul. It’s what drove me to do this crazy job where you’re trying to be multiple people, all at the same time.”

The line-up for Adelaide this year is somewhat slimmer than previous iterations, as may be expected, at 54 features. Yet it still boasts some 22 world premieres and 27 Australian premieres.

Being able to hold a physical festival bolstered Adelaide’s heft in programming discussions, given the reticence of some filmmakers and distributors to premiere or screen their works online, as well as the different rights negotiations inherent in that.

Kesting says the size of the program was something considered very carefully. At first, the team looked at a small program in order to mitigate infection risk, though with time they realised it was also an opportunity for a “palate cleanser”.

“The silver lining of the pandemic is it’s enabled us to go back to establishing the foundation in which to build from. But I think that there’s an enormous appetite for the festival. I may regret this, I may wish that we put more films in!”

Underpinning the festival, and the starting point for each program’s curation, is the projects backed by the AFF Investment Fund. It’s this fund that Kesting argues distinguishes the event both nationally and internationally – it’s previously backed projects like Sweet Country, The Nightingale, Hotel Mumbai, Collisions, 52 Tuesdays, Tracks, Snowtown and Samson and Delilah.

This year there are nine investment fund projects screening, including opening night film, Seth Larney’s sci-fi thriller 2067.

Other features include Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman and Granaz Moussavi’s When Pomegranates Howl, alongside documentaries Phil Liggett: The Voice of Cycling, Yer Old Father, This is Port Adelaide and ShoPaapaa, series Video Nasty: The Making of Ripspreader, from Matthew Bate and Liam Somerville, and shorts The Recordist and Last Meal. 

There were other some films the festival invested in that were not ready due to COVID. While AFF is technically biennial, Kesting is “cooking up something” with a vision to get those films screened at an event next year.

“The size and scope of that will be determined by the investment and support that we can generate,” he says.

The investment fund has fed Adelaide’s long-held reputation for supporting Australian cinema, though this year Kesting was keen to take the support of local film a notch further.

2020 sees the introduction of the Australian Indie strand, which includes Disclosure, Damage, Awoken, Chasing Wonders, My First Summer and Moon Rock for Monday. 

Of the strand, Kesting says: “Festivals have a responsibility to showcase these works. They may not be recognised by distributors straight away. In very competitive exhibition landscape, the role of festivals in doing this is even more profound.”

More generally, Kesting points to the competition films as the best point of entry into the program.

In the fiction comp, Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, which bowed in Berlinale, vies against Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round; Christos Nikou’s Apples, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, Yolqin Tuychiev’s 2000 Songs of Farida, and Haifaa Al-Mansoor’s The Perfect Candidate.

In the documentary competition are local films Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, from Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin, and A Hundred Years of Happiness, from Jakeb Anhvu. They compete with Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s The Truffle Hunters, Iryna Tsilyk’s The Earth is Blue as an Orange, and Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro.

State border closures means it’s “wait and see” with regards to the attendance of some filmmakers and other guests, with Kesting noting they continue to monitor the situation. At present South Australia is open to travelers from every state except NSW and Victoria, though the NSW border is due to reopen as of tomorrow.

“If they can’t come, then we’ve got backup plans. We’re remaining agile at every point. 2020 has kept us on our toes at every step of the way. When we actually get to deliver a festival that is not overshadowed by a pandemic, it’s going to be a walk in the park.”

Adelaide Film Festival runs October 14 – 25. View the full program here.