The Canberra International Film Festival at the National Film and Sound Archive
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The Canberra International Film Festival at the National Film and Sound Archive

The Canberra International Film Festival 2017. Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive. October 26-November 5. ciff.com.au.

The Canberra International Film Festival turns 21 this year. Festival director Andrew Pike says, "We've come of age."

John McCallum, left, Patricia Plunkett and Googie Withers in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

John McCallum, left, Patricia Plunkett and Googie Withers in It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

To celebrate this maturity, he says, the festival is creating a new event with a new style and a new principle: "Going retro is the way forward."

There will still be new films in the festival, of course. Among them are Gaylene Preston's documentary My Year with Helen, (2017) about the bid by Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, to secure the position of Secretary-General of the UN, screening on the opening night; Cannes Film Festival Palme D'Or winner The Square, a satirical black comedy surrounding the publicity campaign for an art installation in a renowned Swedish museum; the Hungarian love story On Body and Soul (2017); and the world premiere of the feature documentary Oyster by Canberra filmmaker Kim Beamish . But there will be a renewed emphasis this year on screening older films.

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Omar Sharif  starred in the 1965 movie version of Doctor Zhivago

Omar Sharif starred in the 1965 movie version of Doctor Zhivago

Pike says he will be focusing on the retro side of the program and co-programmer Alice Taylor, who was festival director last year. will be looking after the more recent fare. There will be a total of 29 feature films.

Given there are dozens of film festivals in Canberra each year, mostly at the commercial cinemas, that concentrate on recent films, Pike says it makes sense to do something different and he says, "Part of the plan is to bring people to Canberra."

There will be a number of guest speakers on the program - details of this and the full program of films can be found on the website, listed above.

The National Film and Sound Archive does most of the archival screenings in Canberra but they seem to be on board with the CIFF: they're hosting the festival.

Elizabeth Moss, left in The Square

Elizabeth Moss, left in The Square

Pike says, "It's very exciting to program retrospectively. The world is your oyster: you can choose anything from anywhere, but you have to match that with what's meaningful to an audience."

He's tried to create "strands of films" where possible.

Simone Simon in Cat People (1942)

Simone Simon in Cat People (1942)

"We have a two film-tribute to Googie Withers on the centenary of her birth."

Withers was a big star of British cinema who moved to Australia in 1959 with her husband, actor John McCallum, who had been offered a job running J.C. Williamson theatres and starred in a number of stage plays. She also continued her international career.

The festival films are It Always Rains On Sunday (1947) - in which Withers plays a housewife who hides a bank robber who was once her lover (McCallum) after he escapes from prison - .and White Corridors (1951), where she plays a surgeon at a provincial hospital. Pike says in both her characters "are both very strong, forceful women".

Another example is the eclectic body of work by the French director Jacques Tourneur, long resident in Hollywood, whose films included Westerns, film noir, and supernatural thrillers.

"Cat People (1942) was ultra low budget - it was his first studio film. It established one of his stylistic tropes: with no budget, you can't afford special effects so you do it in the dark and spook the bejesus out of people: they can't see it, you save a lot of money and people's imaginations do all the work."

The film - about a woman played by Simone Simon who fears the deadly feline curse on her Serbian village will strike if she becomes too passionate with her husband - was one of a group of films produced by Val Lewton for RKO.

Other Tourneur films screening are the classic film noir Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (1947), the Technicolor female pirate movie Anne of the Indies (1951) with Jean Peters and Louis Jordan and the noir Western Canyon Passage (1946).

"It's very hard to see," Pike says of the last-named film, which starred Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward.

"Martin Scorsese is a great fan."

"It took a lot of work to get it - Universal in the US had a 35mm print."

Tourneur was reunited with Andrews for the British-filmed Night of the Demon (1957), based on M.R. James's short story Casting the Runes. Although the producer added explicit shots of the titular monster against Tourneur's wishes, the film still acquired a reputation as a classic.

The director's biggest-budgeted film, Pike says, was Stars In My Crown (1950), a racial drama set in a small Tennessee town after the US Civil War with Joel McCrea as a preacher raising his nephew.

There will also be short films including some of New Zealander Len Lye's animated films for Britain's General Post Office which Pike says are "absolute treasures" that have been meticulously restored by the New Zealand Film and Sound Archive.

"We've scattered the micro films throughout the festival like sparkling curtain raisers."

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Director David Lean provides another "strand". His 1945 film Brief Encounter, written by Noel Coward, is a romantic drama about a man and a woman, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, who meet at a train station by chance and fall in love - but are married to other people.

The closing night film, also directed by Lean,will hold particular memories for many Canberrans: Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on the novel by Boris Pasternak and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, opened Center Cinema in Civic on October 4, 1966 and closed it on June 1, 2003.

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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