Interview: Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Director Lyndon Stone

Stone discusses what’s in store for MDFF 2017, the qualities his team looks for in submissions, and his predictions for the future of documentary filmmaking.

Now in its second year, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival is Melbourne’s premier competitive film festival dedicated to non-fiction cinema and Australasia’s only feedback-providing documentary festival. Currently accepting submissions for their 2017 fest scheduled to take place July 12th-16th, we recently caught up with Festival Director Lyndon Stone who shares his passion for all things documentary and takes us inside his plans for MDFF 2017 and what he hopes will be another extraordinary film event for the city of Melbourne.

Documentary Drive: What new things do you have planned for the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival?

Stone: The 2017 festival is shaping up to be a very strong lineup of local and international documentaries from award-winning filmmakers. I am really, really excited by the possibilities as the standard of submissions has been exceptionally high. The 2017 festival will be a continuation of the successful first edition and will include several spotlights on world cinema.

Being Melbourne’s dedicated documentary film festival, the festival will be gritty, relevant, thought provoking and moving, and we hope it will appeal to different segments within Melbourne.

We also have two brand new categories: documentary photography and expanded interdisciplinary projects demarking the festival as being fresh, innovative, and original. We also have some very clever ideas which we are keeping under wraps for now. Watch this space.

Documentary Drive: What prompted you to branch out to include a category in Documentary Photography?

Stone: Being a relatively new film festival, it really allows for greater experimentation and allows us to be proactive rather than reactive to trends. What we look for in documentaries, and filmmakers themselves, is a strong divergent thinking mindset. Dr. Karen Collins, who directed last year’s Best Edited Documentary “Beep,” has turned her documentary into an interactive book, Best Australian winners Jeff Hann and Roland Fraval utilized coffee shops as a way to distribute their documentary. Similarly, what we are looking at is new ideas and new ways to broaden the appeal of documentary.

What I look for as a creative is constraint and minimalism. To me, great documentary photography can capture a moment, a mood, and tell a story in so many different and unique ways but in such a simplified form. I think photography provides a pivotal role in documentary and is a great gateway into documentary itself as many photographers would be capable of helming a short or feature documentary themselves.

A beautiful documentary photograph can sometimes capture an authenticity and a genuineness in a world that often is anything but, and to me that is a commodity.

Documentary Drive: MDFF recently partnered with London-based Cheap Cuts Short Documentary Film Festival, can you talk a bit about why you decided to join teams and how this relationship will benefit filmmakers?

Stone: The chief reason we partnered with Cheap Cuts Film Festival is that we both started at the same time and we thought it might be a good idea to help support each other and have camaraderie between film festivals. I am passionate about helping Australian filmmakers get their documentaries onto the world stage and it is a great way for Australian short filmmakers to get distributed in central London and vice versa. Cheap Cuts Film Festival programs a lot differently to us. I have just received their winners from last year. I think they are going to play really well. British documentary will also play a prominent role in next year’s festival and will form one of several spotlights on world cinema.

Documentary Drive: What types of qualities are you looking for in this year’s film submissions?

Stone: The stark reality is that audiences for documentary at the moment are actually in decline, which given all the horrific things that are happening in the world and on the news at the moment is not really that surprising. Audiences want an escape. They want to feel good, be entertained, educated, and have thought-provoking challenging documentaries that are relevant and timely. Our festival was lucky enough to buck that trend and have a robust box office and I think that was in part due to the selection of documentaries.

Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

As it stands, local Australian documentaries always play well, as do documentaries on the subjects of sustainability and the environment, but it was a video game documentary and a vaping documentary that were really big hits last year and the reason was because they appeal to a broader audience in Melbourne. Our curators often have a preference for cause or issue based documentaries.

Documentary Drive: What was the biggest thing you learned from last year’s inaugural fest and how will it impact the festival going forward in year two?

Stone: This was by far the hardest and most challenging project I have ever attempted, as it had so many moving parts to it. I drew a lot of strength thinking about all the challenges and setbacks Steven Spielberg must have had when directing “Jaws” or Francis Ford Coppola had with “Apocalypse Now” and how these situations force you into thinking outside the square and find a way, rather than an excuse. One of the chief criticisms I have had from other Festival Directors that I have worked with is that I sometimes overreach. So, I have learnt to embrace constraint as a creative and simplify.

By focusing on one genre – documentary, with a limited budget, time constraints, and a small advertising budget, we have managed to arguably put on a pretty impressive lineup of documentaries.

Sometimes when your back is against the wall and the odds are stacked against you is when you do your best work.

Documentary Drive: What do you see the future of documentary to be?

Stone: Personally, I would love to see Jon Ronson, and Charlie Brooker get back into documentary and premiere a new feature length documentary at Hot Docs or at say the Melbourne International Film Festival. I think that’s what documentary needs right now and although I help run a documentary film festival, I am certainly no expert on the topic! There is still so much to learn.

I think the future looks bright for documentary.

As the old well-worn Tinseltown trope goes, Hollywood is out of fresh ideas and today it is all about remakes and franchise. So I think you will see more documentaries becoming remade as feature films like “The Walk” which was a remake of “Man on Wire.”

In my opinion, the key to making that sub-genre work is to not to remake say a Top 100 documentary of all time, as it won’t work, but rather focus on looking for more offbeat documentaries with strong source material to work with. For example, “Genius on Hold” would make a compelling feature film made by the likes of David O. Russell and “Project Grizzly” would make a great comedy with the right team behind it.

I also think you are going to see the rise of non-traditionally trained desktop documentary filmmakers over the next decade or so utilizing new media to distribute their short and interactive documentaries via Snapchat, Spotify and Instagram.

Steve Jobs once prophesied the next big thing for Apple was the ‘appumentary.’ I think you are going to see, with technology increasing on smart phones and tablets to incorporate VR and augmented reality, appumentaries will make a big comeback over the next decade. Virtual reality will also play a seminal role in moving documentary forward over the next 10 years.

I think the audience for documentary will grow significantly over the next decade thanks in big part to the rise of new media and technology.


If you’d like to learn more about the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, visit: mdff.org.au, follow the fest on Twitter, or join the festival’s Facebook Group.

To submit your short or feature documentary to MDFF, check out: mdff.org.au/submit/. The discount earlybird submission deadline is Dec. 31, 2016 and the regular submission deadline is Feb. 28, 2017. Late submissions will be accepted until March 19th. A final extended deadline takes effect on April 16th, so be sure to submit your films before then to be considered.

Posted by Alison F.

Founder and Head Writer - Documentary Drive

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