An Interview with Mardi Gras Film Festival Director Lisa Rose

Film festival programming might not have been Lisa Rose’s first calling, but she’s glad that she can now be a “professional gay.”

What struck me the most over our coffee in a leafy Marrickville café was her continual compassion for the underrepresented and her dedication to increasing accessibility in the arts. She’s been involved with Queer Screen — the organisation behind both the Queer Screen Film Festival and Mardi Gras Film Festival— for ten years, half of them as Festival Director. Under her direction, last year’s September Queer Screen Film Festival was postponed as World Pride now sweeps through Sydney, making way for the Mardi Gras Film Festival to be bigger and better than ever.

Although she has “always been a film person,” it was a breakup that initially pushed her to Queer Screen as she “really wanted to widen [her] circle of friends.” This started us talking about the social element of gathering to watch films. She recognised that “it can be really hard to meet people as an audience member,” and that community was predominantly formed through volunteering with the organisation. “The vast majority of volunteers— in terms of quantity of people— are the ones who help usher and wear the pink shirts at the festival, and there’s been great friendships that have been formed out of those shifts because you get to spend a lot of time together and have some fun, and it’s a really diverse group of people […] There’s lots of ways that people can form community and make new friends and friendly acquaintances … with a shared enjoyment not only for volunteering but also Queer Screen.”

Despite admitting that I probably won’t make new friends by chatting up the person in the seat next to me, Lisa held the shared experience of cinema in high regard. I asked her to describe the difference between watching a queer film with a queer audience versus a predominantly straight one, and she told me about her experience of watching Carol (2015):

“This is how I spent my New Year’s Eve: I went to Palace Cinemas and watched Carol, and it was predominantly an older straight audience, and I loved it, it was all great. And then about two months later we played it to a predominantly queer, female audience and it was a completely different experience. And the vibe in the room was totally different. There was laughter and crowd interaction at very different parts throughout the film. I remember thinking, when I saw it with the straight audience, [that] they all laughed at a couple of things that I thought was inappropriate to be laughing at … and that’s why I feel like film festivals like ours need to keep existing so people can have that experience, and we also show a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it to the mainstream. If we didn’t show it, it would never get seen in Sydney.”

Her passion for the collective experience also came through when lamenting the absence of young people at film festivals. It is a problem “film festivals all over the world have, particularly Queer film festivals,” and one that Lisa finds “perplexing.” Although she acknowledges price inhibitions “for the risk factor of, are you gonna like it or not,” she chalks it up to the availability of other mediums.

“The watching of a film and the fandom of a film, one specific film, doesn’t necessarily create a large fandom that you can then become a community of. Whereas, if you have a series that you follow along each week, write fanfiction and make fanart for and all those sorts of things, you can meet people from all over the world online and have that shared passion for these characters. That seems to connect more with young people than coming to watch a 90-minute film that’s there and gone.”

In an age of streaming accessibility, which offers an increasingly wide range of Queer stories, there is dwindling rationale for young Queer people to go to Queer film festivals. It is almost a return to the days of Lisa’s youth; she describes creating her own “film festival at home,” from the VHS tapes and DVDs she could find to “just watch any semblance of anything Queer that you could get your hands on.” Now that Queer visibility is “crossing more to the mainstream and there’s more stuff being made, that need for a sense of having that shared experience, I think hasn’t been taught to [today’s youth] because they didn’t experience [the lack of Queer media] throughout their life.”

Although streaming has granted today’s Queer kids incomparable access to Queer media, Lisa is understandably wary. From the festivals’ perspective, streamers are “a big threat” to the sanctity of the theatrical cinema experience.

During the pandemic Lisa ran the 2020 Queer Screen Film Festival online. What was once a very Sydney-based event went Australia-wide. She said that “the thing that excited me was that, regardless of the pandemic, more people got to be part of the festival.” However, “in all of our surveys, 30% of our regular audience had no interest in watching things online.” There was still something special about being together, a shared experience that was from a streamed festival. Lisa described “the visceral experience of having a large screen, large sound, being able to sit in the dark and eat your popcorn … there’s that human connection, hearing the reactions.”

Despite being a film major, I’ll admit that I find film festivals rather intimidating, and I’ve sat through some awful films at festivals. With the Mardi Gras Film Festival screening over 150 films from February 15 to March 2, I feel like I’m stuck at the Netflix home page. Lisa’s reverence for the shared experience of film pushes me to attend with my friends, and I’d really urge you to consider going as well. Don’t get too fussed about what you see, what’s more important is who you see it with, and that you can start a conversation.