It's easy to recognise a decent film, but I would say it took me four years to become a decent programmer.

Do you prefer the BIFF, the MIFF, the RPIFF, the AFF or the SFF? I speak of course of the major Australian film festivals, whose season is upon us. Sydney opened this week, Revelation (Perth IFF) follows on July 3, Melbourne at the end of July and Brisbane…well, no-one’s quite sure whether Brisbane will follow in November. (Adam, more to come here…announcement expected this week). The fresh and innovative Adelaide event, which is biennial, comes again in 2015.

I am biased about which is best. I was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1989 to 1998, so I hold it dear, but the others all have their claims. Sydney and Melbourne began within a year of each other in 1953/54, and had the field largely to themselves for 40 years. When I took up the job in January 1989, the festivals in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth did not exist. Nor did the internet, so far as we knew, nor email. We used fax to contact film-makers, and that was a revolution in terms of speed. I think David Stratton used carrier pigeons when he took up the job in 1966. Just kidding, he used morse code.

Running the festival was the best job I’ve ever had, and the worst. Sydney never had enough money or staff to do what had to be done so we worked like dogs, happily and willingly. The five full-time staff were all exhausted by opening night. I used to climb to the back row of the State Theatre, just below the projection room, to catch a few minutes of sleep on the wooden bench during the day. I fell asleep backstage one closing night, during the final film. I was supposed to go on stage at the end to announce the winners of the audience awards. The curtains closed, the lights went on, everyone waited… and waited. Another member of staff came back and threw me on stage with a list. Audience members shouted ‘wake up Paul’, as I tried to gather my wits.

Mind you, they shouted less complimentary things at other times. I was appointed late in 1988, so my first festival was put together in about four months. If a film was half-decent, it got a run. I selected two films from Switzerland. The first went down like a turd in a swimming pool, and the second got lost in transit. When I went on stage to announce its non-arrival, the audience cheered.

Programming is the easiest job in a festival, and the hardest to do well. It’s easy to recognise a decent film, but I would say it took me four years to become a decent programmer. Programming requires tact, diplomacy, boldness, innovation and creativity. You have to develop a sense of how far the audience is willing to go, and how to take them further. We spent ten years trying to interest Sydney audiences in the work of fantastic new film-makers emerging in Asia, but never really succeeded. Many of the films were liked, but few were loved. Sydney’s audience was a bit tribal, a bit Euro-centric, a bit conservative.

Having the magnificent State Theatre as our base – certainly the most beautiful festival venue I have seen – was partly a curse, because we had to fill it day and night to pay the rent. That meant we had to attract subscribers who were willing to pay for a one or two-week subscription. Thus, Sydney had a small audience who saw a lot of films – they needed fanatical devotion and lots of spare time. The event was largely exclusive: you could not buy a ticket to a single session, except for opening night and one or two special events. It took years of experiment to get the festival to where it is today – a much more open and democratic event, where a far greater number of people visit, although most of them see a smaller number of films.

The beauty of the subscription system was that I could program a contemplative three-hour Korean film on a Sunday night and know that 1200-1500 people would come. When Marcel Ophuls, the distinguished French film-maker, came as a guest, I went personally to escort him from his hotel on the far side of Hyde Park to the State Theatre in Market Street. Getting him to Sydney had been an ordeal, so I wasn’t taking any risks. Highly strung does not describe the brilliant M. Ophuls. We were showing Hotel Terminus, his documentary on Klaus Barbie, the ‘butcher of Lyon’. As we crossed Hyde Park, he berated me for not doing enough publicity for the film. ‘The theatre will be empty,’ he cried. I told him about our subscription system and how it worked. Still not happy. ‘Okay Marcel,’ says I. ‘If there are not 1500 people in the theatre for your screening today, prime time on a Sunday afternoon, I will eat my shoe on stage.’

His mood changed as we approached the State Theatre. Hundreds of people sprawling out onto Market Street. Great excitement, followed by standing ovation. My shoes stayed on my feet.

There are many great films in this year’s event, as always. If you are still deciding, I can recommend Sophia Turkiewicz’s stunning documentary Once My Mother, at 6.30pm tonight, June 8. The film has just won the audience award at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland. I’d wager a shoe on it being worth it.