Gail Kovatseff: Head of Programming & Industry at Adelaide Film Festival
Gail Kovatseff is the Head of Programming & Industry at the Adelaide Film Festival, South Australia’s premier screen event and one of Australia’s leading film festivals.
However, the first time she enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Adelaide, in her own words she “dropped out”.
Like so many success stories, Gail’s journey from a rocky academic start to becoming a leader in her industry was rooted in the resilient pursuit of her passions. Her love for cinema would ultimately sustain a long and successful arts career. Gail enjoys films that move her emotionally and make her think. Throughout her career, she has been a vocal advocate for removing barriers to participation in the arts, and specifically in film.
Half a decade after starting and pausing her tertiary study, Gail returned to the University to achieve her BA. However, her interest in cinema had begun much earlier in life.
“Like many of my generation, I grew up watching films on Saturday afternoons and evenings, which covered the gamut of Hollywood and British films from almost the artform’s inception. Unknowingly, it was a foundation across genres in the history of English-speaking cinema, and I loved it. Cinema – good and bad – always fascinated me,” says Gail.
During her studies, she deepened her knowledge and broadened her interests. “While at the University, mostly through art school friends, I discovered the world of European and avant-garde cinema.”
“I luckily traversed a changing of the guard. I got an ‘old school education’ and a post-structuralist, post-modernism one, which has served me very well … this is what I treasure most about the University of Adelaide: I was well schooled in many ideas.”
However, her professional ascent to the Adelaide Film Festival (AFF) leadership team began with what she describes as “a low-level reception job at the Mercury, which in the 1990s was the coolest cinema in town.” After working her way to an information officer role at the Mercury, she then spent a decade at Arts South Australia as a senior industry officer.
“This was a big learning curve about everything: how to multi-task to manage a huge workload; how to refine your ideas and write careful and considered briefings…”
“Mentors like Penelope Curtin, now editor, really helped me develop confidence. I went from being very shy to quite confident before returning to the Mercury (then the MRC) as the Director. The Mercury Cinema gave me the opportunity to program the films at the Oz Asia Festival, Adelaide Cinematheque and the much beloved Seniors on Screen, which I established.”
The Seniors on Screen project was a Friday morning film club developed to connect retirees to the best cinema available and, most importantly, to each other as a community. “The project I am most proud of is still Seniors on Screen (now rather more prosaically named Silver Screen) at the Mercury, which in 2008 was one of the first – if not the first – large scale arts programs to tackle social isolation.”
The program incorporated not only cinema viewing, but also filmmaking workshops, in which the participants – self-named ‘Screeniors’ – created shorts about important stories from their lives, to screen before the features. “People came from the beaches to the hills and from Elizabeth to Hackham and everywhere between, it was a real melting pot around watching films,” says Gail.
Some participants went on to continue film making. “Now we have one of these teams of women in their late 60s with a film – WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR – in the 2023 Adelaide Film Festival, therefore screening in an international film festival. We also ran Seniors Comedy Writing workshops, and one of the graduates is still performing at Adelaide Comedy events.”
"This kind of arts work, with a community-building focus, gave people a new lease on life at a time when society was telling them ‘the best years of your life are over’."
Gail’s determination to remove barriers has formed the basis for many successful projects during her career. She has used her growing influence to ensure that access is available as widely as possible, broaching cultural, geographical, economic and social divides. Having come from a low socio-economic high school and a self-described “ethnic background”, she works to connect all young artists with opportunities to thrive. “I was always superconscious of a cultural divide, and so I always looked to develop programs to connect as wide a group as possible to artistic experiences. There must always be opportunity.”
“While at the Mercury I established a Youth Arm – ScreenSeekers – and we ran workshops in areas like Elizabeth. Amongst the attendees were the Phillipou brothers, whose film TALK TO ME recently opened in 2000 screens in the United States. While ScreenSeekers was only a very minor stepping stone for them – the real one was You Tube – it is a good example: In order to be a state with successful creative industries, you must provide maximum access. You don’t know where the real talent is. Plus, the experience of diversity and adversity sharpens your insights, making you an interesting storyteller. Pathways must be for everyone.”
“During my tenure at the Mercury, we also overhauled the professional arm to make production, rather than workshops, the key to the next generation’s pathways. Now local graduates of these programs are showing films in AFF, including the Tribeca premiering YOU’LL NEVER FIND ME in 2023 and the imminent release MONOLITH, which was funded by AFF in 2022 and screened at both 2022 AFF and 2023 SXSW [South by Southwest]. This is another example of why opportunity and pathways are important: to develop careers while building industry capacity.”
Gail’s determination to ensure access means not only that artists from diverse backgrounds and means are supported, but also that diverse audience members can find representation on screen, and that wider audiences are able to experience the stories that extend far beyond their own experience.
“In no other way can you walk the path and feel empathy with a wide range of other people’s experiences, from the lens of other people, than through world of cinema. It remains a privilege to share these experiences with audiences, and hopefully contribute to expanding world views.”
“Currently the highlight of my work is getting to see so many films, and particularly world cinema.”
As Head of Programming, she has plenty of wisdom to offer for aspiring and early career filmmakers. “In recent years, there’s been a lot of ‘let’s just go out and do it’ mentality, which I once admired. But now I realise this can be a waste of energy. You really should focus on making three very good shorts, where you have nailed the writing, the direction and the casting. You also need an elevated idea. You don’t need a grant, as the shorts can be very low budget. In SA, there’s too much focus on production values – ‘if I can afford a good camera and an experienced cinematographer, then…’ – but that isn’t what the industry focuses on. They remember the idea, the story, the performances, and the overall feel.”
Gail encourages artists to pursue what they find enthralling. “Money isn’t as important as doing what you find intellectually stimulating, as your working life is long. Work in an area you love, and you can start anywhere on that pathway – I started in reception. Work hard, and if it isn’t playing out be willing to let it go for a period. Go somewhere different to advance your skills, then try coming back.”
Gail's Top Picks for AFF 2023
When asked about her own personal favourite films, as you might expect from someone who has spent a lifetime watching films, Gail finds this far too difficult a question to answer. However, she says, “Like most people, I like films that either move me emotionally or make me think. So, I will talk about two of the films I like most at this year’s AFF.”
A film that moved her emotionally:
- SEVEN WINTERS IN TEHRAN
A documentary following 19-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who killed the man who tried to rape her. When on death row in Tehran, she joins forces with her mother to fight for her life. A thrilling and moving documentary, it is not only a court room drama but a story of hope – the educated Reyhaneh becomes a mother figure herself as an adviser and support to all the poor young women in jail. Philosophy students may come to admire Reyhaneh. Given the choice to capitulate on her self-defence claims to trigger a blood money release or be hanged – she employs Nietzsche to make her choice.
A film that made her think:
- THE DELINQUENTS
A three hour long Brazilian film, which has been described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw as destined to be a cult classic. It has that rare quality of being unexpected – you don’t know where you are going (it has also been described as genre-defying) but each stage of the story either kicks your brain up a gear or is a pleasure. The performances are fabulous.
Gail’s top picks for this Festival’s “must see” movies:
- POOR THINGS
Described as BARBIE for the arthouse set – it’s an aesthetic and intellectual triumph with career-defining performances from Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo while Willhem Defoe is his usual masterful self.
History in the making, a young Egyptian journalist embedded himself with the airforce leadership of the Taliban as they took over Kabul. Under the camera’s gaze they go from being a militia to a military regime, and their regional expansive ambitions become very apparent and unbelievably the retreating US empire left them with the arsenal. It is frightening.
- ON THE GO and THE SWEET EAST
Two fun and avant-garde (without being too out-there) road movies. One queer, across southern Spain; the other into the underbelly of US contemporary counter cultures, both the fun and the scary ones.
- MUTINY IN HEAVEN: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Lovers of Nick Cave can see him in his first band, which was career defining not only for him but also for Australian contemporary music. The Birthday Party is arguably one of Australia’s most influential bands. The whole music documentary program is excellent, covering five decades of contemporary musicians starting with Joan Baez.
Want to watch one (or all) of Gail’s picks?
Explore the full Adelaide Film Festival Program, out now.