‘It’s time to stand up to fearmongering and nonsense,’ says new queer film festival director

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Cerise Howard, the newly announced program director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF), has so many strings to her bow she’s practically a Robin Hood movie. Even if we narrow down her resume to cinematic adventures, there’s no room to list it all here.

Howard moved to Melbourne from New Zealand in 1984, at the age of 12. “I studied cinema at La Trobe University in the 90s, and while I wasn’t a particularly diligent student, the bug bit,” she says of her lifelong passion. “Film festivals have been a ticket to a much broader lived experience, and they’ve taken me to the darnedest places.”

Cerise Howard has just started her new role as the Melbourne Queer Film Festival’s program director.Credit: Wayne Taylor

Captivated by the surreal stop-motion animations of Jan Svankmajer while studying at La Trobe, Howard caught his works at the Melbourne Cinematheque and on dearly departed SBS show Eat Carpet. “It was a marvel, with experimental, avant-garde oddities every Saturday night.”

These days Howard is co-curator of Cinematheque, the weekly celebration of magnificent and often quite hard-to-find movies hosted at ACMI. For five years, Howard was also artistic director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia, which she co-founded.

A proud queer trans woman, Howard helped co-produce the inaugural Sonic aGender Film Festival at Thornbury Picture House earlier this year, led by Janelle Johnston, unveiling a fascinating program exploring screen representations of women, gender-diverse, non-binary and trans folk working in music. With occasional guest spots on 3RRR’s dedicated movie show Primal Screen and jaunts to international film festivals, Howard still finds time to teach media and communications at RMIT, where she runs a film festival incubator course.

With an expansive worldview, Howard understands the vitality of a community-run festival like MQFF. “It has a mission to bring as broad an array of stories communicating queerness in all of its manifestations, evolutions and expansions to the alphabet soup,” she says.

“I know I don’t have all the answers, but I have a lot of really good questions.”

She hopes attendees to her debut program in November will stick around to debrief after the end credits roll. “One side of the festival equation that’s often overlooked is the festivity,” she says. “I love the human dimension to it, the shared experience.”

A seasoned bass guitarist, including for queer punk rock band Queen Kong and the HOMOsapiens, it’s safe to say Howard knows how to work a room. “There will be joyous times had. I want an extra level of vibrancy to proceedings that goes beyond cinema walls.”

A team player focused on inclusivity, Howard’s vision for MQFF will lean into her love of co-presentations and collaboration. “I want to be more expansive in what this festival can be and whom it might be in cahoots with.”

That necessitates listening. “I relish receiving the wisdom of elders and the youth alike,” Howard says. “I know I don’t have all the answers, but I have a lot of really good questions.”

Howard’s exhilarated by the expanding diversity of voices in queer cinema in Australia and globally. “I’m also interested in what’s unpolished and raw, that has all the heart in the world in it on a micro-budget,” she says. “I will never take for granted and always respect the risks that some people will be taking in order to get these films to us lucky folk here in Melbourne.”

Excited by what lies ahead, Howard’s also tough enough to shoulder the at-times acrimonious “debate” surrounding trans people. “There’s been a lot of fearmongering, so I definitely wish to put some counter-narratives out there,” she says. “Queer film festivals have always had an activist role to play, and it’s very important that we stand up to this nonsense and find allies outside of ourselves to unify with. It’s all culture.”

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