PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 12:00am


Sixty years ago, when a group of friends decided to stage a mini-film festival in an outer Melbourne suburb, little did they know it would become Australia's largest film festival, a 17-day winter highlight for more than 200,000 people.

The festival, one of the world's oldest, has just celebrated six decades of what artistic director Michelle Carey calls sharing 'the transformative experience of cinema' with a programme of about 200 films from 49 countries.

This year's programme was characterised by a popular appeal which Carey - in her first year as artistic director after years as a programmer - believes drives its success. A significant number of the films seem assured of a commercial release - some, such as Win Win, with Paul Giamatti as a middle-aged wrestling coach, Cary Joji Fukunaga's reworking of the Charlotte Bronte classic Jane Eyre, and director Mike Mills' poignant Beginners, based on his own father's coming out as a gay at age 75, are already scheduled.

Director Pauline Chan, whose Australia-China co-production 33 Postcards had its Melbourne premiere at the festival, was also to attend but she was hospitalised in New York with a broken back from a fall, and her place was taken by producer Lesley Stevens and Aussie star Guy Pearce.

The well-received film, screening in Hong Kong in October, won an award for best new talent for young star Zhu Lin at the Shanghai Film Festival. It is the story of Mei Mei, a young woman from a Chinese orphanage who visits Sydney with her choir and runs off to visit the sponsor whose letters have painted idyllic pictures of his family life. But she soon discovers he is not the man described in his letters.

Proceedings this year were uneventful: no protests, no boycotts, no censorship controversies, no bomb threats. All have featured in the festival's colourful history.

Notable in its recent history was the withdrawal of three Chinese films in 2009, apparently in retaliation for its determination to screen The 10 Conditions of Love, about Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

Other notable events have included run-ins with the film classification authorities - most recently when they banned LA Zombie last year - and a bomb threat during a screening of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1972 documentary Chung Kuo.

However peaceful things are this year, the festival can also be counted on for a good helping of the bizarre - or, to use Carey's words, 'another film festival, another brazen display of unhinged weirdness from obscure foreign artists' - and what could be more so than one of her top picks, Finisterrae. Debut director Sergio Caballero's story of two Russian-speaking ghosts who journey to a place where they hope to rejoin the living was described by Variety's Jay Weissberg as 'often incomprehensible and generally indescribable'. Forests of plastic ears anyone?