Interview with James Nolen – Film Programmer + Fashion on Film curator at ACMI

James Nolen, Film Programmer at ACMI. Image via The Design Files.

To coincide with the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF), ACMI has once again curated a Fashion on Film series, featuring fashion documentaries and short films ranging from The Legacy of Alexander McQueen to Hubert de Givenchy: A Life in Haute Couture. Film Programmer and curator of the Fashion on Film series, James Nolen, chats to Lara Antonelli-Leorke about the enduring allure of fashion, the intimacy of the filmmaker’s lens, and why film and fashion make for a welcoming art form.

1. As Film Programmer at ACMI, how long have you curated the Fashion on Film series?
Since 2008, so 8 years, which would make me ridiculously passionate about my job!

2. What kind of process do you enter into to decide which films/documentaries are showcased?
I have to keep my fashion antenna out constantly – which involves reading websites and newsletters that may have a mention of something that is coming up 3 years down the track or I just read about something at another international film festival or someone comes to us. There are also some regular players in fashion documentaries and we have built relationship over the years, so they let us know if they are producing anything that we can perhaps share with our audience. It helps when you have friends that are also a little cinema obsessed, so my eyes are everywhere!

3. In regards to this year’s program, is there one particular documentary that stands out as a favourite of yours? If so, why?
It is like choosing a favourite child, but I will admit that there is something just beyond this world about The Legacy of Alexander McQueen. It’s obviously to do with his extraordinary aesthetic and design, but it’s also the ultimate in fashion craft-making from the director, Loïc Prigent. He is someone who sees every intricate detail through his camera lens and has been following Alexander Mc Queen for a long time, so you get this quite intimate depiction and analysis of McQueen’s career.

4. This year’s program includes some varied yet equally incredible designers; from classic names such as Givenchy and Borsalino, to the cutting edge and rule breaking likes of McQueen and Scott. What do you think it is about the ongoing allure of fashion throughout the decades and across tastes and trends that makes it a constant source of fascination and inspiration?
I think that you can say with the majority of films we’ve screened through out the years, there’s that level of intimacy that you would only get if you worked in the fashion studios or alongside these great creative  minds. The filmmaker takes you to all those corners, even to Karl Lagerfeld’s bathroom in one instance! It’s a bit of a fantasy I guess, for me as well; I feel like I know the dynamics of those spaces really well (I probably don’t really, but I feel like I do!). [laughs]

5. The program coincides with VAMFF and includes short films chosen as finalists in the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival Film 2016 competition, which are screened alongside the Fashion on Film documentaries. Are you involved in the choosing of the entrants, the subsequent winners and the films they screen with?
Yes, I do! It’s me, it’s all me. [laughs]
Every year I try to match the sense of creativity of the short to the feature film. Sometimes magic happens when you put one particular short film in front of a longer form film. I do watch the films in isolation of each other, but then when you’re part of putting the program together it’s like creating a dream team of matching the films together. I put a lot of thought into the flow of the program and to ensure it reflects, or is a good preparation for, the feature film to follow. You can be really lucky where some films are just right for one another.
Last year we had short film from Vogue with Lena Dunham [where the actress is filmed in her lead up to a Vogue cover shoot]. It was a fun film but it also spoke deeply about the history of Vogue and fashion photography and modelling – it’s amazing how much you can pack into a 4 minute short film!

6. Was there a personal favourite of yours in the top three finalists list, that included Laura Scrivano’s Shadow/Self, Isobel Knowles’ Kuwaii Remix AW15 and Radioactive Gigantism Films’ Strangers In A Moment. If so, what was it about the short film that captured your attention?
That Kuwaii one, I just love, love, love, love, love. I love how clever it is; I love that it’s animation.
The expertise of Isobel Knowles (a well regarded artist in her own right), where she creates those little characters. I can just see every girl in Melbourne wearing and loving those clothes – the shoes and the styling. The short is subtle in a way but still gets the message across in a really fun way where you didn’t feel like you were being talking to or at, you were welcomed into their fantastic world.

7. Many people may take for granted the importance of fashion in film, and in turn, the impact films have had on fashion. Do you think that one creative art form can live without the other?
No they can’t, and it’s interesting because people are unaware sometimes of the actual designers behind the films. Like Breakfast At Tiffany’s for example, it was Givenchy that dressed Hepburn. Films also have the ability to recreate powerful memories. When you want to visit that happy place in your head and recreate that world and bring it to life to the people around you, it’s the fashion of the characters that helps you achieve that.
Directors are also in control of their characters and they consider their costumes in the script which helps to depict how they act.

8. What do you love most about film?
The escapism; it’s an out of body experience to live in someone else’s shoes for two hours or so. It’s a kind of virtual reality (but one where you don’t have to wear those silly goggles!). It’s been a form of virtual reality for the past 100 years! Although you can’t control the actions on screen, it allows you to see things you perhaps wouldn’t see in the flesh. Films allow you to be a witness to those things, and although films can sometimes be challenging, provoking, indiscernible and confrontational, you never leave without taking a message home.

Favourite Australian designer?
For womenswear, Emma Mulholland. She has a ridiculous but amazing Ossie Ostrich line.
Christian Kimber is an original and exciting English designer, that lives in Australia, and creates beautiful silk pocket squares and a shoe collection that references famous Australian beach sites. He has a new perspective, his designs have a deep quality and are true ‘investment pieces’.

Most loved fashion documentary?
My measuring stick for all other fashion documentaries would have to be House of Chanel.

Best costume in a film?
Everything in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006). The costume designer is Eiko Ishioka and the film features an amazing black, white and red fur coat.

Favourite spot to enjoy a drink in Melbourne?
Self Preservation on Bourke Street.

If you could swap jobs with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Grace Coddington.

First celebrity crush?
Madonna (Girlie Show tour era).

Most underrated film of all time?
In English it is called, Nightcap, but it is a French film entitled, Merci pour le Chocolat (Thank you for the chocolates, which is obviously quite different!). The main character is played by Isobel Huppert – she is one of my favourite actresses and she plays such a cool character, dressed in head to toe Dior.

FASHION ON FILM at AMCI will run from now until March 14. head here to secure tickets:


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