Robert Hughes, curator, Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond

I feel the most interesting aspect of a lot of these films is their relationship to memory and the long tail of history ...

Not every ghost story needs to be scary. Spirits and spectres hold a permanent place in the pantheon of otherworldly beings – many of which are fixtures of horror movies and terrifying tales – but ghosts stand out as a unique storytelling device. GOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque looks to prove this with its new film program, Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond, which is running until Sunday November 28. Featuring an assortment of flicks depicting a similarly broad range of ethereal beings, Ghost Stories shines a light on the role of ghosts in cinematic endeavour and the multitude of ways they impact the lives of characters. We spoke to program curator Robert Hughes about his love of ghost flicks, the inspiration behind the program and his picks for must-watch flicks.

To start, we’d love to find out more about where your love of film began. Can you recall any formative experiences that sparked your love of cinema?
My grandparents were very knowledgeable and passionate about cinema. When my brother and I would visit them, they would often show us classic films – anything from Marx Brothers comedies to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky – and I feel that kickstarted much of my early interest in film history. I also wouldn’t want to understate the cumulative impact that the film parodies and homages in the early seasons of The Simpsons had on me as a child.

Similarly, are there any films or filmmakers that you would say have had a particularly profound impact on your tastes?
I have a vivid memory of seeing Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God on SBS when I was about 10 years old. I am sure I barely understood any of what was happening on screen, however its delirious atmosphere stuck with me for years and deeply influenced the types of films I would later seek out. I would also credit the 1975 movie Death Race 2000, starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, with introducing me to the invigorating world of schlock cinema.

What inspired you to translate your fondness for celluloid art into a role involving film curation?
I was a regular patron of the cinema at GOMA throughout my time at university. In 2015, I was in the final year of my studies and working as a legal clerk when an opportunity to join the Cinémathèque team arose. I have been here ever since. It is a real pleasure to be able to share films that I love with our audiences, and to work closely with filmmakers and archives around the world.

We’re keen to know about the intentions and ideas behind Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond – QAGOMA Cinémathèque’s latest program. Before going into the showcase itself, can you tell us about your personal relationship with ghost flicks and films of this specific nature?
Although I had seen and enjoyed many of the iconic movies about spirits and hauntings over the years, researching this program helped me better understand the range of portrayals throughout the last century. It was great to be able to revisit films like Ghostwatch and The Shining, and to think about their place in this wider context.

What inspired you to curate a program centred around ghosts and spirits as opposed to other otherworldly creatures?
I would love to curate a program about witches, ghouls and all those spooky creatures in the future. In my mind, ghosts occupy a different thematic arena. I feel the most interesting aspect of a lot of these films is their relationship to memory and the long tail of history. By narrowing the focus, we were able to explore these ideas more intently while still having space to highlight some of the sub-genre’s esoteric gems.

Ghosts are a recognisable fixture of scary films, but Ghost Stories seems to showcase films that exist outside the conventional thriller and horror genres. Why do you think ghosts make such effective (and malleable) storytelling devices?
Ghosts are a particularly rich and dynamic symbol in cinema. They can represent so many distinct ideas: all-consuming love, overwhelming grief, unshakable guilt – and then sometimes they just want to teach Jackie Chan lost styles of martial arts, like in Spiritual Kung Fu. These are all fertile bases for great cinematic storytelling across genres, particularly when different national cinemas have such unique approaches to representing ghosts on screen.

The program is incredibly diverse in terms of style and tone. For those curious to see a neat cross-section of films, what are some of your personal must-see recommendations?
The program is in its final weeks now, however there are still some exciting titles to see before it all wraps up. Two recommendations would be King Hu’s Taiwanese epic Legend of the Mountain and The Changeling, a chilling horror movie starring one of my favourite actors, George C Scott. Some of my tips from earlier in the program would include Duvidha, The Innocents and Heaven is Still Far Away, directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who is having a big 2021 with his two new films.

Finally, what kinds of discussions do you hope these films prompt of its audiences after the viewing experiences?
Hopefully nobody is leaving these films reflecting too much on their own mortality. Mostly, I hope it has been an opportunity for people to experience some rewarding spectral cinema and to potentially better understand the breadth and lineage of this particular slice of film history.

Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond is running at GOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque until Sunday November 28. Click here to browse the program and purchase tickets.


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