Helen De Witt on the London Film Festival
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Helen De Witt on the London Film Festival
Helen de Witt

Helen De Witt

With the London Film Festival just about in full swing, we talk to Helen De Witt, the Festival’s Producer.

Hi Helen. Now, you’re the producer of the London Film Festival…
Yes, and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

How many festivals are there?
The two that I produce and two that are run by the BFI.

Which are the other two?
No, just these two.

I wanted to first ask you about your previous life.  Because…
You believe in reincarnation.

Yes.  I know you worked at the Scala a long time ago, when was that?
That was in the early 90’s. I was the last programmer before it closed.

The closure was very sad for London.
Very, very sad.

And where did you go?
I went to Cinenova, the women’s film and video distributors in Bethnal Green. I was there for three years, looking after acquisition and distribution. And after that I went to what was still then the London Filmmakers Co-op, and which, after the move to the LUX Centre in Hoxton Square, merged with London Electronic Arts. I became Head of Cinema at LUX.

Apparently the same job, but it was the LUX Cinema programme offered you a wider scope didn’t it, than programming at The Film Co-Op?
I didn’t programme the cinema at the old Co-op – I joined just before the move into the building. But it was Sarah Turner and Jon Thompson who programmed the introductory season to the LUX – so I went there and planned the subsequent programmes.

Your approach to programming at the LUX Cinema was quite broad, wasn’t it?
Oh certainly, the LUX always had a broader brief than the Filmmakers Co-op. For a start, it was a cinema that screened five days a week, sometimes seven days a week,  whereas at the Co-op it was only two, sometimes three.
And the Co-op’s brief was largely experimental, avant-garde film and some video, whereas the LUX was the point of kind of convergence of the media – although we kind of forget now how controversial that actually was at the time.

There’s film and celluloid, and then there’s video.
Yes, and digital media.  Now it almost seems like a completely false issue.

The other thing you were able to do at the LUX centre was programme independent and experimental work, so that the two could kind of reflect on each other?
Oh completely yes.  We often did that – seasons of work around themes that combined experimental cinema, artists film and videom and independent feature film making. And occasionally, for instance if we did a season on film and architecture, then mainstream Hollywood films would come into that too. We didn’t preclude anything – it was always about the context and curatorial ideas. About the nature of film making, the nature of image making, artist practice and so on. But we didn’t preclude any material from within what we would select for those seasons.

It was a terrible thing when The LUX Centre closed. Though of course there was the new LUX organisation. But have things changed in the last few years?
They have and they continue to do. There are some very exciting things happening. One of the most interesting curators in London at the moment is Ian White at the Whitechapel. Because I’m always on the look out for seeing either work that I don’t know, which sounds very very interesting, or work that I do know of, but have never seen. Or work that I’ve never heard of – or even work that you know well -  but which is programmed in a different context. Ian does all of those things in a very interesting way.
Obviously The Tate has a good programme. It can be fairly sporadic and a bit dependant on what exhibitions might be on. I think that Stuart Comer is still slightly hamstrung by that, slightly reined in, but they do some great seasons there.  Although it can be uncomfortable going to the Tate because you still feel that moving image, despite all the inroads it’s made into galleries – or certainly single screen moving images in the cinema space, is still seen as second fiddle in terms of what the institution is about.

Then there’s the underground scene, lot of things that are happening with artists themselves putting on screenings, in basements of pubs and so on.  So I think there are  very lively things happening. There’s also more artists film and video programming happening at the BFI Southbank. There may be a way to go in terms of getting some curatorial cohesion for the way that experimental cinema and artists’ work is programmed in the venue, but it’s happening. And even places like the Curzon in Soho have odd screenings that are very interesting and fit into that bracket.
So I think there’s a liveliness about it, but there’s still an absence of debate I feel. The old issues about cinema in galleries still get talked about and they’ve got a bit boring really, a little bit stale. And there isn’t really a discourse about what a progressive moving image practice could and should be. Things are often led by politics – and we’re living in a very deep politicised kind of time, so that could all change.

It’s strange that that’s still a struggle. What Ian and Stuart are doing is all the more incredible because of the evident struggle, that it’s all they can do to achieve what they’re doing, never mind get those institutions to actually take those things on board and integrate or generate that seriousness of debate and discussion.
I think that’s absolutely right and it’s something that the BFI should look at and is looking at. There is a kind of avant-garde working group that’s been formed and Will Fowler is obviously a key person within the BFI and he’s done some great seasons with Jeff Keen and so on. But they’re one off projects rather than having a kind of cohesive programming strategy, where you’d always know what to look for and what kind of approach the BFI is taking. Will’s doing all that he can, but we’ve only got three and a bit screens here and there’s a lot of demand on them in terms of what people want to do and what people want to see, so there’s a lot of ambition – it’s just how to realise that in the right kind of balance.

Because the BFI have obligations to the rest of cinema!?
Oh yes, and there’s a lot of it.

Sarah Turner, Perestroika (2009). Image courtesy of the artist

Sarah Turner, Perestroika (2009). Image courtesy of the artist

So what does a festival producer do?
I guess make the Festival happen. I do get asked “what do you do the rest of the year?” and I must admit it does make me want to thump people. It’s making the Festival happen in the broadest possible sense. Our Artistic Director is Sandra Hebron and the way I think about is, I’m the form, she’s the content. Although I like to stick my nose into the content whenever I get an opportunity.
There is all the infrastructural work about the venues, about the staffing. Setting up a huge but temporary organisation. I manage our special projects like the screenings in Trafalgar Square. And the Power to the Pixel digital conference, which is led by Liz Rosenthal as the director, but in terms of managing it as a project for the festival. There’s a training programme that we do that’s funded by Skillset for emerging up and coming filmmakers called Think, Shoot, Distribute.  And also I manage the sub-departments – the education department and the industry department. I manage the managers of those sub-departments as well.
And then there’s all kinds of stuff about set up in terms of IT and estates and finance and stuff.  Riveting.

How big is your team?
At festival time it’s about 50 if you count the agencies that we work with – I manage contracts for the delivery of various aspects of the festival, such as the gala screenings.

The job must have its benefits...
Well it’s an exciting job, it’s a very fast moving job.  And in a sense a festival is nothing in itself, it’s what you put in it, which is of course primarily the films and the filmmakers.  And you work with all kinds of other partners – educational organisations, other parts of the film industry, cultural institutes and embassies.
The festival has changed enormously in the last five or more years, in that we now have to, whether we want to or not – and I think we want to – work with other strategic partners, such as the LDA, the Mayor of London, the UK Film Council, Film London and so on. We might have different ideas about how we should do it, but we all have an ambition for making the best possible festival we can for London and for Londoners.

It feels much less clubby than it did a few years ago.  It actually feels like London’s film festival now.

Yes, that’s exactly what our ambition is.  And this year we’ve had additional funding from the UK Film Council to do even more of that. So it’s all about increasing the access and profile of the festival. Making it more noticeable overseas, working with international press, making the gala presentations more event based, by having more World and European premiers. And although to a lot of people that side of the festival isn’t what they’re interested in, they’re really interested in the Experimental section scandal, Hungarian documentaries or the latest film from Uzbekistan, all of that is still there and there’s no way that any of that work would ever be threatened. But it’s really important for London, for the UK, and for the UK film industry to have a festival that can put its head above the parapet on the international stage because it helps British cinema.  It helps British cinema get better.

And the economy in general I don’t doubt?
Exactly. There’s something we’re not very good at it in this country. The cynicism about the Olympics – a lot of which I understand and to some extent share – but we’re not very good at just showing off a bit and being a bit proud and I think we should do really. And that’s also about having a good time – and cinema is about enjoyment and understanding. Whether that be the latest George Clooney movie, The Men Who Stare At Goats, or something like Sarah Turner’s Perestroika – a film about psychic pain.  All those things are important.

The programme this year has been very well received – what do you like yourself?
Well as I just mentioned – Sarah Turner’s film. I’m slightly biased because I had a very – well I can’t even say small hand – I would say little fingernail in being with Sarah as she made that. In terms of the other films – it’s awful to say but this year, at this stage, I’ve seen a very small proportion of the programme. I really like the Ken McMullen film An Organisation of Dreams. In some ways it feels like quite an old fashioned film – a bit like a combination of a Nouvelle Vague film coupled with a 1970s film theorist film – but it’s really interesting! It’s about the relationship of film to philosophy really and what cinema can be as a psychic force, so I very much like that. There’s a
I’ve heard the new Bruno Dumont film about a nun. We have several nun films in the programme this year – that’s very important! He’s a film maker who’s worth looking at. And of course, the closing film, Nowhere Boy – a biopic of John Lennon, but by Sam Taylor Wood’s, one of the UK’s leading artists.

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