Festival Report: London Film Festival Hebden Bridge Film Festival seek out "the other" at LFF

The Hebden Bridge Film Festival team report back from the BFI London Film Festival.

Our latest guest article comes courtesy of Louise Wadley, Festival Director at Hebden Bridge Film Festival. Supported by our Bursary Awards, Louise was able to attend the 63rd BFI London Film Festival in October to scout titles for Hebden Bridge, meet visiting filmmakers and contribute to the latest conversations going on in the screen sector.

Currently preparing for its second edition in March 2020, the Hebden Bridge Film Festival is a promising new addition to the North’s festival calendar. The festival embraces the Calder Valley’s history of non-conformism by celebrating “The Other” and showcasing films by or about those who sit outside of the mainstream. Louise’s festival report shows that this year’s London line-up provided ample food for thought in this vein – from Céline Sciamma’s convention-defying romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Sarah Gavron’s semi-improvised story of female friendship in East London, Rocks.

Hebden Bridge Film Festival at LFF

While most festivals require some stamina, the BFI London Film Festival is a marathon with 345 films and a myriad collection of industry talks, Q&As and special events to choose from. There were so many films I wanted to see, but I had to be disciplined and focus on selecting films that were a fit for our festival’s theme of “The Other."

One of the hottest tickets for LFF was Portrait of a Lady on Fire by acclaimed director Céline Sciamma, and it did not disappoint. Its inversion of the normal tropes of the Artist-Subject relationship and its radical shift from the usually singular male gaze to a determinedly collaborative female gaze was breath-taking. It was an exquisite pleasure to see LFF Director Tricia Tuttle host an in-depth interview with Sciamma, which covered her extraordinary body of work to date. Collaboration emerged as a theme there - both between the characters in Sciamma’s films and in the way that the director works with her team to create something truly unique. Sciamma’s intellectual rigour as a writer, director and filmmaker was evident in the answers she gave about her approach as we watched clips from Tomboy, Girlhood and My Life as Courgette as well as Portrait. The atmosphere when the audience spilled out into the foyer was electric.

The theme of collaboration continued in Sarah Gavron’s new film, Rocks. I had been looking forward to catching this as it’s set in Hackney where I had lived for many years - so it was inspiring to see a film firmly rooted in its location and with such a wonderful diverse cast. The actors were mostly first timers selected from drama workshops held at schools around East London, and their energy and authenticity were bouncing off the screen in this celebration of female friendship. The whole process of the film was a deeply collaborative one with the writers, the producers and the director all taking on board the actors’ own experiences and re-shaping the story as they went. As the cast said in a special festival appearance: “we just don’t see people like us on screen." Hopefully we are going to see more amazing young women like Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha Greyson and Sarah Niles in British film and television soon.

A special treat was Gaylene Gould’s insightful interview with multi-talented writer, director and actor Kasi Lemmons whose 1997 first feature, Eve’s Bayou blew me away. She has produced an impressive body of work over the years and her latest film, Harriet tells the story of the trail-blazing abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman, played by Cynthia Erivo. While not as ground breaking in style or form as her earlier work, Lemmons said she wanted to make a film that was as accessible as possible to a mainstream audience and she has certainly fought long and hard to make a story that should have been told years ago.

Other jewels included LFF Grierson Award winner, White Riot: a documentary directed by Rubika Shah charting the Rock Against Racism protest movement. There was the exquisite Georgian drama And Then We Danced, the US indie The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and last but certainly not least: the engaging Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, set in the remotest part of Bhutan.

Between films there were many industry events, with What Next? The Distribution Debate being the one that I wanted to focus on. We all know theatrical distributors are facing a constantly changing and challenging landscape, but it was great to hear the optimism of the panel members from Altitude, Curzon, MUBI and September Films. It can sometimes feel frustrating for festival directors like myself when trying to source films from distributors, but this was an illuminating discussion that gave some insight into the challenges that they are dealing with. Some things in distribution have not changed, whilst transformations to release windows, streaming platforms and so on are forcing the sector to be very responsive and creative if they want to survive and thrive. Based on the conversations I had afterwards, it seems that smaller exhibitors and festivals will have to work even harder to gain access to interesting titles.

Louise Wadley, Festival Director at Hebden Bridge Film Festival, attended the BFI London Film Festival with support from our Bursary Awards.

Hebden Bridge Film Festival takes place from 27-29 March 2020, visit the festival website for more information.