Combining the Classic With the Cutting Edge

Bradford Film Festival returned for its fifteenth year in 2009 with previews, premieres, the Widescreen Weekend, and celebrations of short film and independent cinema among many other highlights. The acclaimed festival revisited the classics while keeping its content fresh and up-to-date in the facilities of the National Media Museum.

March 2009 sees the opening of the 15th International Fim Festival in Bradford. Previous festivals have seen high-profile names such as Michael Parkinson, Richard Attenborough, Michael Palin, Kenneth Branagh, and Barry Norman speaking on their various fortes, taking the festival away from the overcrowded melting pot of hundreds of provincial film festivals that take place each year. Speaking to the festival’s director for the last 10 years, Tony Earnshaw, it is clear that the festival hopes to continue to innovate and provide opportunities for films which may otherwise be overlooked, as well as exploiting what Earnshaw refers to as “Bradford’s USP, the museum and the facilities here.”

With the festival taking place at the National Media Museum events will take place over three screening venues — the IMAX, the Pictureville and Cubby Broccoli cinemas, and attendees are also able to peruse the host of permanent exhibitions exploring the history of film, galleries, archives and educational facilities. For Earnshaw, this is a real draw for those who see British film as a London-centric world, “most chance visitors are overwhelmed by how much is going on here. It’s a gallery space, it’s an exhibition area, an archive, an educational establishment, and a cinema.” This year’s festival will see the continuation of popular strands from previous festivals, such as the Industry Weekend, Cinefiles, the Shine Award and Uncharted States of America, as well as a season of James Mason screenings, Widescreen Weekend, previews, premieres and the presentation of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement and Fellowship Awards.

A festival favourite, Widescreen Weekend, returns for another year to take classic films out of the living room and back onto the big screen in an unusual juxtaposition to traditional festival fare. “We straddle the old and the new in a very deliberate way. Film festivals traditionally are there to show new films, but there’s an equally important group of people out there who are into vintage film, perhaps movies which they’ve never seen on the cinema screen because they are so old and they’ve only ever watched them at home on DVD.” Vintage film fans can also see Virginia McKenna, star of Born Free, receive a Lifetime Achievement award while documentary-maker Peter Whiteread will receive this year’s Fellowship. Earnshaw hopes to further encourage these audiences with a season of events dedicated to the centenary of James Mason, “there’s an entirely different audience here. These might not necessarily be the ones who will come to see the new French, or the new Japanese or Argentinean cinema that we’re playing, but they will come to see the James Mason films which they watched when they were kids.” Without losing its focus on the new, Bradford manages to open up the festival atmosphere to a more varied demographic, incorporating both those seeking new upcoming titles and classic movie-lovers. “The audience may be split across different factions but there’s the same mindset there, that they want to experience movies where they should be seen which is in a cinema, on a movie screen.”

In a similar strategy of echoing a bygone age, Bradford will precede feature-length productions with short-film screenings “as used to happen many years ago.” These short films scattered around the festival pre-empt the announcement of the winner of 2009’s Shine short film award. This has all become part of Earnshaw’s aim to create a more open-minded approach to film, “if you don’t buy into the concept of short film as a viable form of entertainment then you’re not going to go to a package of shorts, so we incorporate them into the movies.” Of the one hundred or so short films screened through the sixteen-day festival, one ultimate winner will be chosen by the independent jury from a shortlist of six. This year’s jury will include BBC journalist James Addyman, and filmmakers David Lascelles and Abbe Robinson. Although there is no all-encompassing criteria, “if you are too prescribed in your selection process then you can miss things,” Earnshaw admits that “it tends to be drama as opposed to documentary, but if they have a power, a story, are well acted and well shot, then they may end up on the Shine shortlist.” In previous years the Shine Award has provided a launch pad for filmmakers such as Abbe Robinson and Mark Craig, and The Industry Weekend sets out to encourage those seeking a career in cinema through a series of talks with industry figures from producers, directors, writers and actors, to those involved in film finance, film distribution and festivals. “We were aware that there wasn’t that much of a focus for people in the region to learn from the horse’s mouth. Genuinely the guests want to meet people who are interested in them.”

Uncharted States of America will return for its fourth year to champion “the genuine independent movies in the States.” Independent films in America have become a cause of contention in the industry: “it’s bizarre but America as a film industry seems to shout longest about the concept of indie cinema. But when a supposedly indie movie comes out of Miramax, you have to question if it is really as independent as it’s claimed to be.” Uncharted States has previously showcased “the stuff that wasn’t being picked up by anybody. It was quality material; valuable filmmaking and you can see genuine artistry. There were some really good, focused, passionate filmmakers who anywhere else just wouldn’t get a look in. “ Earnshaw believes “it has been hugely successful for us” in drawing attention to films which may otherwise have been by-passed in their own country, “we keep getting calls from sales agents and producers in America, and suddenly these movies are being spring-boarded onto a whole range of festivals in America, and yet it’s an American movie but has to have its premiere in the UK in Bradford to get noticed.”

For Earnshaw, the success of Uncharted States makes a case for the importance of festivals to independent film, “it’s the real struggling filmmakers who are working hard to make viable films that never get onto the main circuit which is why festivals are so important because they give them a chance to showcase their work.” Another important aspect of Bradford is the passion behind the films chosen and its team of organisers, “one of the key aspects of running the festival is that you have to have an emotional connection to a film you’re screening. Movies are all about that personal connection.” Using Toronto’s film festival as its benchmark, Bradford is now well established in embracing film as it should be seen and nurturing new talent along the way, “often people forget that cinema is an art form, it’s not about making hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s about creating art and cinema is the one true art form of the 20th century.”

Asked of his personal highlight in 2009’s programme, Earnshaw chooses a film that makes a point of exploring the connections between cinema and real life. Yakuza Eiga is a documentary on the hugely popular 1970s and 1980s Japanese film genre which concentrates on the glamorised violence of the Yakuza, an organised criminal underworld. “Yakuza Eiga lifts the lid on that entire genre of filmmaking. It’s absolutely terrifying in many ways because it shows you how movies can colour people’s minds, people’s impressions of reality, and that hero worship of gangsters is really frightening.” Extending far beyond the reach of Japan, the documentary critiques our understanding of the world through film and highlights how the medium can so easily extend beyond entertainment to influence the viewers, “anyone watching it will get an entirely new perspective, not just on Japanese cinema, but on cinema in general, don’t believe what you see on the movie screen because the reality’s often violently different.”

By presenting this series of events in a venue such as the National Media Museum, Bradford International Film Festival will show cinema extending far beyond entertainment and encourage nostalgia and the pioneering of new works alike — “film festivals aren’t just about showing movies, they are about propagating film, championing film, and communicating it to a wider audience, they aren’t just about entertaining people, and sometimes people miss that.”

Bradford International Film Festival took place from 13 – 28 March 2009 at the National Media Museum.

Pauline Bache