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Festivals and Conferences

Cambridge Film Festival #5: Our last day and Summary

One of the major strengths of the Cambridge Film Festival is the education programme which is carefully threaded through the whole festival by Trish Sheil, the Education Officer for the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium. The Archive event that I reported in my third Cambridge post is a regular event that was given a special festival flavour, but the ‘Meet the Industry’ morning was organised specifically for the festival.

The event was jointly with Anglia Ruskin University and as far as I could tell most of the big student audience (filling the 220 seat largest screen) were from Anglia Ruskin. The students were offered four Q & A sessions with industry professionals with Trish or one of the Anglia Ruskin lecturers in the chair for each guest. Catherine Wheatley is a writer/reviewer for Sight and Sound with a day job teaching at the University of East London. She gave an interesting account of how she managed to get a her first chance to write for what is the most prestigious film magazine in the UK. Clearly persistence and self-belief are essential and the willingness to give up a day of holiday to write in the off-chance that a piece might be accepted. She gave a realistic appraisal of what writing about film might be like for a living (though she has the day job). She also mentioned that she had done a course for prospective writers at the BFI and admitted that she wasn’t the most successful student on the course – but she did get published.

Next up were an interesting couple, Ant Neely  and Sloane U’Ren who have recently completed an independent film in and around Cambridge. Neely studied zoology but decided to become a professional musician. He has since had his music used in various film and television productions including Six Feet Under and Boston Legal. But in a way his most useful, if least glamorous, achievement was writing four minutes of music for each episode of a Dutch TV animation series which taught him a great deal about deadlines and ‘being professional’ (and which no doubt paid for the time spent on his more experimental music released on CD – and his filmmaking activities). U’Ren has been an Art Director, Set Director and Production Designer on several well-known Hollywood productions including Harry Potter and Batman Begins. This engaging couple gave students a useful insight into production work on major projects as well as their own more modest enterprise.

Peter MacFarlane was a more mysterious figure for the students. He runs his own ‘literary and talent agency’, MacFarlane Chard Associates, which also operates in Ireland where it is now that country’s second largest agency. I think it was an excellent idea to put an agent in front of these aspiring filmmakers (and in one case, actor). The questions revealed that few in the audience were sure exactly what agents do (though quite a few of us were not surprised to discover that 12.5% is the usual commission). The role of agents within all creative industries is crucially important and it isn’t often studied formally within film studies. I’m not so familiar with production degrees, but clearly it should be included in industry studies.

In between the Q&As a selection of short films were projected on the big screen. This was the only aspect of the event that didn’t work for me. It was probably different for most of the students who would recognise what the production briefs had been, but as the films were presented without any contextualising I was a little lost. The talent and creative invention was there but I didn’t feel I could evaluate the work. I think I probably enjoyed some of the animation pieces most.

The final speaker was Rosemary Richards from BBC VideoNation Network. She presented her project using slides and clips and I found the history of the ‘Video Nation’ concept very interesting. It was good to be reminded of the BBC Community Programme Unit in the 1970s and ’80s which gave birth to Video Diaries in 1990 and then Video Nation in 1993. The concept is now flourishing in the age of social networking and even cheaper digital video recorders. Rosemary set out her case for film students to join the project and submit material. I’m not sure that a ‘community’ project sounds sexy to film students these days, especially since there are various conditions attached to the entry process. On the other hand, the BBC offers a fantastic platform for short video films, online, broadcast and also on the ‘Big Screens’ found in public spaces in various large cities across the UK. Add to that the useful experience of working under restraints and within specific briefs and it looks like an interesting opportunity.

Summary

I very much enjoyed my trip to Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse is a welcoming venue and the programme was varied and interesting. There was a lot more that I didn’t see, including a family-orientated programme in the mornings and various special events. Each day a festival bulletin was issued with feedback from festivalgoers and interviews with visiting guests. I’d like to thank Tony Jones and his team from the Cambridge Film Trust, Clare Wilford, the Press Officer who helped me access the screenings and everyone who worked on the festival. This is clearly a labour of love and I hope it can continue for another 30 years. This is a difficult time for the UK film industry and specialised film exhibition is particularly vulnerable. Around the time of the festival, the Regional Screen Agency, Screen East, was suddenly wound up because of its own problems (all the RSAs will now be re-organised as the UK Film Council is phased out). This has left the Cambridge Film Festival wondering if its grant from Screen East will appear. I do hope so as the festival deserves public funding support.

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