I enjoyed my three day visit to the LFF and this time to have the chance to spend more time in ‘BFI Southbank’ as it is now branded. I know that the changes took place some time ago, but for those of who live 200 miles or more away, the LFF is our main chance to experience it.
I failed to enquire why I couldn’t get a Wifi connection, so that’s my fault. On the positive side, I did spend time in the BFI Library, although only as a reading room, so I can’t comment on how efficient it was in getting books from stacks. But it’s free and I didn’t need to book and I appreciate that (I am a BFI member, but at Stephen Street you had to book and pay if I remember rightly – I most used the library back in the 1980s in Charing Cross Road). In the evening, the library space became a venue for talks etc. I didn’t visit the Mediathèque, which was closed on one of the days, but it’s clearly a useful resource (you can watch a wide range of BFI holdings on-line). Perhaps what I appreciated most was that the whole building is now more open and airy. The bar-restaurant overlooking the river seems to work much better than I remember previous arrangements and it was a pleasure to have a late breakfast there before a late morning screening.
I’m still puzzled though as to where the LFF is going and what it now thinks it is for. I went to eight screenings. They were chosen to be ‘not American or British’ and ‘not films known to be about to open or to have already secured a UK release’. My logic is quite simple, London has been the one festival in the UK which has screened a selection of global cinema that probably won’t get a UK release, but is at the same time high quality and likely to figure in future discussion of global trends. On that basis, my selection worked well. I enjoyed all eight films and although it looks likely I might have a chance to see some of them again, none of them will get a UK release in the near future. There are over 200 films in the LFF and none of my selections have been mentioned in any of the mainstream media reports on the festival that I’ve seen. As far as radio, press and TV are concerned, the festival seems to be about a limited number of high-profile films, mostly American or British – or major art films already set up for UK release. What’s the point of highlighting these? (To be fair, there was a short piece in the i newspaper which urged London cinemagoers to ignore the week’s predictable new commercial films on release and seek out the more unusual films in the festival.)
London has a problem as a film festival. Its timing places it after all the major European festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Venice, San Sebastián etc.). It finds itself with only a handful of major films that offer a European première or a ‘world première’ (Toronto has already taken most major films). And now London is competing with Rome (now scheduled for November) for what is left. London was once a festival for UK cinephiles, allowing them to catch up with all the art films that had appeared at other festivals. It was relatively small and inward-looking. It has gradually grown and recently has reached out to a wider, non-specialised audience as well as attempting to attract industry delegates, partly through promoting its three competitions. But as industry commentators have pointed out, if LFF wants to raise its profile further (and in industry terms the UK rivals France as a film production/distribution centre) the BFI would need to throw a lot more money at the festival to secure more prestigious premieres and guests. At the moment, winning best film in London is not a big deal. This year, the winner was Rust & Bone, Jacques Audiard’s big breakthrough film after several arthouse triumphs. The film didn’t ‘need’ the London win, but perhaps it will help the film in the UK where it opens next week? In France, its biggest market, it opened back in May soon after its positive reception at Cannes. London opened with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (in UK cinemas a few days later) and closed with Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (in UK cinemas in December). These films fulfilled the red carpet requirements but do either of them belong in a major film festival?
LFF 2012 has been a commercial success for new director Clare Stewart with more bums on seats in more venues over a more concentrated period. I have no complaints about that and if promotion of cinemagoing to a wider public is the aim, all well and good. But is it compatible with raising the industry profile of the festival? Compare London to Toronto – no ‘official competitions’, only a ‘audience award’ but real evidence that the festival can launch small films on their way – Juno, Slumdog Millionaire are perhaps the best examples. Can LFF do that? Does it want to?