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EDITIONS
Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 06:48 GMT
Q&A: Film festival director
London Film Festival's artistic director Sandra Hebron explains how she chooses the movies  film-goers enjoy
London Film Festival's new artistic director explains the background to how the movies film-goers enjoy make it into the programme.

How did the LFF begin?

It started in 1956 when a group of film critics headed by the famous Dilys Powell - the film critic for the Sunday Times - got together over dinner. They discussed the festivals at Cannes and Venice and agreed that London needed one too.

Its aim was to give the public the opportunity to see great films from around the world that were not being shown in the cinema and certainly not on TV.

There are a number of directors historically - such as John Carpenter of Hallowe'en fame - who say they owe their success to the festival

It started with around 20 films all shown at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank. Gradually the size and significance has grown as the public has become more interested.

It was originally a "festival of festival", with a selection largely drawn from films which had received their premieres at other international festival. Now the festival has grown in size, and range, to include some 180 feature films and around 80 short films each year, screened at several venues across the capital.

Who is the festival for?

We do have an important industry and marketing function but the public is definitely the priority. Other festivals are competitive, industry events orientated around press and selling and the public cannot attend.

Our festival is run by the British Film Institute (BFI) and our cultural mission is to grant public access to films which, in the majority, they would not have access to otherwise.

More than 65% of the films and videos we show receive their only UK screenings at the festival. We regard it as being critically important to show people what's going on in the world of cinema.

Does the LFF have an influence on British cinema?

There is a mutual relationship between the festival and British cinema. It is obviously important that we support the British industry, and we do this in a number of ways.

First of all, we showcase new films through the programme, We also organise panel events and discussions with British and international film-makers, giving them the opportunity to share experiences and knowledge.

One important area for the festival is to encourage and support new British talent, through the shorts showcases, and by screening new British shorts before each new British feature films.

The industry office of the festival accredits producers, sales agents, distributors, broadcasters and the like, alongside the directors, writers, and so on, connected to each of the films, and offers industry seminars and networking events for aspiring film-makers.

In return, the festival is fortunate in having the support of the UK film-making community, who submit their films to us for screening, and who also generously give their time to take part in the many events that we run.

How are films selected?

The festival has a very broad remit, which is to screen the best of world cinema from the previous 12 months. This includes feature films, documentaries, short films and artists' films and videos. Alongside this there is also a dedicated strand of archive restorations.

There is a core programming team inhouse. The artistic director has overall curatorial responsibility, and devises the overall shape of the festival programme and the balance between individual programme strands in consultation with the executive director.

The festival operates an open submission policy and receives hundreds of unsolicited films and videos. However, many of the films are tracked from their early stages of production (or even pre-production) as it is important that the festival is very up-to-date with new developments in world cinema.

The programming team spend a considerable amount of time travelling to view films, either at other international festivals, or in their countries of origin. To do this we often receive assistance from national film promotional agencies, such as Italia Cinema and Unifrance.

Aside from the direct programming contributions of the various advisors, we also talk informally to critics, academics, sales agents and other industry colleagues, and receive recommendations from them.

In every section, we look for a balance of quality, diversity, innovation, the first flowering of new talent and examples of how different countries are experimenting with certain genres. Ultimately, we hope to select the best available work.

Are any types of film considered unacceptable?

We have formal restrictions, for example whether a film is a British première. But there are no restrictions based on category or type as it could mean missing some interesting work.

That said, there is not any extreme horror or pornography because it is unlikely that those types of film produce the quality we want - but we don't rule them out.

How does the content of the LFF compare to other festivals?

As we are primarily a public festival, we are able to retain something of the feel of a "festival of festivals", which means audiences will have the opportunity to see some of the films they've read about from other international festivals such as Cannes or Venice.

However, our programming team, with it's breadth of knowledge, also ensures that there is plenty of new work on show

One of the festival's defining features is the diversity of what's on offer. So on the one hand, some of best known film-makers and stars attend and are pleased to present their work - big US directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh have been regular visitors, alongside key names in world cinema and the rising stars of tomorrow.

Distinctive elements of the programme include Treasures From the Archive; Experimenta; and our comprehensive selection of educational screenings and activities.

How is the LFF regarded by the global film industry?

London is a key event in the international festival calendar, as is indicated by the calibre of the film makers who are keen to attend and present their work. The festival relies on the support and goodwill of the international industry, particularly that of the producers, sales agents, and distributors who provide the films we screen and who sometime assist in bringing the key creative talent to London

How important are short films?

Commercially they tend to be regarded as unimportant, simply because they don't make any money. But culturally and in terms of the development of talent and training they are critical. A lot of very good short film-makers go on to become excellent feature film-makers, whilst there are also many film makers, including animators and artists, who continue to work in short films, amassing an amazing body of work.

The history of British film alone is littered with examples from Ridley Scott to Stephen Frears who made their first short films with the BFI. One of the interesting sidebar pleasures of the festival is tracking the career of film makers such as Asif Kapadia and Sandra Goldbacher, who both screened short films in the festival prior to their feature films also being selected.

Short films will become increasingly important because of the internet which provides a perfect medium for these films that are quick to download, and the various digital channels which are now buying and transmitting shorts.

How is the surprise film selected?

Each year there are a number of films which we are tracking which for various reasons aren't ready or available when we complete the programme.

We select one from the list which we think our audience will enjoy the most.

One of the most interesting things about the selection is the breadth of films which have found their way into the surprise slot - everything from Arachnophobia to The Age of Innocence to The Insider to Meet the Parents.

It is a lot of fun and often the surprise film goes on to be a big international hit.


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