Thursday 25 October 2012

Festival compulsion

When I say I've spent the last ten to twelve days at the BFI London Film Festival, spent is the key word. I am spent. I've seen between 45 to 50 films in a remarkably short space of time in a variety of darkened spaces, from the confined quarters of the temporary DVD library in the back of the Delegate Centre at BFI South Bank to bijoux, club-like viewing theatres to the colossal Empire Leicester Square, often with barely ten minutes to get from one screening to the next. My eyes are sore, I have brain fatigue, mild dehydration and have been living off peanuts, muesli bars and complimentary Green & Blacks chocolate bars. The quickest route to the Ladies (the second the titles come up) has become of paramount importance.

So what's the appeal? It hasn't been a work thing. Although London is well-timed in terms of previewing many of the films that will be released at the right time to be included in the Borderlines programme - and it helps immensely to have seen the titles you're plugging - this is more of a busman's holiday.

If you enjoy cinema, a delegate pass to a film festival is like being let loose in a sweet shop. There's plenty on offer to sample from  big forthcoming releases to low budget world cinema, restored silents, experimental films and shorts.  This year, under new Festival Director Clare Stewart,  the contents of the programme have been grouped into terse, emotive single-word strands like 'Love', 'Dare', 'Journey', 'Laugh', 'Cult', 'Thrill'. It's a question of trying things out,  seeing what you like and what doesn't work for you.

There's a strong and highly appealing element of serendipity about the selection process. Like myself, many people I spoke to prefer to go into films knowing the minimum about what they are about to see. Seemingly bias-free. On the other hand, everyone is constantly asking other delegates what they've seen and would recommend. This word-of-mouth (increasingly word-of-Twitter) informs the somewhat hit and miss thread of your own schedule.

All festival have their own structure and the London Film Festival's is complex and arcane. It takes time to know the ropes.

Press screenings (usually two showing simultaneously) take place during the day, starting from around 9am, at one of the big movie theatres in Leicester Square or in smaller preview theatres in the West End. The reputation of the films shown at these will have gone before them - either big name directors or bankable stars - and the pick of them will have prestigious Gala screenings the same evening. Quite often they're disappointing, pulled up by the bootstraps by a star turn: the Telegraph's Robbie Collins (@robbiereviews) labelled an uninspired Hyde Park on Hudson 'My Week with Murraylin.'

The billboards go up as you come out of the cinema and the barriers and red carpet arrive soon after that. Some girls spotted outside the Odeon Leicester Square as we came out of the Great Expectations preview had obviously been camping out all night - presumably to catch a glimpse of Jeremy Irvine (War Horse lead) who plays Pip with a square-jawed lustre.

As a delegate, you can also apply for tickets to public afternoon and evening screenings (excluding Galas) in a kind of online lottery that involves intensive advance planning plus sheer luck. It's possible to queue for unsold tickets and returns 30 minutes before the start of a film but I've done this only to have the final seat vanish tantalisingly into the mitts of the person in front of me.

On top of this there are four days of Industry screenings that take place at the Curzon Soho in the second week of the festival (two or three movies showing simultaneously). The films shown here are generally seeking UK distribution and some unexpected gems from different corners can pop up. I caught an odd, mischievously black Basque comedy, Happy New Year, Grandma!, an interesting counterpoint to Sightseers from British director Ben Wheatley (releasing end of November), described as a cross between Nuts in May and Natural Born Killers. In both the comedy derives from the disjunction between the mundane and the murderous.

In this section I also lapped up Museum Hours, a cross between an art documentary and the most slimline of stories -   a chance meeting between a guide in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and a Canadian woman visiting her hospitalised cousin in the city - it nevertheless affords leisurely, detailed contemplation, particularly of the marvellous Breughels in the museum's collection.

An over-stimulated brain starts to draw parallels between films that at first sight seem to be poles apart. For me, two of this year's strongest were The Hunt from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and American indie Compliance, set respectively in a provincial nursery school and a non-descript fast food joint somewhere in the US, but which both hinge on a huge moral dilemma that treads a precarious line between truth and fiction. Based on a true story, Compliance is likely to prove controversial - there were apparently many walk-outs during the public screenings - while The Hunt touches on the prickly subject-matter of child abuse, currently receiving massive media and public attention in the light of the Jimmy Savile revelations.

Meanwhile The Sessions and Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone were two films that tackled the issue of sex and disability head-on in very different ways (and, in my opinion, with varying degrees of success).

Another immense pleasure is the privilege of being part of the audience that is viewing a film for the very first time, before critical opinions have been set in stone and preconceptions formed. During the press screening of Tim Burton's stop-frame animation Frankenweenie, Borderlines board member Luke and I found ourselves sitting across the aisle from Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw who was using his phone (rather anti-socially, we thought) to scribble down notes for the review that appeared online later that day.

Clumps of journalists predominantly, though not exclusively, youngish and male gather together on the pavement outside the cinema to pass judgement on what they've just seen. Eavesdropping, their comments can often be refreshingly banal, dwelling on the implausibility of details in the plot line, "How on earth could they have found the location of the village just by seeing a bus go by?"

Even without being on the red carpet, after-party circuit, the film festival is intensely sociable. It's easy to fall into conversation with other delegates standing next to you in the perennial queues, hotfooting it across the Hungerford footbridge from the West End to the South Bank or sitting in the next cinema seat. Kept bumping into people I hadn't seen all year or, in some cases, for decades.

The evening of  the Silent Film Gala, featuring Hitchcock's The Manxman, met up in the pub with members of the restoration team including BFI National Archive curator Bryony Dixon, along with co-director of the British Silent Film Festival, Laraine Porter, and met Pamela Hutchinson who writes the excellent Silent London blog. After the performance I got to shake the hand of composer/accompanist Stephen Horne, only to marvel a couple of nights later at a Dutch archive restoration of The Spanish Dancer that he's able to play piano with his left hand, the flute with his right, while occasionally breaking off for a burst on the accordion or reaching into the piano's body to pluck the strings for the gypsy dancing interludes.

Back on the ground, Borderlines 2013 is currently in the planning stage and though it may not have the clout of London and the top international festivals, a touch of film festival fever is up for grabs: a tightly packed programme of great films that might not otherwise make it to the Marches, the chance to share them with your friends and total strangers, a party atmosphere, a sense of occasion, excitement, debate.
Friday 1 to Sunday 17 March