Requiem for a festival

A statue of JB Priestley, author and champion of the North, stands on a slope above the centre of Bradford, looking out over his city, coat tails flapping in the brisk Yorkshire wind.  At his back is the still impressive purpose-built National Media Museum. Well, purpose-built as the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, which was its original designation. Mission creep turned those words and concepts into ‘Media’ in 2006, and chances are that it will now eventually become the National Museum of Science, North. Priestley’s statue, conventionally-clad though it is, oozes the purposeful oomph and creativity that made Bradford, like other northern towns, full of that energy and enquiry that fired development and innovation in the past. If the great man looked behind him now, he’d be more than sad.

It was announced and widely reported earlier this year that the Royal Photographic Collection, a priceless archive, was to be moved to the V & A in London, just one more factor in what now amounts to a cultural asset-stripping of the regions. Less reported was the fact that the Bradford International Film Festival, held there for 20 years, is to be ditched. Following its 20th edition in 2014, last year it was left in limbo while ominously ‘under review’, and the announcement was hardly unexpected. On the cards, then, but still a shock that this highlight of cultural life in Northern England can vanish so easily.  It’s hard to believe that in 2009 Bradford was designated the first European UNESCO City of Film, beating Venice and Cannes to the title. The existence of the Museum and its activities, as well as early film making in the city and its use as a location for filming played their part in this, and one of its avowed commitments was  to ’enlarge Bradford’s film festivals’.

I have to declare an interest here. For several years on a voluntary basis I scouted a few films for it in Eastern Europe and wrote reviews of the films I saw there, but essentially I was a member of the public who looked forward each year to pleasure and challenge in those few days in early spring. Pleasure, because it was a great place for a festival – if you had the stamina you could manage 12-hour end-to-end viewing over its 3 screens, all in the one venue, as well as pop into TV Heaven (now defunct) where you could pick up the best of the television of the past, as I more than once did to re-view one of my favourite films, Ken Russell‘s made-for-BBC  ‘Elgar’ – or drop into a  photography exhibition. The front of house staff were lovely too.

It was cinema for everyone, casual cinemagoers and cineastes, with plenty of British input from stars making personal appearances, the likes of Ray Winstone, Malcolm McDowell, Jenny Agutter, John Hurt and Claire Bloom, and retrospectives of home-grown directors such as Ken Loach, Patrick Keiller, Joanna Hogg, Lindsay Anderson and Terence Davies. But as its name says it was a truly international festival, bringing in, for example, Olivier Assayas, Christian Petzold, Pawel Pawlikowski and Fernando Meirelles. Foreign cinema ranged over World and European features and documentaries, often the only chance in the UK to see gems from the countries increasingly overlooked nowadays by the centrally organised arts cinema programming machines. There have been Japanese directors most non-experts had never heard of before; Canadian; Congolese; Polish; Slovenian. One of the things I’m most grateful to Bradford for is my introduction to the magnificent Andrey Balabanov, surely a deserving third director to form a trilogy of Russian maestros of contemporary cinema along with Alexander Sokurov and Andrey Zvyagintsev. His savage and and witty howls of rage against Russian society are the stuff of nightmares and demand to be seen by anyone interested in contemporary cinema or Russian society, but have only been shown in any number at Bradford. His death in 2013 soon after his latest and possibly greatest masterpiece Me Too went almost unnoticed in the arts world over here.  Not so for those lucky enough to have seen his work at Bradford.

Similarly the 7-year-long strand of ‘Uncharted States of America’ which brought little-known true independent cinema to the UK was (mostly!) a joy.  Almost all of them UK or European premieres, documentaries and feature films, they ranged from poetic, bizarre, transgressive, aggressive, funny, by directors young and upcoming like Mike Ott, and veteran, such as Betzy Bromberg , and included a European premiere for 70-year-old John Rad’s totally bonkers Dangerous Men, much  taken up by critics when finally released last November (‘The most profoundly insane personal piece of film-making ever produced’), already shown in Bradford 9 years ago. It was there that I, and so many others, were introduced to the work of revered American documentarist James Benning, where I first learned to sit still and let ideas and images flow over and penetrate my mind without nagging for immediate meaning. Sometimes hard work with little success, sometimes an intense pleasure.

And that’s what film festivals are about, encountering new ways of looking and ways of thinking, even if we don’t always ‘get’ it. The success of a film festival is counted not only by bells and whistles, red carpets (though they were there too), huge, full screenings, but by small half-empty ones where people leave excited and maybe even changed by what they’ve seen. They provide the chance for those with curiosity to browse among film experiences they cannot find elsewhere. Well, that’s not going to happen for lots of people in the north any more. The museum is turning towards “the science and culture of light and sound” and dumping what are seen as “unsustainable” aspects of entertainment, like film festivals and the art of photography. Sounds like that famous Yorkshireman Gradgrind to me:

What I want is facts, Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, root out everything else. Nothing else will ever be of service.

So much for respect for film as an art form. So much for the shiny new Northern powerhouse.


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