Exploring 'Britishness' and indigenous voices at Victoria Film Festival

Posted on March 1, 2018 by Jo Duncombe

Categories: Festival Reports, General

Waterboys director Robert Jan Westdijk with Jo at the Victoria Film Festival

Our Film Programmer Jo Duncombe talks about how she programmed a strand at an international festival, the challenge of distilling ‘Britishness’ in the Brexit era and an inspiring indigenous filmmaking programme.

Last year, whilst attending the ICO’s Developing Your Film Festival course at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I got chatting to one of the course participants, Carol Godsmark from Chichester International Festival, at a drinks reception. Carol told me that she was born in Canada, and had been excited to meet Kathy Kay, Programme Director of the Victoria Film Festival in British Colombia, the night before. She also told me that Kathy was looking for someone to put together a UK programme for her upcoming festival in February.

The next day, Carol introduced me to Kathy and we began discussing ways in which I could work with her to present some British films in BC. It was an excellent example of how programmes like DYFF genuinely help organisations to deepen inter-cultural exchange, and forge meaningful collaborations and networks outside of the usual frames of reference.

For the ICO, the project presented a great opportunity to expand our programming to a festival outside of the UK, and to represent independent British filmmaking talent in new territories. It was also an opportunity to explore and engage with a cinema culture outside of the UK, and widen our frame by watching films from a broader range of global voices. With budget to fly filmmakers/actors across the Atlantic, the programme was also a great opportunity for filmmakers to travel with their films and gain exposure to new audiences in North America.

The Party
Timothy Spall, Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson in Sally Potter’s The Party

The brief from Kathy was fairly straightforward: a programme of six to seven British features that represent contemporary Britain and the current preoccupations of British filmmakers. The only slight curveball request was a Scottish comedy for the opening night gala (there are shops selling kilts and bagpipes everywhere in Victoria…!).  I identified the main challenge in curating this programme was gauging the extent to which I could challenge and subvert expectations of ‘Britishness’ – which meant lengthy discussions with Kathy and Donovan (the festival’s Head of Programming) about the expectations of Victoria’s audiences.

As soon as I started my research, I realised how complicated this framing process really is. Of course it’s impossible to frame British identity in six films – and that’s before one even begins to contend with the practicalities of competition between festivals for titles, premier status, sales agent fees, and the demand for the festival to meet box office targets. I decided to focus on representing a variety of British filmmakers whose works amplify perhaps lesser known ideas of ‘Britishness’, or that engage audiences on a more political level.

Ethel & Ernest
Ethel & Ernest, one of the titles in Jo’s programme exploring British identity past and present

Understanding that Victoria’s audiences are largely skewed to older, and more traditional than experimental, the first film I sought out was Ethel & Ernest. This gem of a film was small indie hit here in 2016, but it never reached audiences in Canada. Based on an award-winning book by author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, it’s a beautifully hand-drawn film that tells the true story of Raymond’s own parents – two ordinary Londoners living through a period of extraordinary social change. For me, the film presented an opportunity to look back across the expanse of the 20th century in the UK and take stock of the impact of our political choices. I wanted to use this film to frame the currently socio-political context of the UK, looking forward, as we sit on the cusp of seismic change (Brexit!).

The inclusion of Sally Potter’s The Party offered another opportunity to explore the relationship between the personal and the political – and an all-star ensemble cast made for box office gold at the festival: with sold out screenings across the board. Brexitannia, a low-budget doc allowing ordinary people to share their responses to Brexit, was another nod to this theme, and sat within the festival’s experimental strand.

Pickups QA
Aidan Gillen and director Jamie Thraves at the Pickups QA

Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen was also able to join us at the festival (he’s currently filming in Vancouver) with a presentation of his film Pickups. Directed by long-time collaborator Jamie Thraves, Pickups is a semi-autobiographical lo-fi film about the identity-politics of performance and façade. The film is an uncanny take on voyeurism and the oddness of celebrity, which was mirrored in the Q&A with Aidan, Jamie and producer Phil Bowman which became weirdly ‘meta’ when the audience began asking for autographs and photographs.

And as for the Scottish comedy drama for the opening night gala – I looked to my colleagues at the Edinburgh International Festival for advice, and was pointed in the direction of Waterboys. It’s a Scottish / Dutch co-production about a Dutch novelist who reignites his career and a relationship with his estranged son on a freewheeling trip to the Scottish Highlands for a publicity tour. The film’s director Robert Jan Westdjik joined us in Victoria to present the film – and was treated to a ‘Highland Fling opening party’ in its honour. He told me it felt quite odd for a Dutchman to be celebrated as an honorary Scot for the night – but he fully embraced it!

Indigenous Curator, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
VFF Indigenous Curator, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

As a programmer, the most important thing about attending an international festival is broadening the frame through which one watches film and engages with the world. During my visit to British Colombia, I was struck by how little the British know about our history of colonialism and ethnic cleansing in indigenous lands. The festival’s Indigenous Curator, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, is also a documentary filmmaker and actor. Her festival programme offered a vital perspective on both the historical legacy of colonialism and the contemporary communities who live with the reality of this legacy every day.

Of her selection Tailfeathers wrote: “This program of innovative works reminds us that in tenderness and vulnerability, there is a certain kind of strength. A strength birthed from a place older than time, and a strength that is both sustained and nourished by teachings of respect, humility, and gratitude.” I learned so much from putting together a programme of films for Victoria Festival – but it was Tailfeathers’ words which truly showed me how it important it is to interrogate and scrutinise our own frames of reference when creating, and engaging with, our cultural histories on screen.

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