No sooner has the new year started than a festival is upon us – a festival that takes no prisoners, that likes to confront as much as it likes to entertain, that unites the best of the capital’s film exhibition community for 10 days of short films, music, live performance and everything in between.
It’s the London Short Film Festival, of course, and as January finds the UK in peak anniversary mode – NHS 70, 100 years of suffrage for women over 30 – it’s only right that we look at the origins and ambitions of the LSFF as it enters full-blown adolescence, with all the hormonal surges and stampy rebelliousness that entails.
The festival as we know it now started in 2004 under the banner of the Halloween Short Film Festival, but its roots go back further to sell-out monthly film nights in the 1990s at the Notre Dame Hall in Soho under the umbrella of The Halloween Society, itself an exhibition adjunct to the DIY production company founded by Philip Ilson and Tim Harding, film enthusiasts mucking around on 16mm and Super-8 cameras. (For a more detailed history of the Halloween years and an intriguing look at London’s pre-millennium underground exhibition scene see Ilson’s account).
What started as a four-day, single-venue event co-piloted with programmer and festivalist Kate Taylor (now at BFI LFF) has evolved into a 10-day, multi-borough extravaganza complete with special events and an industry programme. There were some bumpy years – family money had to be borrowed to print brochures in 2005 – but by 2014 the festival was screening over 350 British shorts in 22 venues across the capital.
Watch the trailer for the 2018 London Short Film Festival
Programming on this scale may sound like the road to a nervous breakdown, but the decision to go wide has always been underpinned by an ethos of inclusion; “We show the films other festivals won’t” is one of several mantras that nattily encapsulates the LSFF’s commitment to the imperfect, the rough-edged and the hard-to-place. This isn’t to suggest that the LSFF serves as a salon des refusés, rather that noble experiments find a home alongside more ‘produced’ fare, resulting in programmes that feel simultaneously democratic, challenging and aesthetically diverse.
Andrew Kotting, Andrea Arnold, Peter Strickland, Eva Weber, Alnoor Dewshi and Fyzal Boulifa are just a few of the filmmakers that the festival has backed since the beginnings of their careers, screening their work alongside countless filmmakers from across the UK who have been given a cinema exhibition platform (and willing audience) denied to them elsewhere. Some may have only been dabbling, some may have never made another short, others have gone on to giddy heights. Either way the programme’s inclusivity has engendered loyalty from the filmmaking community and an appreciative public that understands that while they may be challenged, they’ll never be bored.
And while short films have always taken centre stage at the festival, Ilson has been particularly adept at situating the work within a broader creative ecosystem of multimedia, music video, audiovisual events and projections, and general cross-arts collaboration, an approach that reflects the creative synergies pinballing around the city the LSFF calls home.
Another constant is the festival’s highly collegiate ongoing engagement with a superb roster of organisations from across the independent exhibition sector. Bechdel Test Fest, I Am Dora, Cigarette Burns, Kino London, The Final Girls, Club de Femmes and Underwire are just a few of the regulars who host and run events within the festival, programming, panelling and proselytising from within.
This annual cabaret of collectively goes some way to explaining how the festival has survived, then thrived, in a what is a notoriously hostile climate – data from Stephen Follow’s article ‘How many film festivals are there in the world’ suggests that a third of all film festivals only run once and less than a quarter make it past their sixth birthday.
Like all good 15-year olds, however, the LSFF is starting to think seriously about its future. There have been several significant developments over the last few years: artistic director Philip Ilson has been joined at the helm by festival director Sarah Chorley; the programming team has expanded to include pre-selectors; limited berths have been made available for international submissions, and this year sees the festival’s first ever international jury, who will be doling out the prizes across an expanded programme of competition screenings.
Supported by the Arts Council, LSFF has also launched a commissioning strand designed to fund filmmakers whose work sits somewhere between artists’ film and video and more traditional narrative shorts. In a beautifully-timed slice of pop-irony the 2015 slate produced three new cat videos from Nicholas Abrahams, Vivienne Dick and Jennifer Reeder. Now named ‘With Teeth’, 2018’s edition will unveil new commissions by Kim Noce, Zoe Aiano and Tash Tung.
Ilson maintains that it was always the plan to turn the LSFF into “a proper festival”, one with infrastructure and a permanent team that can plan for the future rather than run on fumes. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that 2018 serves up one of the festival’s most enticing programmes to date. Highlights include a retrospective of British-Nigerian director Ngozi Onwurah, best known for her 1995 dystopia Welcome II the Terrordome, the first theatrically released feature directed by a black British woman. There will be timely reflection on the LSFF’s track record of talent spotting with ‘We Dare to Fail’, a programme that features work from the last 15 years from the likes of Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), Hope Dickson Leach (The Levelling), Destiny Ekaragha (Gone Too Far) and John Maclean (Slow West).
Competition screenings include new work from the likes of Eva Riley, Aneil Karia and Eva Sigurdardottir, and there will be a screening of the short films of Chris Kraus, author of cult classics I Love Dick and Aliens and Anorexia. Music videos and DJs will collide when LSFF goes head to head with Domino Records to celebrate 15 years of collaboration, and The Guardian will be discussing the Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation it produced in partnership with the Headlong Theatre Company.
So as the awards season machine gets into full grind, don’t forget the salty, rebellious, invigorating, renegade counter-offer running from 12-21 January. Happy birthday LSFF – please don’t grow up too quickly!
Full programme available at shortfilms.org.uk/