When the Underwire Festival, which promotes female filmmaking talent in the UK, approached us last year to suggest a reprise of our Women on Film competition for female film writers, we pondered how to tweak the format to keep it fresh and useful.
We’d banged the drum (and tried to take a hard look at our own processes and biases) about the sliding number of women in the chambers of film criticism. But what of investigation and reporting? With new spaces opened up on our website and in the redesign of our magazine (which nowadays features a dedicated section, The Industry, for business news and opinion), not to mention the new responsibilities for industrial foster-care conferred upon our parent organisation the BFI, it seemed apt to push a call for ‘budding female film reporters’ – and so we did.
Ex-Variety editor Adam Dawtrey soon wrote to us to point out that there was in fact no shortage of female film reporters, at least in the Hollywood trades. True, but we were more focussed on the evidence of our own bylines.
The competition closed last month and we counted 28 entries. Sad to tell, a good third had overlooked the word ‘reporter’ (and the rest of the emphasis on “factual film reporting” in our call out: “Do you fancy your investigative skills? Are you a dab hand with a dictaphone and notebook?”, etc etc), and sent us essays, on everything from the wonders of Lena Dunham to the lost works of female filmmakers in West Germany, and the histories of short films, art films, British films and Bollywood. We also received a dossier on 2011 London Film Festival opener Frankenweenie, and the diary of a Tom Hiddlestone fangirl at the BAFTAs. The quality of these was up and down, but they failed the assignment.
More apropos were festival reports from Flatpack, Cambridge’s Watersprite student film festival and the (recently defunded) Southend-on-Sea Film Festival. We knew the open assignment (“be it an interview with a film craftsperson, a report from a film shoot, festival or special screening, a conversation with a distributor, exhibitor or programmer about what colours your local screening options, or indeed an investigation into some aspect of the film world that puzzles you”) was potentially a big ask, and of course the degree of investigative endeavour was part of what would impress us. Getting out of the study and talking to people seemed a near-absolute prerequisite.
Some of the entries indeed were based on interviews, though there was a strong flavour of talking to people you knew. (Sometimes the public interest was clear, sometimes not.) Alina Gavrielatos wrote a pretty portrait of a fellow filmmaker, Melanie Leblond. Laura Penny profiled Shropshire filmmaker Andy Dodd, and Sónia Abrantes talked to freelance compositor Ian Sargent.
We also received some fascinating stories from abroad. Jutta Sarhimaa wrote from Finland on the supersession of the erstwhile Artichoke Film Festival by the gender non-specific Season Film Festival (“it seems Artichoke succeeded in making itself useless”). Baiba Sustere itemised the slow rise of Latvian cinema post-independence. Bogna Konior sketched a rather ethereal portrait of contemporary Malaysian cinema from the Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw, and Aderinsola Ajao sent us her interview with the founder of Steppes in Sync about the possible openings for African cinema in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The best bet though seemed to be to probe the hows and whys of independent cinema in conversation with a local programmer. Carina Volkes, the operations manager of the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, talked Amanda Keats through that venerable site’s ethos. Cornerhouse’s Rachel Hayward afforded us a broader prospect on various aspects of Mancunian and British film culture in Simran Hans’s interview, to which we gave one of two special mentions and which you can read below. (The other, Sophie Brown’s cry of exasperation at the absurdities of old-school film-rights licensing, didn’t exactly qualify as journalism, but did bring us insights into the business in sharp and spunky writing.)
Our winner also probed the business of exhibition, though additionally told us how the Edinburgh Filmhouse is moving into offline (as well as online) distribution with the release of Aleksey Balabanov’s 2010 dark drama The Stoker. ‘Picking up The Stoker’, by Harriet Warman, is a good story well told, bridging the local and the international aspects of film culture, and as well as novelty it has the additional advantage of timeliness, with The Stoker released on 17 May.
Thank you to all our entries. Congratulations to Harriet, Simran and Sophie. And over to you to judge our judging…