Clare Stewart on directing the BFI London Film Festival

London Film Festival director Clare Stewart discusses the easiest and hardest aspects of her role on the eve of the 2014 festival…



The easiest thing about directing BFI London Film Festival: saying, or hearing, YES

When negotiating on a film for the Festival, saying yes is the easiest thing – we know we are creating an opportunity for a film to shine, and for audiences to engage with it, whether that be a high profile, headline gala like our Closing Night Film, David Ayer’s Fury and our American Express Gala, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, or a brilliant ‘discovery’ film for First Feature Competition, like Yann Demange’s ’71 or Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe. The adrenaline rush that comes with the ‘yes’ moment and the pleasure that brings for the filmmakers and the companies involved sustains us through the tougher discussions, and the complexity of juggling negotiations on 248 feature films from over 70 countries! And while it’s easy to say ‘yes’ and even better when I hear it on the other end of a phone (I still use that device), there is often a lot of work that has been undertaken to get that response.

For example, we saw our Opening Night Film, The Imitation Game, at a very early stage, and while all the companies involved – the producers, the UK distributor, the international sales company, the US distributor – were immediately enthusiastic about our interest, we still took the pitch very seriously, and put a lot of work into ensuring we would meet everyone’s expectations and that our own needs for Opening Night would also be met. Of course, it was then very easy to take the ‘yes’ call when director Morten Tyldum and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley were confirmed for our gala! Similarly, when I hear ‘yes’, Abderrahmane Sissako will do a Screen Talk in support of his film Timbuktu and Donnie Yen will come off the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 in New Zealand for the world premiere of Kung Fu Jungle, or I get to say in an interview ‘yes, there are 54 women directors with feature films in our Festival’ – these are all things that feel easy too.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

The hardest thing about directing BFI London Film Festival: saying, or hearing, NO

‘No’ is the toughest thing! We see well over 2500 films for Festival programming. Basic maths means we are saying ‘no’ to nine films for every film we say ‘yes’ to. The programming team has a strong appreciation for the creative energy, the resource, the commitment that goes into making a film and saying ‘no’ can be very dispiriting. We do a lot of tracking and researching so there is always the niggling fear that we might put in a lot of hard yards to see a film and then be in a situation where we need to turn around and say ‘no’. Of course it’s also hard to hear it, and a Festival Director’s best kept secrets are the films that get away… which of course I will not be expanding on here! And for the film that almost got away… well you have to sign up for our Surprise Film.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 8th-19th October. For more information, visit

A postcard from Branchage

02 Oct, 2014 Posted in: Festivals

Film4′s Catherine Bray sends a postcard from a weekend at the Branchage Film Festival, which ran 24th to 28th September 2014.

Branchage is a film festival on the picture postcard perfect island of Jersey, a place so pretty it almost feels a bit wrong. The festival’s name is a sort of play on words – Branchage refers to the ancient law of Jersey which states that if a resident’s hedges or trees hang over into the road when an official with a stick goes around checking, they will be fined. So immediately prior to the biannual inspection, Jersey folk cut their vegetation: that’s branchage. Of course no film could exist without cuts or editing, so it’s a film festival named after the act of cutting.

Branchage (the festival, not the law of the bushes) began in 2008, but has been on hiatus in 2012 and 2013, returning in 2014 to dazzle filmmakers and guests alike with its Famous Five style vistas and distinctive red, white and blue bunting. There’s even a pub called The Smugglers. When I post a picture of my view on Twitter, Telegraph critic Robbie Collin quite justifiably replies “that’s not a view, it’s a biscuit tin.” The island has that quality – it’s real, but it’s a reality that seems unrealistic. It’s incredibly genteel, clean and tidy. People genuinely leave their cars unlocked.

"A biscuit tin"

“A biscuit tin”

The programming itself provides a dose of something a bit edgier. We’re pleased to see Film4 represented three times, with Berberian Sound Studio, Under The Skin and Frank all giving audiences a taste of the range of some of out recent releases. From dreamlike Italian foley artistry, to the impeccably realised visuals of Glasgow seen through alien eyes, to the offbeat charms of Michael Fassbender modelling a giant head, about the only thing you could say these films had in common is that they’re all by highly individual directors working at the top of their respective games: Peter Strickland, Jonathan Glazer and Lenny Abrahamson.

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Elsewhere in the programme, there was a focus on music intersecting with film. The Opening Night Gala saw How We Used To Live play with a live score from indie darlings Saint Etienne. Of particular interest to me was 1922 banned classic Haxan, playing with a new live score. What a pity it clashed with the live wrestling!



Another thing the festival does well is foregrounding its short films. Rather than keeping the shorts sectioned off in a ghetto frequented mainly by dedicated talent scouts and the short filmmakers themselves, the shorts at Branchage are seen by the most mainstream of audiences, in virtue of being programmed before the features. This ensures they are seen by different audiences – people who wouldn’t necessarily pony up for an event consisting entirely of shorts.

Watching shorts

Watching shorts

Unfortunately I have to leave before Sunday night’s big spectacular: a spectacular 3D mapping lightshow by the iconic Radiophonic Orchestra projected onto a fort in the bay of St Aubin. As I head to the airport, I bump into festival director Chris Bell. How does he feel the return of Branchage went? “We’ve been away for a couple of years so it’s been great to blow off the cobwebs and do it all over again, and it’s been fantastic – Saint Etienne got us off to an incredible and incredibly moving start, and it’s just got better and better. It feels good to be back.”

Visit the Branchage website


Joe Cunningham’s 11 recommendations for LFF 14

19 Sep, 2014 Posted in: London Film Festival, Opinion

Unfortunately I haven’t been jet setting around the world this year to the various exciting international film festivals, but that’s what makes the London Film Festival’s compilation approach to programming all the more exciting – there’s no shortage of films that come highly-recommended that I’m desperate to see, and now they’re here on my doorstep. Already overflowing with recommendations from Michael and Catherine, I delved even deeper into the programme to select an array of films that I haven’t already been assured are all absolutely brilliant, but that look like they just might be.

Mr Turner

Mr Turner

Mr. Turner, dir. Mike Leigh

After Timothy Spall’s Best Actor win in Cannes and hearing all of the positive noises about Mike Leigh’s film as it makes its way around the festival circuit, it’s exciting to think that we’ll soon be able to hear those already infamous grunts first hand and on home soil ahead of its October 31st UK release. (Buy tickets)

The New Girlfriend, dir. Francois Ozon

Francois Ozon returns to the LFF for the third successive year after the excellent In The House and Jeune & Jolie with a film starring Romain Duris that plays in the Official Competition and comes billed as an audacious melodrama with a ravishing twist. What’s not to like? (Buy tickets)

Stray Dog, dir Debra Granik

Debra Granik met the subject of her debut documentary, Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall while making her Oscar-nominated feature, Winter’s Bone. If she tells the story of this American biker and war vet with the nuance and grace with which she depicted characters like Teardrop and Ree in her narrative feature, this should make for a fascinating watch. (Buy tickets)

The Tribe, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

When our very own Catherine Bray saw The Tribe in Cannes she drew parallels to Michael Haneke, calling the Ukrainian film “unusual” and “brilliant.” Featuring a cast of young deaf performers and told entirely through sign language and without subtitles, The Tribe promises to be a completely new cinematic experience. (Buy tickets)

X + Y, dir. Morgan Matthews

Playing in the festival’s ‘Love’ strand, BAFTA-winning documentarian Morgan Matthews’ X + Y has assembled an impressive British cast that includes Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins for his tale of an autistic teenage maths prodigy (Asa Butterfield) whose talent takes him from the English suburbs to Taipei. (Buy tickets)

Metamorphoses, dir. Christophe Honore

Of the numerous clips and trailers that played at the LFF’s press launch earlier this month, it was the Metamorphoses trailer that proved perhaps the most attention-grabbing. The description of an “erotically upfront re-reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, enacted by a fearless cast of young actors in contemporary French settings” does nothing to loosen that grab on my attention. (Buy tickets)

White Bird In A Blizzard, dir. Gregg Araki

I’d been looking forward to Gregg Araki’s first film in four years long before the pleasant surprise of finding it in the ‘Dare’ strand (naturally) of the LFF programme. Again exploring his favourite themes of sex, mortality and adolescence, but this time with two of Hollywood’s most exciting stars in Eva Green and Shailene Woodley, this will hopefully be a return to form for Araki. (Buy tickets)

Night Bus, dir. Simon Baker

I don’t find myself naturally drawn towards the LFF’s ‘Laugh’ strand, but Night Bus immediately struck me as a brilliant idea that I couldn’t believe hadn’t been done before. Written and directed by Simon Baker (no, not that one), the comedy-drama will take us on a journey through London that very isn’t often experienced sober. (Buy tickets)

A Second Chance, dir. Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier, the Oscar-winning director of In A Better World, has two films at this year’s festival, and despite her English-language effort featuring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, it’s her Danish-Swedish production starring Game Of Thrones’ excellent Nikolaj Coster-Waldau that I’m excited about. (Buy tickets)

Robot Overlords, dir. Jon Wright

I’m a firm believer that in the era of CG-animation, modern mainstream cinema is failing to adequately provide younger audiences with quality, live-action movies. This ambitious, futuristic British sci-fi in the ‘Family’ strand will hopefully buck that trend. Fingers crossed for something positively Spielbergian. (Buy tickets)

Animated Shorts For Younger Audiences, dir. Various

What other section of the programme includes a picked-on pig befriending an artistic fox? That’s the plot of the adorable-looking The Dam Keeper, and there are also shorts featuring elephants,  a ghost, a giant octopus, and a prehistoric fish in this international selection. After a bevy of serious, arthouse cinema, this should be a lovely change of pace. (Buy tickets)


Michael Leader’s 11 recommendations for LFF 2014

19 Sep, 2014 Posted in: London Film Festival, Opinion

One of the best things about the London Film Festival’s smorgasbord approach to programming is that, amongst the world premieres and gala screenings, there’s an eclectic collection of exciting films of all shapes and sizes that are finally finding their UK premieres after months of international buzz. So, after Catherine’s round-up, here are my 11 picks from the programme – a mixture of the already-seen and the dying-to-see.

Second Coming

Second Coming

Second Coming

Hot on the heels of its world premiere at TIFF, Debbie Tucker Green’s Film4-backed domestic drama, starring Nadine Marshall and Idris Elba as a couple whose relationship is rocked by a mysterious pregnancy, appears at the LFF in the First Feature Competition. But it’s a London film at heart, shot locally in the South-West of the capital and written with an intimate understanding of the area’s British-West Indian community, so there’s no better place to catch it (especially its Sunday 19th screening at the Ritzy in Brixton). (Buy tickets)

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films

One of my favourites from Toronto this year, Electric Boogaloo is about as fun and informative as a documentary about a film studio could possibly be. Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood) stuffs his latest trawl through movie history with hilarious anecdotes and ludicrous clips, as he delves into the backstory of 80s eccentrics Cannon Films, the production company that brought you the likes of Missing In Action, Death Wish III, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Masters Of The Universe. (Buy tickets)

It Follows

The wait has been excruciating, but It Follows has finally made it to UK shores after rave reviews from Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Toronto and various other international film festivals. Our Catherine Bray called David Robert Mitchell’s second feature “the best teen horror pic to emerge since The Faculty” – and, believe me, that’s high praise. Expect to see me cowering in the front row. (Buy tickets)

Catch Me Daddy

One more exciting, Film4-backed debut from the First Feature Competition line-up. Music video director Daniel Wolfe’s gripping tale of two young lovers on the run through the Yorkshire Moors is bold and beautifully shot (by Andrea Arnold’s regular DoP Robbie Ryan). And the critics at Cannes agreed, with Time Out lauding the film as an “unblinking and upsetting debut”, while The Telegraph hailed it as “a terrifically bright start for its director”.  (Buy tickets)

Bjork: Biophilia Live

If Peter Strickland’s S&M-themed drama The Duke Of Burgundy leaves you gagging (!) for more, then don’t forget his second appearance in the LFF programme, a concert film co-directed with BAFTA-winning editor Nick Fenton, documenting the live portion of the ever-inspiring Bjork’s ambitious multimedia project Biophilia. (Buy tickets)

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

Certainly not the cheeriest of choices from the LFF programme, but this intriguing unfinished project from 1945, completed and restored by the Imperial War Museum, was initially filmed for a single, propagandistic purpose: to confront German citizens with the horrors of Hitler’s regime in order to ‘de-Nazify’ the population after the Second World War ended. From Schindler’s List to Shoah, the question of how best to document the holocaust on film has been a hotly-debated topic for decades, and this is a unique chance to see how such footage could have been used as a socio-cultural weapon. (Buy tickets)

National Gallery

I experienced something of a documentary-related epiphany about halfway into Frederick Wiseman’s patient, observational four-hour long film At Berkeley at Venice last year, and this new observo-doc about one of London’s most august institutions, a relative trifle at just under 180 minutes, should be no less engrossing or enlightening. (Buy tickets)

The Drop 

Tom Hardy cuddles a puppy! If that mental image hasn’t convinced you to see The Drop, there’s plenty to love about Michael R Roskam’s (Bullhead) adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s finely-textured, character-driven crime story, which sees Hardy appear alongside the great James Gandolfini as the bartender and manager of a run-down Brooklyn joint reduced to acting as a ‘drop’ location for the local mafia. (Buy tickets)

Tokyo Tribe

Here’s a gangster rap musical, adapted from a hyper-stylized manga series by maverick Japanese director Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Suicide Club). Need I say more? This follow-up to last year’s madcap gem Why Don’t You Play In Hell is a glorious mash-up of West Side Story and The Warriors, with wall-to-wall rapping and the incessant stylistic bombast that Sono has turned into a personal trademark. (Buy tickets)


Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s segment in horror anthology doc VHS: Viral – featuring skaters stumbling across a freaky demonic ritual in Tijuana – was one of my highlights from FrightFest last month, so Spring, reportedly a romance/horror hybrid that brings together Richard Linklater and HP Lovecraft, is right at the top of my must-see list. (Buy tickets)

The World Of Kanako

Tetsuya Nakashima is one of Japan’s most exciting directors, and his latest finds the candy-coloured pop art of Kamikaze Girls colliding head-first with the foreboding drama of Confessions, with a thread of violent bad-cop thrills tying it all together, as an unpredictable ex-detective tracks his missing daughter through the unseemly criminal world that lies beyond her seemingly perfect high-school life. The World Of Kanako sometimes feels like four films happening at once – and the experience is absolutely exhilarating. (Buy tickets)

Catherine Bray’s 11 recommendations for LFF 2014

19 Sep, 2014 Posted in: London Film Festival, Opinion

Alan Partridge’s favourite Beatles album is The Best of The Beatles. By the same token, one of the world’s best festivals is the LFF. It’s not about screening films first, it’s about putting together the juiciest compilation of the year’s best movies.  That said, they’ve still managed to squeeze in 16 world premieres. The team are all picking their personal picks from the fest, and these are mine. It was supposed to be 10, but we just couldn’t bear to cut it down (and have still had to miss out a ton of gems), so we ended up turning it up to 11. Here are my 2014 LFF recommendations – enjoy!


The Possibilities Are Endless, dir. Edward Lovelace and James Hall

I saw this beautiful doc from directors-to-watch Edward Lovelace and James Hall at SXSW and it’s really stayed with me since. Following the process of singer Edwyn Collins piecing his identity back together again after a stroke, it’s such a moving, and brutally beautiful piece of filmmaking, I can’t wait to see it again. (Buy tickets)

’71, dir. Yann Demange

Probably your last chance to catch Jack O’Connell in a film before he becomes a megastar (Vanity Fair agree with us on this), the debut feature from Yann Demange is a Film4-backed firecracker of a thriller about one man trying to survive behind enemy lines. (Buy tickets)

Foxcatcher, dir. Bennett Miller

Alongside Maps to the Stars, this was one of my favourites at Cannes this year – Bennett Miller’s masterful unpicking of masculine bravado has a chilly understated brilliance that ensures the inevitability of its tragic climax connects like a sucker punch to the gut. Not your typical Oscar tearjerker. (Buy tickets)

The Duke Of Burgundy, dir. Peter Strickland

This is a Film4 backed one, but you don’t need to take our word for it that it’s brilliant – following its Toronto premiere, film industry bible Variety picked The Duke of Burgundy as one of the best of the fest, praising “British director Peter Strickland’s straight-faced yet deviously funny homage to ’60s and ’70s Eurotrash erotica [...] for sheer aesthetic overindulgence, nothing else on screens right now can touch it.” (Buy tickets)

The Immortalists, dir. Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado

I often feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day or days in a life, and the idea of extended lifespans is fascinating to me. It’s a big deal for scientists too, so I’m really looking forward to checking out what the boffins have to say about humankind’s quest for immortality in this doc. (Buy tickets)

The Surprise Film, dir. ?

An LFF institution, the surprise film is a blindfold gamble which usually manages to confound the pundits. Personally, I’d love to see Birdman again, which I was blown away by in Venice, or Alex Garland’s extraordinary looking sci-fi Ex Machina. But it’ll probably be something completely off my radar. (Buy tickets)

Whiplash, dir. Damien Chazelle

The main reason to see Whiplash is Miles Teller’s extraordinary performance as Andrew, a driven young drummer pushed to his limits. I saw this at Sundance and was initially lulled into thinking we’re rooting for Andrew. Not really – he’s more a Mark Zuckerberg style protagonist and all the more interesting for it… (Buy tickets)

Rosewater, dir. Jon Stewart

The always annoyingly funny and talented Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) adds another string to his bow here as director of this true story of a journalist detained for 188 days in Iran. I’ve not seen it, but word from Telluride was strong. (Buy tickets)

Altman, dir. Ron Mann

Formally, this doc (which I caught at Venice) about the late, sometimes great Robert Altman isn’t radical, but that’s not the point – this is a headfirst plunge into the career of one of America’s foremost post-war auteurs, laden with detail, charm and emotion. (Buy tickets)

Girlhood, dir. Celine Sciamma

Another favourite from Cannes, Celine Sciamma builds on the momentum she achieved with Water Lillies and Tomboy to deliver her finest work yet – a lively coming of age movie boasting the best use of Rihanna’s Diamonds yet to grace our screens. (Buy tickets)