Philip Ilson is one of the founders of The London Short Film Festival (LSFF). This month sees the festival host its fourteenth edition and speaking with Ilson it is clear that one aspect that remains close to his heart is to nurture a festival atmosphere. The 2015 festival built itself around the theme, “We’re not here to entertain you, but make you feel uncomfortable.” Fast forward two years on and this year’s festival theme of, “this is happening without your permission” is just as provocative, especially during a spell whereby the masses are lashing out at the establishment, seen politically both in the UK and the U.S in 2016. The slogan for LSFF 2017 could be seen to tap directly into the mindset of contemporary Britain, one determined to shape its own destiny, just as Ilson and the festival carves out its own path.
In conversation with Film Frame, Ilson reflected on the evolution of the festival from its origins in the 90s to the mechanism behind the festival that curates the programme, and continues to forge its identity. He also shared his thoughts on the nature of the short film in contrast to the feature film, as well as the place of not only the short film, but also the film festival circuit in contemporary cinema.
Film Frame: How would you contrast this the latest edition of the LSFF to the first? And how do you personally look back over the journey of the festival as a whole, from its origins as The Halloween Short Film Club?
Philip Ilson: The festival has grown massively since the first year back in 2004. That year had grown out of the monthly Halloween Society short film night founded back in the 90s. This was a regular monthly night of film, cabaret, bands, DJs, visuals and other shenanigans, which itself had gone through many changes over the years. By the time of the founding of the festival with myself and Kate Taylor (who now programmes at the BFI London Film Festival), we were doing regular music and film nights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). The idea of making it a more annual film festival was mooted by the then head of ICA Cinema Jane Giles. It was planned for a January, when the festival still takes place, and was four days long made up of some films from open submission (after trawling through sacks of VHS tapes sent in), mixed with the work of filmmakers who we admired, while still having a live element with bands and performance. The success expanded the festival to the Curzon Soho over the next couple of years, before expanding to around twenty venues London wide over the next ten years. As this was unsustainable, we focused on just a couple of venues to create more of a festival atmosphere within those spaces, rather than being so spread out. The ICA is still a core venue, but we also work closely with Picturehouse Cinemas at their Hackney and Central sites, while still retaining the festival as ten days in length. It’s still programmed from open submission (around 2000 entries via our online platform), along with retrospectives and music crossover events.
Film Frame: When programming the LSFF you’ve said, “I’m always looking to be surprised.” In what ways has the 2017 programme of films surprised you, and how would you compare it to the surprises of films from previous editions of the festival?
Ilson: As a film fan, I’m always surprised. I have no interest in the same old thing and enjoy the way film develops via new talent and younger directors. I get frustrated by filmmakers who just want to make polished work, which has a time and a place for showcasing their technical talents to get into TV or bigger budget feature film. But I’m interested in those filmmakers pushing boundaries, even if it’s rough and ready. Every year, there is such talent, and we’re excited by now commissioning work by those filmmakers who interest us via our Arts Council England funding for our With Teeth project.
Film Frame: Thinking about the programme, are there any trends, whether an unfolding series of narratives or themes that could come to define this year’s programme?
Ilson: After we said, “We’re not here to entertain you, but make you feel uncomfortable” (a Viv Albertine quote) back in 2015, the festival has grown into having a slogan and a theme these last few years. January 2016 we focussed on Harmony Korine and cats. In 2017 we have a loose focus on youth cultures via a series of classic documentary screenings dating back to the 50s and 60s, projects with young people (about teenage refugee filmmakers and young programmers via Into Film and the BFI), and the subcultures built around grime, riot grrrl and David Bowie. Our 2017 slogan is, ‘this is happening without your permission’ (a 90s lyric from a riot grrrl song by Huggy Bear), but it relates to the whole festival. We have a number of other events around the celebration of celluloid, queer filmmaking, and the many themed programmes selected from the open submission process.
Film Frame: I assume there were any number of films you’d like to have included in this year’s festival, but inevitably compromise plays its part. Can you take us inside the mind of the programmer and the process by which the festival’s programme is arrived at?
Ilson: The festival prides itself in showing more UK films than any other festival in the world. We set up in 2004 with a UK focus and only recently expanded to screen international shorts. So with 300 UK films screening across thirty programmes, we can pretty much show what we want – obviously we have to select as we get around 2000 entries. But with so many films accepted to screen we can give a real cross section of UK filmmaking, from crazy low budget DIY stuff to bigger budget funded work, and film school graduation films. We have separate programmers for both international work and documentaries, whom we trust as understanding what the festival is about. The other special event programming comes out of discussions earlier in the year, as well as talking to guest and partner organisations we work with such as Club des Femmes and I am Dora.
Film Frame: LSFF prides itself on being the “premiere UK showcase for cutting-edge UK independent film.” I have always been fond of the idea that art knows no boundaries, and so how important was the step to open the LSFF to international submissions? What has this brought to the programme and festival?
Ilson: We were aware that all the other UK based short film festivals and festivals that screen shorts show international work, so we wanted to set ourselves apart. But as an international shorts programmer for the BFI London Film Festival I’ve been seeing some great work, and I wanted to share it at our festival. The programmer we work with on the final curation of the four international programmes understands that we also want to show cutting edge work from elsewhere, so we are getting more of a reputation from outside the UK, and international filmmakers are visiting us.
Interestingly, to contradict myself slightly, we have always shown international shorts, as many UK film schools have international students who may make work back in their own country while studying in the UK. Or UK based filmmakers may go abroad to make work, particularly in documentary. But we have always considered such works as UK films, in that there is no boundary. The international submissions we receive must have no UK connection or involvement to be part of our international programmes.
Film Frame: I enjoy speaking with first time or young filmmakers as they are at a unique point in their careers. But discussing the relationship of the film and the filmmaker, writer-director Rebecca Miller remarked to me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them.” When you see the films and then meet the filmmakers, can you perceive a connection between the filmmaker and their film?
Ilson: Short films tend to be personal as many are self funded by writer-directors, but I feel that is okay. It’s those personal voices that I’m interested in and what they can bring to the medium. In fact, I’m a big lover of the auteur in the history of feature films, where the director is the voice of the work. Of course, films are collaborative with amazing cinematographers, writers etc, but the director holds that all together to create the final vision. I see the same thing in music and the most interesting music is made by bands and artists that are passionate about their work.
Film Frame: Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman told me: “Making a short film I felt you could hold it in your hand, whereas a feature film is like a runaway train.” I’d be intrigued to hear how you would describe the difference between a short and a feature film?
Ilson: Of course, I love watching feature films and this year I have been excited by filmmakers such as Andrea Arnold, Ben Wheatley, or the likes of Carol Morley, Peter Strickland and European directors such as Mia Hansen-Love and Michael Haneke. But all of these are very much auteur led and many have made excellent shorts that defined their future work, particularly Andrea Arnold. There were scenes in her recent American Honey (2016) that were straight out of her Oscar winning short Wasp (2003). So for me, length isn’t an issue if the film has a vision and a voice.
Film Frame: And speaking with filmmaker and editor Rachel Tunnard, she told me, “I have edited a lot of short films, probably something in the region of seventy over the years, and only a handful of them are actually any good. And I don’t think that’s because the people making them weren’t talented, rather it’s just the nature of that short form is very complicated.” From your experiences of programming short films and your interactions with the filmmakers, what are your thoughts on the complicated nature of the short form, and how it tests the storytelling and technical skills of the writer and filmmaker.
Ilson: I remember a few years ago always saying a short film is as long as it’s meant to be, but of course, so many shorts feel way too long. This goes back to the showing off aspect of shorts, where filmmakers want to prove their technical skills. Also, as it’s the first work they make, they’ll put everything in including the kitchen sink. But again, it’s the ones that have an individual voice that will be more discerning. Another problem is putting too much story in a short. For me, the more interesting ones are the slices of life, where we feel like we’re dropping in on something, rather than a dialogue heavy, plot heavy drama that can end up looking like a filmed play.
Film Frame: An inevitable question I must put to you is the place of the short film in 2017? How would you describe the changing face of short films? And what in your opinion is the future of short film – can technology and distribution platforms help increase its popularity?
Ilson: There have always been a lot of short films since I’ve been involved in that world. The 90s saw the technology change dramatically, with affordable video equipment, editing software and getting the work sent out on tape. Before that, it would’ve been celluloid only, where you needed expensive equipment to make work, wait to get the film developed, spend time editing with film etc etc. Even the copying of VHS to get to festivals and screenings made things easy. Obviously in those twenty years this has been made even easier with online platforms to enter festivals, and making work on much cheaper high quality equipment. With more films, one could argue there are more bad films, but I’m all up for there being more and more, as the talent will shine through regardless. We need gatekeepers more than ever with so much work out there that’s so easily available, and festival and specialist websites are increasingly important in that aspect.
Film Frame: What challenges do you identify in hosting and marketing a festival screening exclusively short films?
Ilson: The festival has grown in size and stature over these fourteen years, but even before that the Halloween Society had a certain following and kudos, which we capitalised on at the start. The festival has become a real go to place for filmmakers to showcase their work, as I hope we have a good reputation with both the industry and with audiences. But right from the start, the festival has marketed itself on its ethos, with the slogans and the personality led aspects of our publicity. The early festivals felt like we were promoting a band, with myself and Kate Taylor the faces of the festival in publicity photos.
Film Frame: We’ve spoken about the place of the short film, but what is the place or role of the film festival in contemporary cinema? If it was to disappear how would that impact cinema? Is the festival circuit particularly important to short filmmakers?
Ilson: It’s becoming increasingly important, and in fact, film festivals in general are become increasingly important. This is a conversation for elsewhere, but it has got to the state where many features are only ever shown at film festivals, as the windows of opportunity for a cinematic release is now so small. Foreign language and independent films can no longer find an audience on release, where as at a festival they can be a hot ticket selling out screenings. This is a similar situation for short films where they can only be seen on the big screen at festivals, so it’s incredibly important for filmmakers, as it’ll help get them noticed.
Film Frame: The LSFF has expanded to include not only more films, but live music, industry and training events. While these support and nurture a greater level of interaction within the festival, do they also indicate the essential need for festivals to be flexible in how they present themselves? Are these elements vital to create broader appeal for the future?
Ilson: The live aspects have been there from the very start and are very important to help build the brand of the festival by programming stuff that we find interesting, and fit the ethos of the festival. The Halloween Society days were a big mix of live music, performance, cabaret and non-cinema spaces, so that aspect has continued right through till now. The industry side is a more recent addition and happened more organically as the festival grew, and the film industry started checking us out and wanted to get involved with events, training and networking. There was a slight feeling of us distancing ourselves from the industry in the early days, but we are aware that filmmakers can use the festival to have access to the industry.
Film Frame: And are screenings outside of London an avenue you will look to build upon? I see more festivals extending screenings to locations outside of London and the BFI has also been proactive in this regard. How vital is it build a national access to the festival in this, a difficult climate for the arts?
Ilson: We have actually pulled back on venues these last few years as we were so spread out and it became unsustainable. It works better for us having just a small number of core venues where we can have a proper festival focus and identity. But we had an opportunity to make the festival part of Picturehouse Cinema’s Discover Tuesdays event to get the word out across the UK. For this we’re taking our Bowie anniversary event across multiple cinemas to remember him one year on from his death.
Film Frame: I’ll ask filmmakers if they perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, wherein you are a different person to the one that began the film. From your experience of festival programming, do you perceive a transformative aspect wherein it impacts you professionally as well as perhaps personally?
Ilson: I’m not sure I can answer this one. I hope to always have an open eye to new work, and get excited by what’s being sent in. I’m excited by seeing new features on a regular basis for pleasure.
The LSFF runs until January 15. For more information on the festival: shortfilms.org.uk/lsff2017/