After cancelling festival, can Bradford still call itself a City of Film?

2009: Film producer Steve Abbott and Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy at the National Media Museum in Bradford at the announcement that the city becomes the first ever UNESCO City of Film.
2009: Film producer Steve Abbott and Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy at the National Media Museum in Bradford at the announcement that the city becomes the first ever UNESCO City of Film.
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In 2015, for the first time in 21 years there will be no Bradford International Film Festival. Sarah Freeman reports.

When Bradford was named the world’s first City of Film in the summer of 2009 some of the reports which appeared in the national press were predictably sniffy.

Bradford they sneered was hardly Hollywood or Cannes and West Yorkshire was compared unfavourably with both the French Riviera and Los Angeles. However, those behind the scenes knew different.

Not only had the city provided the backdrop for countless films from Rita, Sue and Bob Too to Monty Python’s groundbreaking The Meaning of Life, the city had also displayed real ambition, embracing Bollywood and staging the International Indian Film Festival awards two years earlier.

The annual Bradford International Film Festival attracted cinema’s heavyweights, but throughout the year there were more niche events, from Bite the Mango, which celebrated world cinema to the Fantastic Films Weekends dedicated to horror and fantasy.

Back then the National Media Museum was attracting 700,000 visitors a year and as UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, confirmed the title, Colin Philpott, then director of the city’s National Media Museum, said: “With this designation, Bradford will now go on to achieve inspirational projects in film.”

Five years on the future doesn’t look so promising. Bite the Mango was axed in 2010, Fantastic Films Weekend went the same way and with latest visitor numbers down to 480,000 in May, the museum has now announced that next year there won’t be an International Film Festival either.

“Am I surpised? No. Am I disappointed? Yes,” says Irfan Ajeeb, who worked on Bite the Mango until 2006. “We have just come through an economic downturn, a time when free attractions like the National Media Museum should have done well, but the visitor numbers speak for themselves.

“Yes, it’s important to attract people from across the country, but if a museum fails to be relevant to the city that it’s in then it can only go one way and that’s down. It’s even more disappointing because in Bradford it really feels like we have turned a corner. The City Park has been a success, work has finally started on the Westfield development. There was a really positive feeling about the place until this bombshell was dropped.”

The official statement from the museum talked of the need to review the current offer and return with a programme “which plays to our strengths”, but many fear the absence of the museum’s major festival in what should have been its 21st anniversary is a worrying sign for the city.

“Bradford was named City of Film as part of our creative cities network,” says UNESCO’s Mauro Rosi. “This is about bringing town and cities together to share good practice. However, we have been aware for a number of years that we haven’t been able to properly monitor those who were brought into the fold. We have spent a lot of time outlining new criteria which we will discuss at a conference in September and any of our members which don’t conform to those obligations will be excluded from the network.”

Neither the museum nor the City of Film organisation have given a timetable for any future decisions, but many fear that the suspension of the festival will not be the last bad news.

“Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing, maybe the people of Bradford will reclaim the festival and make it their own again,” says Irfan. “Last year four of us got together to stage Beyond the Mango, a week long celebration of world cinema. It was hard work and funding is always an issue, but it felt good. Everyone involved showed real drive, passion and ambition. Those are three qualities Bradford needs a whole lot more of.”

Read Nick Ahad in today’s Culture on why we need museums.