Ancient buildings become cinemas for festival of films

Cherie Federico
Cherie Federico
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From a medieval hall to a Grade I listed building and an ancient musem, Paisley Gilmour reports on a film festival with history on its side.

The city of York has no shortage of claims to fame.

Birthplace of Guy Fawkes. Tick. Imperial capital of the Roman empire. Tick. Home to the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Tick.

By the end of this weekend it might just be able to add hotbed of cutting-edge filmmaking to its list of historical firsts.

Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) returns to the city for the second year with organisers determined to prove that behind the medieval buildings and cobbled streets, York is anything but stuck in the past. Launching tonight, over the course of the four-day event some of the city’s oldest and quirkiest buildings will be reinvented as cinemas, screening more than 200 of the best short films from across the globe.

Once a hub for monastic education, St William’s College which lies in the shadow of York Minster is taking part in the festival for the first time, alongside the medieval townhouse Barley Hall and Micklegate Bar Museum.

The latter, housed in the ancient city walls, dates back to the 12th-century, but for one weekend only it will be screening a series of contemporary documentary films.

“One of the great things about staging a film festival in York is that you are blessed with so many different venues,” says Cherie Federico, founder of the arts publication Aesthetica, which branched out into promoting short films last year. “Using historic buildings does give the festival an added edge. There is something really appealing about being able to bring old and new together and if last year’s event taught us anything it was that people really like the idea of being able to explore these buildings while at the same time seeing some really incredible filmmaking.

“York is a cultural treasure and we are so lucky that everyone we have approached has been incredibly supportive of what we are trying to do.”

Despite being in its infancy, the festival has already established an impressive reputation within the industry. The seeds of the event were sown after Cherie, who moved to York from America 10 years ago, ran a short film competition in the pages of the magazine. The best were to be included on a DVD, but when the offices in York were inundated with entries, Cherie realised that she had accidentally hit on an untapped market. Within a few months, the first ASFF was launched. Proving a huge success and attracting visitors from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the event also made the wider industry sit up and take notice. Building on those foundations, this year’s event, supported by the Yorkshire Post, will see a programme of films, ranging from animation to comedy and documentary to experimental art from 25 countries.

As well as showing the city’s historic buildings in a new light, the festival is also supported by respected members of the film industry in a series of workshops held at York St John University.

This year, highlights include talks by The King’s Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Control, Nowhere Boy) and Barry Ryan, head of production of the Sheffield-based Warp Films (This is England, Four Lions) which is this year celebrating its 10th anniversary.

“I know when I first pitched the idea of a short film festival in York some people thought I was mad,” says Cherie. “They were probably right, but I had a hunch that it could work.

“Last year was a bit of a baptism of fire. We only had a few months to pull everything together, but the response couldn’t have been better.

“Pretty much every great director, screenwriter and cinematographer learns their craft by making short films and this festival is a really great showcase for the new talent who are just cutting their teeth in the industry.”

With the UK film festival circuit having become increasingly crowded over recent years, ASFF early success is even more impressive.

“ASFF has great energy, flair, and the confidence to experiment,” says Jay Arnold, head of film culture at Creative England. “By threading its programme through York’s many wonderful nooks and crannies the festival interacts with the city in a very welcoming and friendly way, offering carefully curated treats for the audiences and a stimulating and sparky environment for film makers and we are keen to help it build on its early success and achieve its heady ambitions.” for full festival programme and ticket details.