Former artistic director of Bradford International Film Festival – and Yorkshire Post film critic - Tony Earnshaw looks back at the event and its legacy.
On opening night at Bradford International Film Festival a few years ago I was asked live on television by a BBC correspondent, “What does the festival mean for Bradford?”
Like a good lad I reeled off the number of films being screened, the various premieres and previews, the guests, the ancillary events, the rarities, the oddities and so on. With a pained look he repeated, “Yes, but what does it mean?”
He, of course, was asking the right question. I, on the other hand, had been conditioned to proffer a bite-sized précis. The right answer, and the one I eventually gave, was that the festival transported the film industry to Bradford.
It brought a touch of the red carpet, a tangible sense of glamour, the presence of living, breathing film heavyweights and the notion that the north could do it as well as the south. Some said even better.
In short, it proved that the British film industry was alive and kicking outside of the M25 and shored up the heritage of filmmaking in our region that goes back to October 1888 and the very birth of moving pictures.
A continuous battle for all of us associated with Bradford Film Festival – the ‘International’ element was added in 2007 – was standing firm against the preconceptions of colleagues within the industry.
Not filmmakers, you understand. But instead distributors and sales agents who saw little value in screening their product anywhere outside London. I remember one conversation when I requested a specific film. The response: “It’s not a film for a Bradford audience.” I repeated this on opening night to a packed house of VIPs and the place went bananas. How patronising! Sadly, it was a constant.
Yet the situation did improve. As the festival – it became known as BIFF – grew and evolved so its reputation spread. We were feted and complimented by colleagues in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and South America. The sticking point was always the UK.
Our secret weapon was our contact list. Thus it was Bradford, not London, Edinburgh, Leeds or any of our other perceived rivals, that attracted headline guests such as Hollywood legend Jean Simmons, Oscar winner Michael (The Deer Hunter) Deeley, John Hurt, Terry Gilliam, Claire Bloom and Richard Attenborough, who personified the British film industry.
Budgets (or the lack of them) were always a problem. Money seemed to swish around for other projects but BIFF was the poor relation. So we boxed clever and sought backing from foreign cultural centres, embassies and film institutes.
The money we didn’t spend there was diverted elsewhere. And as we rarely paid our guests a fee – most said the invitation and associated retrospective was sufficient reward – it meant we were, as the saying goes, “lean and mean”.
Part of the appeal of BIFF was that the event happened largely under one roof. For 16 days – later cut to nine; an ill-judged move – the festival took over the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (renamed National Media Museum in 2006). It used all three cinemas plus TV Heaven (now defunct), the On Location suite (now defunct) and even parts of the Insight Research Centre.
Thus the museum was a buzzing hub.
For a time there was a glitzy opening night dinner at which luminaries such as Jean Simmons, Ian Carmichael, Jenny Agutter, Malcolm McDowell and Michael Palin were presented with lifetime achievement awards by people such as Alan Bennett and Kay Mellor. The dinner eventually fell foul of budget cuts, and a moment of glamour passed.
The festival team worked diligently to build the profile of the film festivals – at one time there were four separate festivals running in Bradford every year, something no other city could boast – the museum and Bradford.
We went to the Cannes Film Festival. Some senior staff saw it as a perk. In fact we were run ragged for a week but the results were there to be seen the following March: bigger films, better collaborations, wider contacts and the sense of building something truly world-class.
For a time BIFF put Bradford on the movie map. Now it’s gone. For the people that worked on it the feeling is one of immense pride. And for the people that really count – the ones that bought tickets and supported it – I hope the memories live on.