Film magic that puts community into sharp focus

Black Pond and below, Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Black Pond and below, Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
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The people of Holmfirth are getting out and about to enjoy movies the old-fashioned way. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw looks at a film festival that’s bucking the trend.

There is a belief among movie reviewers that right now, somewhere in the world, a film festival is underway.

Scheduling means critics could spend their working life hopping from one such event to another with barely a moment to catch a breath; such is their preponderance. They really are everywhere, all the time.

One modest event still in its infancy but garnering a justified reputation is the Holmfirth Film Festival (HFF), with headquarters at the town’s Picturedrome cinema and which regularly sells out screenings, interviews and talks.

Now in its third year it has taken firm root in the town, building on the heritage of silent film pioneer James Bamforth and the associated glory of Huddersfield-born matinee idol James Mason to deliver a unique programme that has drawn the support of locals and outsiders.

The festival is chaired by Dr Stephen Dorril, academic, investigative journalist and author of a string of books about the intelligence services. His book Honeytrap, co-authored with Anthony Summers, was the basis for the film Scandal, about the Profumo affair and the death of Stephen Ward.

Dorril has a particular fondness for the social realist films of the 1960s. Last year his special guest was Rita (A Taste of Honey) Tushingham. This year it’s Shirley Anne Field, star of The Entertainer, Peeping Tom and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Throw in Dame Joan Bakewell (appearing May 24) and cinematographer Chris Maris (appearing May 19), the Holmfirth native who shot Hammer’s Wake Wood and the eclectic nature of the HFF is evident.

Dorril began planning his festival in 2009 and launched it the following year. It has now become part of the town’s artistic and cultural fabric. But, he says, it’s not just about throwing on a few movies.

“There were also some deeper and more serious motives,” he insists. “I despair of the decline of community activities and the way entertainment is now primarily a stay-at-home activity.

“Most towns and villages are dead during the week. The festival is a reaction to that and is really a revival of the kind of community events that took place in the 1970s.

“It may seem odd but the opening up of choice with the internet and a whole range of television channels has led to a narrowing of horizons. It is now, for instance, much more difficult to see a foreign film at a popular time than it was in the 1960s when they featured on BBC2 on a Saturday. Film festivals have an important role in acting as gatekeepers.”

Proof of this is evidenced by such films as Black Pond (screening May 21) which, claims Dorril, was “the best British independent film of last year” and made on a shoestring. Dorril’s own personal favourite is Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, based on a play by Brighouse-born visionary playwright David Halliwell and partly shot in the town.

It was funded by George Harrison and boasts a sinister, unforgettable performance by John Hurt as bedsit fascist Malcolm Scrawdyke. “Who has seen that?” asks Dorril more in hope than disappointment. It plays Holmfirth on May 23.

Inevitably the director’s own passions feed into the programme. Consequently the Holmfirth festival features premieres of some outstanding documentaries. The Mexican Suitcase focuses on the discovery of thousands of photographs from the Spanish Civil War; Under Fire on the psychological effects of war reporting and The Island President on one man’s campaign to save the Maldives from the catastrophic effects of global warming.

Then there are the guests. Shirley Anne Field (appearing May 20) will be talking about her long career in British films and about working alongside actors such as Steve McQueen and Laurence Olivier. Sixties icon and former chair of the British Film Institute Joan Bakewell is presenting an evening talk and clips of her favourite films. Filmmaker Bruno Wollheim is presenting his documentaries on Yorkshire’s David Hockney.

The diversity of the line-up is attracting outsiders as well as locals. For Dorril and his team such an appeal is crucial. Spreading the festival across the town – films play in restaurants, schools and the Holmfirth Picturedrome – means there is a constant atmosphere of discovery.

“What has struck me is the wealth of creative talent – including filmmakers and others working in the film industry – in the area. Essentially a commuter town, this feeds into the bigger cities of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester,” he says.

“I think the festival will play an increasing part in this process. It is developing into a really good week with more films and venues, which people really seem to enjoy and look forward to.”

Like its older, bigger, more established rivals, the HFF has benefited from funding courtesy of Screen Yorkshire (now Creative England). Yet Dorril knows the real challenge will be to steer his festival through the period of austerity to come while still attracting film buffs from home and abroad.

“Like all festivals it is probably next year that we will feel the pinch when the cuts in local government and arts funding really start to eat into community activities. The Big Society will become a great deal smaller. But I think we will do OK.

“We have found an audience that is growing. It is still incredibly hard work to drag people out of the comfort of their homes to watch magic in the dark but we have already sold out an Italian film about a goat herder being screened in a barn.”

Holmfirth Film Festival runs from May 19 to 26.

Coming soon to screens near you

Holmfirth Film Festival is using ten venues, including Brambles restaurant, Upperthong Village Hall and The Potter’s Den.

Other guests include poet Simon Armitage, movie historian John Cohen, academic Heather Norris Nicholson and filmmaker Beverley Addy.

Fans of cult films should watch out for the restored version of Ken Russell’s The Devils, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Kevin Billington’s The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (starring Peter Cook), and a 50th anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.

Premieres include The Owner, A Cat in Paris, and Under Fire.