Festival celebrates films which document our changing world

Diana Quick arrives at the Aldeburgh Cinema just as mother nature is doing its best to blast any foolish pedestrians off the face of the Earth. Rain lashes you with the ferocity of a power shower, while waves dredged up from the depths of the North Sea hurl themselves on to the shingle and wind whips off the water with the sole intent of blowing you back from whence you came.

Welcome to Aldeburgh. Fortunately, the welcome inside the cinema is far warmer. Diana is a member of the cinema’s board and has just taken over one of the most high profile jobs at the independent venue – the running of the annual documentary festival.

For the last 16 years the critically acclaimed festival has been put together by sometime Aldeburgh resident Craig Brown, the national newspaper columnist, author and Private Eye diarist. However, as his children have grown, his ties with the Suffolk seaside town have loosened, and it was Craig who approached Diana to take over the programming of the festival.

Diana admits that Craig’s shoes are going to be tough to fill and is taking her duties very seriously. She has just returned from a week at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, scouting out movies for next year’s programme.

“It’s a little bit daunting I have admit. Although I have been around the world of show-business for many years now, I haven’t been involved in documentaries but I do have friends who are distinguished documentarians and I have seen their films and listened to the talk, which is not the same thing I know, so this first programme is something of a crash course, with me using what I know and using the people I know and admire to put a worthwhile festival together.”

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Although, Craig did a wonderful job putting the festival on the map and giving it its first class reputation, Diana believes that any creative venture benefits from a period of renewal. She has already put her stamp on this year’s festival by expanding the programme from one-and-a-half days to two-and-half days. Also the programme has been strongly influenced by the films that have made a huge impression on her – films which continue to run through your mind, long after you have emerged from the cinema.

“Seeing films on the big screen, is a totally different experience to watching them on television alone or with your family. Cinema is a communal experience. Also seeing the images blown up that large and seeing them in the company of other people gives them impact.”

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She said during the last five years, cinema had once again embraced factual films. Documentaries were no longer the preserve of minority channels on television. Documentaries were making a strong return to the big screen.

“We’re back to a situation where documentaries have got a larger profile again. They are commanding wider audiences because people are interested in seeing films with something to say. They are interested in what is going on not only in other countries but also in our own country.

“It’s about having a story to tell. It’s about an audience making a connection with the people in a film, wanting to know them and how their story turns out.”

In programming the festival this year Diana said that she had several marker posts on her festival road map. “I knew I wanted something which would be of interest to women, I also wanted something for Aldeburgh’s music-loving audience, I wanted some foreign input, also something that celebrated the life of a distinguished veteran and something for the boys.”

One of the first films in the programme was Albino United because Barney Broomfield and his family were close family friends. “I have watched Barney Broomfield grow into a very assured film-maker. I saw the film and thought it was very good and coincidentally became involved in another film with producer Rachel Wexler and worked with her husband Jez Lewis on a film called Shed Your Tears and Walk Away – a very moving film about drink and drug abuse in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

“Rachel invited me to see a screening of Out Of The Ashes, a film she produced about the first Afghan cricket team which was formed in the refugee camps of Peshawar. It was absolutely excellent and I was starting to put a programme together in my head and I knew that both films had to be part of my first festival. Out of the Ashes and Albino United had a common link beyond Rachel in the fact that they used sport as a means for people to escape a terrible situation.

“I was drawing up a list of people I would like to invite to take part and Rachel was happy to come along while others like Julien Temple were away working and have asked to be invited next year.”

She said one of the tricky things about documentarians is that they are frequently squirrelled away in some remote corner of the world making their next film.

Because of the distances involved and the fact that many of the experienced film-makers were working the festival came together in a very piecemeal fashion.

“I also wanted to provide a platform for emerging film-makers – so we are screening an afternoon of films by younger film-makers as a contrast to the work we will have seen by the more experienced hands.

“I have got some good contacts at the National Film and Television School and asked them to point me in the right direction with regard to talented young documentary film-makers.

“So that will provide a wonderfully diverse afternoon with first time directors introducing their work which will include young British artist and photographer Johnny Shand Kydd who will be screening his short film on a Japanese tattooist.

“The amazing thing about documentary films is that they offer a window on another world.

“Johnny was working in Japan and he became fascinated by these tattooists, who produced these amazingly detailed tattoos. He just decided to make a film about them because he was completely caught up in their world, fascinated by them.

“And of course, today, digital cameras mean that the cost of producing documentary films has decreased, you no longer need a huge film crew, and they are more flexible in terms of getting close to their subject.”

No sooner had Diana started planning this year when ideas for the next year and the year after started filling potential slots.

“It’s an evolving programme. You have ideas and people can’t come so you book them in for next year. I have just come back from watching 24 inspiring films at the Sheffield documentary festival and that has filled me with ideas. It has given me a grasp of the breadth and the variety of the films which are being made.”

Diana is a firm believer in the fact that the rise of the theatrical film has made it easier to sell a documentary to cinema audiences. “As more documentaries are given a theatrical release then audiences become more aware that a documentary feature will stand up as a movie in its own right. You don’t have to watch it at home on television.

“Also I think people are more and more interested in the real world because they are just so many stories out there – real stories, about real people. It’s not a dry news report. A documentary film has to have a narrative. It has to make a connection with its audience and the best way to do that is to allow the audience to meet and to care about the people in the film.

“I have seen a diverse collection of films over the past week in Sheffield but the ones that worked best are those with a proper narrative.

“People love to be told stories and if the stories are true then they are so much more powerful – that means you are watching not because it is an important issue or because you feel you should but you are watching because it has a bloody good story to tell.”

As television has become increasingly struck with so-called reality shows – looking for entertainment rather than natural behaviour – Diana believes the big screen has become the place to see engaging and revealing documentaries.

“In a way I am finding my feet this year. My game plan is to provide an exciting festival of excellent films, presented by the film-makers. I think Craig had the same approach. Then I will listen to the feedback, take note of how the audience responds to this year, do a little post mortem and then get on with next year’s event.”

She added that the student films represented one of the most interesting strands of the weekend. Because they tended to be short films, they could programme three or four very different films in one afternoon, providing the audience with a diverse viewing experience.

If three days of dazzling documentaries is not enough, Diana Quick has arranged a high profile pre-festival event for tomorrow afternoon when she will be interviewing director Adam Low about his film Alan Bennett and the Habit of Art.

The film looks at the relationship between Benjamin Britten and the poet WH Auden and what inspired national treasure Alan Bennett to write a play about it. The play, The Habit of Art, was performed to sell-out audiences earlier this year at The Royal National Theatre.

The film was shot in Aldeburgh and in New York and features interviews with people like Andrew Motion, Natasha Spender, Britten’s biographer Paul Kildea as well as National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett.

Diana said: “Adam Low got in touch with the cinema asking if there was any chance of getting a screening. He obviously thought it was a good match because of the subject matter but although Adam is a highly experienced, very well regarded film-maker now, I knew him because he was a young researcher on a film I did way back in 1980.

“We obviously wanted to screen the film but by that time I had programmed the festival there were no free slots. So I said, ‘why not do a pre-festival presentation the week before to whet people’s appetite’s for the main festival?’ So that’s what we are going to do.

“So Sunday afternoon 3pm we shall screen the film and then afterwards I will talk to Adam about how he went about making film and what attracted him to the story.”

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