Festival celebrates silver jubilee

Not many people know this but Cambridge Film Festival is 25 years old this year and is one of the most important events on the UK calendar. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to festival director Tony Jones about his annual treasure hunt to find cinematic gems to screen.

By Andrew Clarke

Not many people know this but Cambridge Film Festival is 25 years old this year and is one of the most important events on the UK calendar. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to festival director Tony Jones about his annual treasure hunt to find cinematic gems to screen.

The UK's friendliest film festival celebrates its Silver Jubilee this year as the Cambridge Film Festival opens its doors for 11 days of film fun with more than 200 screenings of British, American and foreign language films, retrospectives, a film discussion panel and more than 50 British premieres.

For Festival organiser Tony Jones it's a lot of hard work. It takes more than a year to plan a festival - particularly tracking down elusive prints for the retrospective elements, but the activity becomes a mad blur during the spring when Tony tours the world's leading film festivals, Cannes, Venice and Berlin, tracking down new films to screen at Cambridge in July.

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In the last 25 years the Festival has grown from a young local upstart to one of the big three festivals in the country behind Edinburgh and London. Tony has been the guiding hand behind the festival for 20 of the 25 years.

It's a job he still enjoys and is delighted with the way the festival has increased its profile over the years. “It's not something we have consciously worked at we have tried to develop a festival which showed the widest possible range of films and make everyone feel welcome.”

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He said that the friendly-nature of the festival attracted good audiences and star names - although these were notoriously hard to confirm ahead of time. Last year he was delighted when Joel Schumacher and Cate Blanchett turned up to publicise the premiere of Veronica Guerin. This year Brooke Shields is attending to promote the European Premiere of her new children's film Bob The Butler which also stars Simon Callow and American independent writer/director John Sayles will be present to unveil his latest movie Silver City.

The last minute nature of the proceedings was later demonstrated perfectly with a phone-call, out of the blue, from Stephen Frears office informing Tony that the director would be attending the festival's Critical Condition conference about the current cultural overload and how audiences cope with the deluge in material.

Tony puts the phone down with a wry smile and says: “I suppose we better tell someone he's coming.”

Tony's care of his audiences and visiting stars is legendary. Cambridge is virtually the only venue in the UK where you can rub shoulders with the film-makers and actors in the bar after a screening and not be confronted with hovering bodyguards or PR officials.

Tony said: “We treat the visiting stars well, we are grateful that they come to see us, but part of the deal is that they are available to talk to the audience after the screening. Luckily most of them really enjoy the experience. They are not being shepherded from place to place. They get to have real conversations with real people in a relaxed normal environment. They are not being pushed from one press conference to another, being confronted by teams of journalists. Here at Cambridge they can have meaningful conversations with ordinary people, the people who pay to go to their films.”

During the last days before the festival is launched is always a frantic whirl of activity - a mass of last minute changes and additions. There is also the mechanics of getting 200 prints to the cinema, made up for screening, broken down again, packed away in boxes and sent back to London.

Tony is also pleased that although Cambridge mixes intelligent Hollywood fare with independent movies - it is still the only place in the country to see some foreign language films.

“It's the thing that worries me most about the modern film world - the lack of opportunity to see some excellent foreign language films. The market for these films is diminishing and it's a great shame. I go to festivals across the world and see some fantastic films. I book as many as I can for the festival but only a tiny percentage actually find a distributor in this country and get a proper commercial release. It's a crying shame because we are missing out on so many great films but as long as the big multiplexes are screening four prints of Batman Begins and three prints of Fantastic Four there is simply not going to be room for the smaller, more thoughtful film.”

He said that the lack of sub-titled films on terrestrial television didn't help the situation. “Television seems to have turned its back on foreign language films and as a result people are afraid of sub-titled films. There is a fear factor because people don't come across them as they used to. If foreign language films are screened at all these days, it's in the early hours of the morning. Broadcasters should be encouraged to screen a wider range of movies.

“Every now and then a film like Amelie or Downfall comes along and does very good business but there are films that could do similar business all year round.”

He said that the reason that those films broke out into a mainstream audience was good timing on the release schedule, excellent reviews and the UK distributors really got behind the films with plenty of prints and plenty of advertising.

“It's almost as if someone, somewhere decided they were going to be a hit. Most foreign language films have to scrape a living on just a half dozen prints whereas these films were treated to a widespread, mainstream style release. As a result the audience was a lot better than for other foreign language releases.”

Tony is proud of the fact that he helped pioneer the current appreciation of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio helmed by Hayao Miyazaki, which won a huge following and best animation Oscar for Spirited Away - which received its UK premiere at Cambridge two years ago. This year they are staging the UK premiere of Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated spectacular Howl's Moving Castle, based on the children's book by Diana Wynne Jones, who will be attending the festival and signing copies of her book at Borders. The voice cast for the film includes Emily Mortimer, Christian Bale and Lauren Bacall.

To celebrate the unveiling of this new film, Tony has programmed a major Studio Ghibli retrospective this year which will include screening of Spirited Away, Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke.

He said that programming each festival is a balancing act. Each event guards its premieres jealously and he says that it's a question of getting the right films which reflect the nature of the event and the timing of the event.

He said that there is not a lot of conflict between London and Cambridge because they are staged at a completely different time of year but the contest for high profile premieres is much keener with Edinburgh. Both festivals would be reluctant to screen films which have been unveiled at the other festival.

“It's a question of providing our audiences with a unique experience, offering something different, something they can't see anywhere else.” He said that developing a relationship with the film distributors is very important. “It's a question of trust. The distributors can trust us to show the film at its best and to give it wide exposure. We will also take care of the print and make sure it is sent back on time and in good condition. When we get film prints, there are usually only one or two copies in the country.”

He said that it was a question of treating the distributors with the same consideration as they treated their stars and their audiences. Tony said that it is because they have a trusted track record that they manage to secure so many UK firsts.

He said they have come a long way since the Cambridge Film Group first tentatively floated the idea of a film festival in 1977. Tony came on the scene five years later when he moved to Cambridge having ran an independent cinema in Birmingham.

The Festival's original home was the much loved single-screen Arts Cinema in Cambridge city centre's Market Passage, where the Festival quickly developed from modest beginnings to become an important date in the international film festival calendar which would draw broad audiences from across the region and beyond.

Tony says: “The Festival was originally conceived with a two-fold purpose: as a means of screening the very best of current international cinema; and to rediscover important but neglected film-makers and their films, which were either out of distribution or unseen for many years. These goals have been maintained in the Festival's new home, the three-screen Arts Picturehouse, opposite Parker's Piece, which is now acknowledged as the most successful and well-equipped regional independent film venue in the country.”

He said among the famous names who attended the festival over the years have been Richard Harris, Jane Birkin, Peter Greenaway, Alex Cox, Timothy Spall, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Philip Kaufman, John Sayles and Hanif Kureishi.

The high profile premieres they have had over the years included Pirates Of The Caribbean, Talk To Her, Bowling For Columbine, Cats And Dogs, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Barton Fink, Reservoir Dogs, Thelma And Louise, And The Three Colours - as well as cult classics like Belly of an Architect, Goodbye, Lenin!, To Die For, Antonia's Line, My Left Foot, Stalingrad and Metropolitan.

The biggest change in the film industry in recent years in the development of digital technology - both in making films and screening them. It's an area that Cambridge has been quick to embrace. “We have had digital screenings here for the last three years but this year it has really taken off and about 30 of our films will be projected digitally.”

He said that advent of digital technology has really helped the screening of classic movies. “You will be amazed at the scratched state of some archive prints. It really is terrible and with the rise of DVD people are less willing to accept below par prints. So what we are doing is getting hi-definition digital masters to show classic movies as well as more contemporary films from people like Peter Greenaway.

“This year you will be able to see beautifully restored hi-definition screenings of such classic movies as Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and Errol Flynn's Adventures of Robin Hood.”

There is also a screening of the restored version of Akenfield, partly funded by the EADT, on July 13 accompanied by a behind the scenes presentation with films supplied by the East Anglian Film Archive.

Among the other highlights this year are The Last Mitterand (dir. Robert Geudiguian starring Michel Bouquet), Arsene Lupin (dir. Jean-Paul Salome starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Eva Green), Broken Flowers (dir. Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray, winner of 2005 Cannes Jury Prize), Crash (dir. Paul Haggis starring Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle), Herbie Fully Loaded (dir. Angela Robinson, starring Lindsaty Lohan), A Life In Suitcases (dir. Peter Greenaway), Madagascar (dir. Eric Darnell/Tom McGrath) and Silver City (dir. John Sayles, who will be present at the screening.

The Cambridge Film Festival, which is supported by the EADT, runs from today until July 17.

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