Industry Insights: LFF programmers Jemma Desai and Laure Bonville

Industry Insights: LFF programmers Jemma Desai and Laure Bonville

Anticipation is mounting for the 57th BFI London Film Festival, which runs from October 9-20 at cinemas all over our fair capital. BEV was keen to learn more about how this mammoth event works, so invited programmers Jemma Desai and Laure Bonville to share their Industry Insights…

Jemma Desai is an LFF Programmer and founder of I am Dora, a screening series that focuses on female characters in film. She also works in various capacities in film production and script development.

BEV: Programming is one of those coveted roles that many people entering the film industry want to do, along with acquisitions. Can you talk more about the role of the programmer, from the late night boring bits to the more fun and glamorous parts?

JD: Programming is a pretty broad term. It goes from the tracking of films that are years in development and production to writing copy and standing on stage hosting a Q&A with a director. We watch films in a myriad of environments, from films festivals to small screening rooms, and in a variety of qualities, from rough cuts to the final versions. Like all jobs it includes administration too: the programming team schedule screenings and hosts for Q&As, and take some responsibility for accurate information in the programme brochure and marketing material. It’s a weird mix of very solitary and very public – from watching films in the dark by yourself, to being in conversation with someone whose work you admire on stage in front of lots of people.

And how did you get to this position? The more details the better!

I started as an intern at the London Film Festival in 2009 and worked in various roles in the programme and guest team here. Those roles gave me access to a lot of films, and helped me to understand how the nitty-gritty of the festival works. It also allowed me to meet lots of inspiring filmmakers and curators. Using the relationships I’d built in my time at the BFI, I began a screening series called I am Dora that explores how women identify with one another through the medium of film. Part of the reason for starting the project was that during the Festival I often found myself in conversations that placed what I felt was an arbitrary value judgment on the worth of a film. I found myself wishing that there was a space where a more subjective voice (i.e. my voice!) could be heard. I think it’s significant that I felt there wasn’t a space to do that before, and I think this is something that a lot of female colleagues I have met across the industry can identify with.

After four years in the programme and guest team, I wanted to move on to develop other projects, but I mentioned to Clare [Stewart, LFF Director] that I would like to stay involved with the Festival if there was an opportunity to join the programming team, and this year there was. It’s really down to her being quite open to a very collaborative approach to programming that the opportunity arose.

If anyone reading this has their own plans to curate a film festival, what are the three key bits of advice they need to take into account?

Do what you know – give it your own personality. There are so many different ways to see films in London and there are film clubs all over the place, but something with a real signature style will always stand out.

Be professional – even if you’re a tiny festival, and you’re not charging for tickets, it doesn’t mean you can’t try and make it look and feel like something bigger. Think about the whole experience, the screening room, the format of film, sound, etc.

Related to the above – think big. Don’t assume that you can’t do things because you probably can! One event that I put on for I am Dora, I wanted to show an episode of Mad Men. Everyone thought it was a real long shot and I wasn’t sure I should even bother trying to get permission for my tiny little screening series, but after a few emails and calls I got through to Matthew Weiner’s assistant, who got permission for me to show it.

Over at Geek HQ (aka the BEV office) we did a summary of this year’s LFF programme and approximately 17% of the films are by female directors. Sometimes these statistics seem meaningless, but to interpret them: the films in the Official Competition and Galas section are the ones most likely to go on general release, and this is where the representation of female directors is quite low. Do men really make more accessible, high-octane, audience-friendly films, or are we missing a trick by not developing female audiences more?

I think I see it slightly differently. I agree that often the film industry isn’t the most welcoming or appealing place for female directors, but I do feel female audiences are being developed. Even though there might be a small number of female directors across the galas and competition films, there is a really strong female presence, with many that showcase a lot of female talent and tell really female-focused stories. I feel there is a lot out there for me as a female audience member if I go looking for it, especially in a film festival environment.

I definitely don’t think that men make more high-octane, accessible films and women only make films about being women. But I do think men and women can have very different professional and personal experiences during their careers which can make the choices they are afforded (and feel they can make) to develop their careers very different.

Of course you’re right about the numbers, and I think this is important as it becomes self-perpetuating: when there aren’t many people to look up to, a young filmmaker might not think it’s possible to succeed in their chosen career. Not to generalize, but in my circle of friends this lack of self-belief has been a factor for many of my most intelligent, creative and able friends and colleagues not pursuing their dream careers in film.

I think it’s a very complex issue. One reason is that the film industry seems increasingly conservative. I’ve often noticed that when I read a script or watch a film that I just feel is really interesting or important, I’m told that it will make no money, or no one will be interested in it. I think it is endemic across the industry in that people employ people, fund people, develop projects and pick films for festivals based on what they think is a tried and tested rule. I think that mindset needs to change to make it a more attractive and nurturing environment for not only more female directors, but also more diverse filmmakers from a variety of backgrounds to develop their careers.

If you are a filmmaker then what is the best way to get the programmer’s attention? Be as detailed and honest as you like.

Present your work in the nicest way possible. A nice DVD cover or well thought-out opening credits can make such a difference when you’re working your way through hundreds of films submitted for the festival.

This is the Desert Island Disc question. You’re only allowed to pick ONE film in the programme: which is the must-see? And why?

There really are so many as the programme is genuinely brilliant this year! But if I had to choose one it would be See You Next Tuesday. The film is by a male director [Drew Tobia], but tells a really female-focused story in a really fresh and original way. It’s a really good example of a film that really caught my eye in a very big box of open submissions as well, as it has one of the best opening credits I think I saw all year!

Laure Bonville grew up in France and moved to London 10 years ago. She is an LFF and London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival programmer. 

BEV: Programming is one of those coveted roles that many people entering the film industry want to do, along with acquisitions. Can you talk more about the role of the programmer, from the late night boring bits to the more fun and glamorous parts?

LB: This is my first year as a programmer, so I haven’t experienced the festival glamour yet! It’s been great so far to be invited to screenings and festivals, and not to try to sneak in or beg  for an accreditation. There is a lot of viewing to do, obviously. It’s fascinating as it gives you an overview of what’s been made in a  year. It can also be a bit disheartening when you go through a bulk of not so good films, but when a gem pops out it makes it all worthwhile and thrilling, especially if the film hasn’t been shown anywhere else and is a discovery.

And how did you get to this position? The more details the better!

I’ve been involved with film festivals early on. I grew up in Clermont-Ferrand, the French home town of a major short film festival, and I started volunteering there when I was 16. I was fascinated by the event. It was exciting, it was buzzy and the whole town got involved. I would binge on films whenever I could. I then contributed to the festival in different capacities, from hospitality to programming. I worked on the Hamburg short film festival – helping with the selection and  looking after guests – and I set up filmmaker panels for the Lille short film festival. In the meanwhile I studied European cultures and languages and got a Master in arts management in France.

I moved to London to complete an internship for my master at the BFI, in the film sales department, then got a temporary role in print coordination for the London Film Festival. Following several short-term contracts in the programme planning department of the BFI Southbank, I got a permanent position as the assistant to the head of programme planning. This involved working on the production of the programme: locating prints, clearing rights and contributing to the daily operations of the cinema, plus liaising with distributors, the technical team and outside stakeholders. It gave me great hands-on experience of running a cinema. A few months ago there was an opportunity to apply for a programming role for the BFI Festivals and I was absolutely thrilled to be given the job.

My advice is to get as much experience as possible in film-related organisations – even if the job is not directly related to programming, you can still find a side ways in.

If anyone reading this has their own plans to curate a film festival, what are the three key bits of advice they need to take into account?

Keep abreast of what’s happening at other festivals, cinemas and cinematheques where you can get useful info – where to get the films from, for example.

Try to gain some experience on a festival to get an idea of how things work, as there are a lot of practical things to keep in mind and deal with on top of choosing the films.

Build a network of passionate and enthusiastic people. Putting together a festival is usually a collaboration between many people. It is not a one woman/man job!

Over at Geek HQ (aka the BEV office) we did a summary of this year’s LFF programme and approximately 17% of the films are by female directors. Sometimes these statistics seem meaningless, but to interpret them: the films in the Official Competition and Galas section are the ones most likely to go on general release, and this is where the representation of female directors is quite low. Do men really make more accessible, high-octane, audience-friendly films, or are we missing a trick by not developing female audiences more?

I think there is a better representation of female directors in the younger generation of filmmakers, but it is hard to get exposure for all young filmmakers in general. The gala and best film competitions tend to be filled by more established directors. There is a strong line-up of films directed/written/produced/edited/acted by very talented women in the festival.

I don’t think men make more accessible, high-octane, audience-friendly films, nor that we’re missing a trick by not developing female audiences more, but the nurturing of talents is a slow process and the industry remains quite old-fashioned in some ways. There is still a way to go to get more films directed by female directors on general release, but it looks like things are changing slowly and there are so many creative and gifted female talents around at the moment that I feel quite optimistic for the future.

If you are a filmmaker then what is the best way to get the programmer’s attention? Be as detailed and honest as you like.

Don’t ring the festival office every day to know if your film has been selected. This is not attracting the right kind of attention.

This is the Desert Island Disc question. You’re only allowed to pick ONE film in the programme: which is the must-see? And why?

This is a tough choice as there are so many good films this year… One that I saw recently and really enjoyed was The Punk Singer. Directed by Sini Anderson, it follows the emergence of the feminist punk rock movement in the States in the ’90s and focuses on the incredible Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. Her feistiness and energy are really inspirational and the soundtrack is amazing!

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