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Sheila Whitaker: Influential programmer who expanded the reach of the London Film Festival

She championed world cinema in London – but was pragmatic enough to show Hollywood blockbusters, too

Sheila Whitaker was the inspirational director of the London Film Festival between 1987 and 1996. She is credited both with opening up the event to London’s cinemagoers and with  transforming its international reputation. Before she took the reins, the festival had been largely the preserve of National Film Theatre members, who bought up 90 per cent of the tickets in advance and kept the public at bay.

The film-makers loved her. “You are the mother of all film festival directors,” Mike Leigh once said of her. “You succeeded in creating a festival that rekindled my interest in actually watching films – not just making them,” Terry Gilliam enthused.

Whitaker wasn’t happy at leaving the LFF in 1996, but she went on to play an equally influential role as a director of international programming at the Dubai International Film Festival from 2004 onward.

Born in 1936, Whitaker grew up in North London during the Second World War. Late in her life, she wrote evocatively of school days “punctuated by air raids, which meant picking up whatever was to hand (books, paper, pencil) and retreating to school air raid shelters to await the all-clear siren. These were long tube train shaped structures half underground, the top half above ground covered in grass as camouflage.”

Before she entered the world of cinema, Whitaker had begun her working life as a secretary. She had enrolled on a shorthand and typing course rather than taking up the scholarship she had won while at Kings Norton Grammar School for Girls to study history at Birmingham University. (She reasoned that the “only outcome” from doing the degree seemed to be teaching.)

As a secretary, Whitaker served stints in insurance companies, factories and even at an advertising agency. She was a formidable organiser. Her administrative skills were to come in very useful during her later film festival career, when she was dealing with small armies of sponsors and distributors.

“I had always been keen on cinema, but in a purely amateur way,” Whitaker recalled of the trajectory of a career that saw her transformed from secretary to festival director. “I was a punter. When I got this job, it wasn’t something I had wanted to do since I was 12 years old or anything like that. I remember that my hesitation was that I really enjoyed cinema. I worried that if I just spent all day working at it, I’d get tired of it all. Of course, it doesn’t happen at all like that. You get more and more hooked.”

In 1968, Whitaker took her first steps into the film industry when she was hired as head of the Collection of Posters, Stills and Designs at the British Film Institute. She was surprised to get the job as she didn’t have a degree at that time. While working at the BFI by day, she immersed herself in cinema, visiting the National Film Theatre several times a week. During this period, she curated a retrospective of the career of the neglected American director Martin Ritt – and wrote a monograph to accompany it.

After a comparative literature degree as a mature student at Warwick University, Whitaker was hired in 1979 as director of the Tyneside Cinema. She warmed to the enthusiasm of the Newcastle audiences, who were open and adventurous in their tastes in a way (she later reflected) that more “blasé” London audiences were not.

In 1984, Whitaker came back to London as head of programming for the National Film Theatre. “I had all these attacks saying I was a radical feminist who did nothing but programme boring films,” she joked of the criticism that came her way. However, when she took on the running of the LFF alongside her National Film Theatre duties (combining both jobs for three years), she showed a sure populist touch.

Whitaker’s first LFF, in 1987, was a turbulent affair, largely because she decided to open the festival with Mike Hodges’ IRA drama A Prayer for the Dying. Less than a week before the festival began, there was the bombing in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. She pulled the film, replacing it with Nikita Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes – a less contentious choice.

Under Whitaker’s stewardship, the LFF grew at a prodigious rate, eventually screening more than 200 features each year and becoming the largest non-competitive festival in Europe. While championing films from the Middle East, Iran and Asia, Whitaker also brought the best in US indie cinema to London audiences and was pragmatic enough to show big Hollywood movies, too. (Her final LFF opened with a Goldie Hawn movie, The First Wives Club.) She was proud that festival screenings were held in Leicester Square, not just at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank.

Ironically, at the very moment that the BFI decided not to renew the then 60-year-old Whitaker’s LFF contract, she was nominated a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for services toward French cinema in Britain.

Alongside her festival and film programming career, Whitaker was also an author and critic. She wrote obituaries for the Guardian and was the founding editor of Writing Women, a journal devoted to women’s prose and poetry between 1982 and 1984.

Whitaker was diagnosed with motor neurone disease shortly after the Dubai Film Festival in December; she died in London in late July. She will be remembered as a passionate cinephile, a strong-willed, very effective film festival director who always retained her sense of fun. She is survived by her brother.

Sheila Whitaker, film festival director: born London 1 April 1936; died London 29 July 2013.

I conceived of the Dubai International Film Festival (“DIFF”), on 26 December 2001, writes Neil Stephenson, when I read a headline in this newspaper which stated that world leaders were calling for tolerance to be the legacy of the September 11 terror attacks on America. Inspired by the headline and ensuing article, my concept was that Dubai could serve as a “cultural bridge” between the Western and Islamic worlds at that time of intense global strife. After spending 18 months in  the US developing my festival vision, I was invited to come to Dubai in June 2003 to start laying the groundwork for the festival’s inaugural edition in December 2004.

After arriving in Dubai to begin the task of launching this new festival, my first priority was to assemble a world-class team of programmers and festival professionals, and Sheila’s appointment was my first major hiring decision. This was one of the best decisions I made as festival director and CEO, as Sheila went on to give nine  years of invaluable service to DIFF.

Sheila was hired in late 2003 not only as a senior programmer, but also to head up the festival’s vitally important program administration and scheduling functions. Her calm professionalism and sheer dedication to excellence were instrumental in helping me and my whole team in Dubai to deliver a smooth first edition in those heady days between 6 and 11 December 2004, during which we screened 76 films and hosted several prominent guests – including Morgan Freeman, Orlando Bloom and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I could not have done this without Sheila.