The London Film Festival rolls around again this year to a fanfare of cinematic acclaim. And whether you're interested in the latest new releases or cult classics, it's an annual event which is probably showing at least one film you'll want to watch.
The 2006 festival has even more reason to celebrate - it's now the 50th year since its first film offerings were shown on screens around London. Part of the event's appeal is its ability to show blockbuster releases alongside films from previously unknown directors. The London Film Festival (LFF) invites applicants from all over the world to submit new film and the only criteria for entry is that the submission must not have been shown anywhere else in Britain.
All films at the events are therefore UK premieres. This ensures that the event organisers are subjected to an annual deluge of thousands of movies, from which they must select the best for screening. The great advantage of all this hard work is that it offers a genuine opportunity for talented new film-makers and directors to get their work screened in front of a mass audience. Films which have been made on a shoestring are shown alongside big budget Hollywood releases, so there's also the chance for some of that LA glamour to rub-off on upcoming talent. Last year, George Clooney, Cameron Diaz and Susan Sarandon were some of the stars who appeared in person to answer questions about screenings.
"The London Film Festival was a really good thing to get into," says Saul Dib, a young director, whose London-based film Bullet Boy premiered at the 2005 event. A year on, Dib is philosophical about how the festival has helped his film to reach wide critical acclaim. "If it was going to take off it was always going to be in Britain," says Dib. "That's where it's set and it's just that sort of film really." Bullet Boy starred So Solid Crew's Asher D as a young ex-con involved in East London gang warfare. Following its debut at the LFF, Bullet Boy was widely publicised in the national press and went on to tour a number of other film festivals. "We didn't have a launch for the film," says Dib, whose budget couldn't stretch to a glamorous opening night. "So before it was shown it had only been seen by about 10 people. The festival gave it a chance to be shown to hundreds of paying customers in Leicester Square."
Last year the film subjects ranged from romance in Mexico to Russian space exploration to fighting fairytale monsters in an enchanted forest. So it's fair to say that the festival doesn't stick to subtitled art-house flicks. But it's not just about showing a wide range of cinema. The LFF is linked with the British Film Institute (BFI), which aims to promote diversity and access to cinema across the UK. This means that the annual festival also includes a number of events to deliberately encourage young people to get involved.
"The education part of the festival is about trying to give young people access and get them engaged," explains education co-ordinator Alicia Blum-Ross. "We choose 17 feature films and two shorts which we think are especially appropriate for young people, and we show them for free. Either they're related to an area of the syllabus of a taught subject, or they have some relevant political issues. Last year, for example, we chose a film about a young traveller girl, and we also chose films that have especially interesting technical innovations or construction techniques. And the directors are often on hand after the film to answer questions."
The educational part of the festival also runs a range of other activities to get younger people engaged in film. These include seminars, workshops and outreach programmes, to show films in areas without easy access to cinemas. For A-level students there are also career development workshops, where young people involved in film share their experiences with those looking to get into the industry. Then there are hands-on film production workshops, where film and media students can learn the techniques behind cinema.
The BFI is also a great resource for anyone studying film. It holds the largest archive in the world and archives selected materials for free viewing under the Creative License Archive. This allows people to download movies for free, under the proviso that they can't use them in any commercial or promotional way. Extensive critical resources are also available for students interested in finding out about a particular film in more detail.
At the heart of the London Film Festival, of course, appreciating the films showing is what it's all about. So even if you're just thinking about a future in cinema, it's well worth catching a few different movies.
The Times BFI London Film Festival runs from 18 October to 2 November
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