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Member Area
Venice Biennale

It would be nice to do something political (AIS 22)

Tabloid Visions 2003
The Times-BFI London Film Festival. By Valentina Vitali

In May 1906 Third Republic entrepreneur and civil leader Benoit-Levy organised a special ‘fte cinmatographique’ at the Trocadro Theatre in Paris. The event, perhaps the first film festival in the history of cinema, contained, in an embryonic form, the four routes later to be undertaken by its successors. Sponsored by the ‘Socite Populaire des Beaux Arts’, the Trocadro ‘fte’ was first and foremost a recognition of the cinema as a cultural practice legitimate for, and constitutive of, a public sphere that was broader and more encompassing than the base sustaining the theatre and, indeed, the ‘beaux arts’. Secondly, the Trocadro ‘fte’ reaffirmed the role of Paris as the social and economic capital of the Third Republic. Thirdly, the three-hour programme of the ‘fte’ offered Path the unprecedented opportunity of showcasing seventeen of its most recent productions. The following year Gaumont, Vitagraph, Raleigh and Robert and Melis’ were added to the programme.

Most film festivals today fall within this four-partite grid - spaces for and about cinema as a cultural practice, tourist attractions promoting the host city, industry events and showcases for specific cinematic genres. Any film festival meets some or all of these objectives, but lends each of them different emphasis and priority. Cannes, for instance, is today primarily an industry event, even if tourism and (however nominal) a concern for cinema as an aesthetic category also play. How does the London Film Festival fit into this grid, and what tensions are at work between the LFF’s co-existing objectives?

A film festival first materialized in London in 1951, in the context of the Festival of Britain - an event that, in the aftermath of WW2, set out to make the best of British culture available to ‘the masses’. Within this larger cultural and social programme, plans for the cinema originally included an international conference and a festival of British films. While much of this was dropped, 14 documentaries, one feature, four experimental films and four stereoscopic (3-D) films were finally produced especially for the festival, and some were used for industry and science exhibits. The focus for films was the Telekinema, a 400 seats auditorium especially opened on the South Bank and equipped to show 35mm and stereoscopic film, and large-screen television. When the Festival of Britain ended, pressure from the public and media resulted in the British Film Institute taking over the Telekinema and reopening it in October 1952 as the National Film Theatre.2 The London Film Festival took off from there and continued with a yearly programme of 20 to 25 films well into the 1970s. The Festival of Britain agenda was also retained: focusing primarily on British ideas of film as an ‘art’, the LFF then brought to the British public what a small group within the BFI deemed to be the best of art cinema. 

In the 1980s, under Thatcher, things began to take a different turn, also in the domain of cinema. Private companies were invited as sponsors and the festival gradually turned into a kind of cinema superstore. Until last year, the LFF’s main sponsor was Regus, an office space leasing company with operational centers across the globe, for which sponsorship - started in the 1990s - was essentially a PR exercise - a strategy to increase Regus’ visibility in its target market, including film production companies. Under Regus, the LFF’s programme expanded significantly. A greater number and more diverse films from more countries received a measure of (however limited) exposure that would have otherwise not found exhibition space in the UK. This year’s edition of the LFF marked not only a transfer of sponsorship, but also what may well turn out to be a whole new regime, where entirely different interests are at stake than those underpinning Regus’ financial backing.