GFF, Covid, and maintaining high quality – A Chat With GFF Co-Director Allison Gardner

Photo credit: Eoin Carey GFF co-director Allison Gardner with the stars of Angry Young Men, which will have its world premiere at GFF22

The day of the GFF20 Opening Gala, my friend messaged me to say, “Just want to give totally fair warning, I got back from v northern Italy yesterday . . . I am still up for coming tonight but would genuinely totally understand if you’d rather I didn’t”. “Ha!” I replied, “obvs join us”.

Back in February 2020, Covid was something that was still happening somewhere else to someone else. It seemed to me like many of the great hyped flus that were annual media fodder. Remember swine flu? SARS? Everyone panic-buys, some idiot coats themselves in Dettol, the weather gets warmer again, and we all go back to dangerous teen trends and dogs do the funniest things.

My friend was Covid-free and had followed all the procedures for travel at the time, but her cautiousness, to me, seemed unnecessary. After two-week submersion in the festival, going from film to film, with only brief respites asleep, I returned to work totally jarred by how seriously everyone was taking Covid. Rumours even swirled that the work might close, which was ridiculous, the place stayed open even with extreme weather warnings, and banks of snow piling up.

And then we were sent home, all of a sudden, with less than an hour’s notice. No one bothered to water the succulents, coz we assumed we would only be gone a week or so at most. Being able to envision that this would all still be at the forefront of daily life in 2 years’ time was impossible.

“So obviously 2020 was a normalish year,” recalls Allison Gardner, co-director for the Glasgow Film Festival. “We didn’t talk about Covid.”

She jokes, “I felt we’d started the pandemic by having the 2020 Are We There Yet? the dystopian retrospective, which as it turned out, were documentaries in the end. Yeah, I was like, “Lets NOT do that again”.”

“Then last year, between Christmas and New Year, I decided we would go online because I could see that it wasn’t going to get any better. And I just thought, cinemas are just not gonna be open. So audiences needed clarity.”

My blog post from December 2020 attests to that need for clarity, with my hyper-enthusiastic ass asking GFF21 – How’s it gonna work? With the programme launch on January 14th 2021, there wasn’t a huge window of time in which to decide.

GFF21 was the first year the festival went online. It was delivered through the Glasgow Film At Home platform. Nobody really had any idea what to expect. Would it go well or what?

“It was really successful.” Over 40,000 people attended. A monumental achievement for any film festival under normal circumstances. Under these, it seemed like a huge win.

Beforehand, I worried it could have gone either way, would the online version lose the spontaneity which many audience members had in being drawn in by a movie poster or city street banner? Or would it allow the GFF to reach a wider audience, across the UK?

“It was successful for a number of reasons,” says Allison. “It was a unique set of circumstances. No cinemas were open. People were really bored.” – I laugh – “We had great films, Minari and First Cow and all those films luckily came to us.”

“And then also we invested in our Glasgow Film At Home platform, which ran very, very well.”

But what about the human touch? I know when I found out GFF21 was going to run online, I was dismayed, as I love sharing the cinema experience with others.

Allison is very much on the ground in the GFF, introducing movies, opening and closing the festival, and generally chatting to folk to see how their festival is going. How did that aspect changing sit with her?

“It was quite an odd experience, because I was at home the whole time during the festival. We recorded our Q&As, and it was a very odd, weird dynamic.”

But it had its pluses. I was able to see every film I wanted to, including for the first time, every Audience Award nominee. This year, the Audience Award nominees are all available online again. “They’re online after their physical screening,” Allison assures me. ” So you can enjoy and vote across the whole country.”

The Audience Award is the only award presented by the GFF and is voted for by the audience. I asked Allison how they pick the nominees. “Well it’s only first or second time directors that are eligible, and then we just try and have a mixture of maybe countries or fun. Like La Civil’s quite serious but it’s a great thriller, you know? You know, not all the samey type of genre, so that’s really what we do. Allan [GFF co-director] picks his, and Chris [GFF programme co-ordinator] will pick his, and I’ll pick mine, and we’ll see where the commonality is. A bit of a Venn diagram.”

GFF22’s Audience Award nominees are Anais In Love, The Hermit of Treig, Her Way, Hive, La Civil, Olga, and Zalava. “The Audience Award films are great. I think Hive is exceptional,” she says, “Zalava is really excellent. La Civil is fantastic. Olga is really interesting, about the gymnast.” I interrupt to gush about the Zalava trailer, which combines police procedural with the demonic to give a folk horror so completely up my street, it could have been designed for me by a computer.

This gets me curious about the overall selection process. I ask, “Do you have in mind a sort of flavour for 2022?” “Not really,” she replies, “We really just try and see how things take shape. It’s much more organic.”

Plus, there’s also the challenges Covid has presented the international film industry. “We’re at the mercy of what’s happening, and release dates.” Many countries still have cinemas either closed or restricted in numbers, which effects decisions on release dates, etc. “Because things are happening in different parts of the world at different times in terms of the pandemic. So we can’t always get the answers, so it’s like a horrible 3D jigsaw puzzle, that you just get to the last bit, then it all collapses, and you have to start over again. But we got there.”

“Planning on quicksand as we call it.”

Despite the challenges, Allison and the team have delivered another amazing line-up of films for this year’s festival. It opens with The Outfit, the directorial debut of Graham Moore, the Oscar-winning writer for The Imitation Game. A tense Chicago gangster thriller, it stars Mark Rylance, who moved me to tears in Phantom of the Open, and Johnny Flynn, of Beast fame. “It’s straight from its world premiere in Berlin, then coming to us.”

There’s no post-film soiree this year, as we’re not quite there yet. “No parties this year, I just don’t think it’s right under the circumstances. I don’t want to subject staff and audiences to something unnecessary at this stage. Perhaps 2023. And I hope people will understand.”

“There lots of great stuff in African Stories, Once Upon A Time In Uganda, Blind Ambition, Good Madam.” I interrupt again to gush about Blind Ambition’s tear-jerking trailer. “It’s like Cool Runnings meets Sideways.”

Frightfest brings us goodies like The Execution, based on the hunt for Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, and Monstrous, starring Wednesday Adams herself Christina Ricci. Buffy star Anthony Stewart Head joins the cast of vampire comedy Let The Wrong One In, and Wyrmwood sequel Wyrmwood: Apocalyse is sure to be a splatter extravaganza.

What Stories Shall We Tell? is a strand focusing on Black cinema, and brings us Farewell Amor, about a family reuniting in New York after the Angolan civil war, trying to reconnect despite time and distance. There’s also the work of Menelik Shabazz, with their first feature Burning An Illusion, about a woman struggling with love and political consciousness in Thatcher’s Britain, preceded by their short, Blood Ah Go Run, about the riots following the deaths of 13 teenagers in a house fire in London in 1981, which was not sufficiently investigated by police.

There’s a plethora of homegrown Scottish talent, with Alan Cummings popping up in My Old School, a documentary about a bizarre event that happened right here in Glasgow, when back in the 90s a 30-year-old man enrolled back in secondary school, pretending to be a teenager. Glaswegian Paul Morris makes his directorial debut with Angry Young Men, a coming-of-age comedy filmed in Hamilton, and Ruth Paxton’s first feature A Banquet brings an ominous tangle of maternal relationship drama and psychological horror.

Despite the odds, Allison and the team have ensured the GFF22 is going to be another belter.

See the programme at https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival/whats-on/all

Tickets go on sale at 10am as follows:

Monday 31st January – Opening, Closing and International Women’s Day Galas

Tuesday 1st February – FrightFest passes

Wednesday 2nd February – general programme

Exile

What first made me want to come along to the Map of Mexican Dreams short film night was this last short film. Exile is a stop motion animation.

It depicts a woman, painting alone in her home, each one a self-portrait with her back to the viewer. Ignored in another room is a suitcase. It looms prominent, despite how it is studiously avoided, and it belches forth bursts of dust or sand or earth.

It reminds me of how in Ziyara, the guy who has created an exhibit display of the exodus of his Jewish neighbours, he says he put a suitcase there, because suitcases always mean sorrow, mean parting. In Exile, the suitcase seems to contains the soil of home, the sand and dust of miles travelled. In the memories that accompany the dirt, we see her with another figure, a father, there is a separation there, a grief.

Over and over she paints herself, but only with the back of her head towards the viewer. It is an inward-looking exercise, but without a confrontation, it speaks to her insular emotional state, which lacks the resolution of genuine insight. The journey she has made with the suitcase must always be going forward, to look back towards the viewer is to look back towards the past, and in doing, see herself. To do so would mean uniting who she is with who she was, to make a bridge to that place which has been ruptured in trauma. Whereas if she faces only forward, it remains forever behind her. Unhealed, but the fear is understandable.

Finally a storm comes, and blows open the window of her home. In facing the storm, in engaging with the intrusion of the outside world, in acknowledging the tempestuous state she finds herself in, the portraits all turn to face her.

Without dialogue, relying on imagery and score to tell an emotional journey, Exile conveys vulnerability and loss. Really liked it.

If you like this…

Suncatcher

I’ll be honest, I have no idea what this one’s about.

There’s a cyborg, and a young dancer in a pink Lolita wig, and skateboarders, and a bunch of stuff. Colour and sound evokes a sense of otherworldliness. But whatever it was driving at was lost on me.

The blurb says it’s about a cyborg warning a lassie about her past life. Cool.

Have a go at it and see what you think.

Lupita

Lupita is a short documentary profiling the work of indigenous rights activist and Acteal massacre survivor, Guadalupe Vazquez Luna, known as Lupita.

In 1997, just before Christmas, a community of peaceful, unarmed, indigenous activists in the village of Acteal, were at prayer in church, when government-supported right-wing paramilitary soldiers burst in and opened fire. 45 people were brutally massacred, including 3 pregnant women. Lupita, only a child at the time, saw her mother shot first, then was told to run by her father before he also died. She lost almost a dozen family members, including both her parents. Her life’s mission has been to get justice for the dead.

Lupita’s fearlessness is a thing to behold as she leads a protest march to a nearby military post. The official national military initially denied all involvement, despite the fact that they stayed in their outpost in the hills above the village and didn’t intervene to stop the massacre, which lasted hours, as the paramilitary soldiers in the church below dispatched wounded survivors, and stabbed the pregnant bellies of dying women. Lupita’s march comes right to the gates of the military post and demands that they take responsibility and admit their involvement. The soldiers’ response is pitiful, as they mumble that they personally weren’t there at the time, and it wasn’t them who pulled the trigger in the church that day. But Lupita drives at them – but you are camped on our land, as part of the same army there to enforce the power of the same people with the same interests. Where is your conscience? She tells them that if they continue to take the money and shrug, to remain blind to the bloody establishment they are a part of, they will continue to be slaves, and raise their children to be slaves. She says all this to them while they stand there with automatic rifles, and she stands there with nothing but braids and a shawl.

For decades the struggle continues, with Lupita having to balance her fight for justice with living her life, growing up, becoming a mother, and continuing her way of life in Acteal. She passes down to the next generation the values her parents taught her, the solidarity she shares in the legacy of the Zapatista movement, and the hunger for justice for their slain kin. All the while, this young woman in a tiny village tries to take down the former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, and numerous ex-government ministers.

Because of the efforts of Lupita and people like her, in 2020, 23 years after the massacre, the Mexican government admitted its involvement, and jailed over a dozen people for their crimes. The strength of this woman, to move such a mountain, to fight year after year for decades, is inspiring, and moving, and hopeful.

Time and the Seashell

Time and the Seashell is a short film in which an indigenous man meditates on time and the changes he has seen in his lifetime.

The film begins with a young boy picking up a seashell and listening to it to hear the sound of the ocean. As the young boy imagines his life to come, a man picks up and listens to the same seashell, remembering the boy he was. Time, and the patterns of life are eternal, yet we have such a brief and transient existence.

The man ruminates on the changes he has seen to the land, the ecological shifts as a result of climate change and exploitation. In places which were abundant and dense with life, there is now stone and dust. He asks, “How could the seas become mountains?”

In his childhood, he was taught how from just a seed grows corn, and from corn comes many seeds, and the plentiful, self-perpetuating cycle of life goes on as such, from seed to corn to seed to corn. As a man, he worries that as the land changes, and people change, the way of caring for the corn will be forgotten, and the ancient line of self-sustaining life will be broken.

An existential soliloquy.

Yollotl

This short film conveys a sense of Mayan life, through the stories of children, the bodies of trees, the canopy of the night sky. It tries to communicate a worldview in which all cosmology is connected, from the stars to the ceiba to the self.

The ceiba tree is at the centre of this film. Children play on it, lie on it, listen with their ears pressed to the bark. They say they can hear their ancestors through the tree. With roots that reach under the world and branches that stretch up to the heavens, the dead are connected to the living world and may still be heard through its skin.

In Mayan cosmology the ceiba is the central pillar holding up the sky, giving structure to creation. It is a world tree, growing through the plains of existence from the underworld, to living world, to the heavens. Yollotl means heart, and the ceiba is the heart of creation.

As the children play on the ceiba, they sing a traditional song, and the narrator tells a story of the love of the tule tree for the ceiba. The ceiba is also the heart of Mayan culture, sacred and beloved.

Through art, song, story and documentary, Yollotl tries to place us for a moment in a place of understanding, to see the Mayan world from the inside out, to understand its heart.

If you like this…

Arcangel

Went along to the CCA for a night of short films being put on by CinemaAttic, Map of Mexican Dreams. Absolutely stowed it was.

It kicked off with Arcangel. The title character is a man who travels to the city, carrying an old woman on his back, in an attempt to try to find a place where she will be taken care of, now that he is losing his sight. Amid the bustle and beeps of the strange and indifferent city, Arcangel wades through bureaucracy to try to get his charge Patro in a state-run old folk’s home.

Only elderly people with no family can be taken in by the state, and the tenderness with which Arcangel cares for Patro makes the administrators believe he is her son, which would give them grounds to dismiss their claim. Whether he is or not is kinda besides the point, the film shows a world where kindness and doing for others is not valued, even treated with suspicion, and pitiless and ruthless indifference to the suffering of others is the status quo of the state. Arcangel arrives in the city with the bonds of community literally tying Patro to him, yet as he becomes an anonymous indigent sleeping on the streets of the city, they seem like they will become hopelessly and inevitably undone.

Several times in the film we see the world through Arcangel’s eyes. His blurring eyesight settles on, then with effort brings into view, the sign on the building for the old folk’s home. His world is becoming full of shadows instead of people. His blindness is contrasted to the blindness of those in the city. Their blurred figures walk past him on the street, and they do not see him at all. The clerks at the old folk’s home accepts a fake ID paper, but refuses to accept the obvious need of an elderly and infirm woman. They have chosen to be blind to him, and yet, with his failing eyesight, Arcangel is the only one able to see Patro’s suffering.

Really good wee film.

If you like this…

2022 and GFF squeeing!

Welcome back after the New Year break! And we are hitting the ground rolling with the new reveals of what is up for grabs at this year’s GFF.

Today the FrightFest lineup was announced – see details here: https://cloutcom.co.uk/frightfest-glasgow-2022/

Excited for The Execution, based on the hunt for Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. 14-year-old me is bouncing in her seat to see living ghoul Chikatilo brought to big screen by the Russians themselves. Also eager to see childhood crush Christina Ricci as a single mum trying to keep her kid safe in a haunted house in Monstrous. Also the loveable Anthony Stewart Head pops up in Let The Wrong One In, a vampire comedy. Another horror comedy that looks a ton of fun is Some Like It Rare, about butchers frustrated by losing business due to vegans, who turn to hunting them for sport and cannibalistic profit. Might bring my sis to see that one, sitting in her anti-carnist tshirt. Wyrmwood: Apocalypse also promises to be a riot, zombies and exploding heads everywhere. Freaks Out is a tale of the magic of the circus, with extraordinary people who really have extraordinary powers, who face the end of their age of innocence as Nazism sweeps Europe. The fight-back by those who are different against the forces of homogeneity will prove bombastic. For tension, The Ledge proves a struggle for survival, as one woman fights to outrun the killers of her sister on a sheer mountain wall. For the creeps of folk horror, we have You Are Not My Mother, about a reverse changeling situation, where the daughter suspects the mother of being some Other in her likeness. For thrills and chills of a variety of kinds, we have The Cellar, Homebound, Mandrake and A Cloud So High. Looks like a great smorgasbord of horror, with something for every mood. Yeay!

GFF have also announced their retrospective series for this year, Winds of Change: Cinema in ’62. Classics abound, with To Kill A Mockingbird, with the legendary Brock Peters as the man falsely accused of rape across the colour line in the segregated South, and Gregory Peck as the man who defends him. Peck also stars in Cape Fear, as a lawyer whose family is targeted for revenge by a ruthless convict, played by Robert Mitchum. More giants of cinema appear in the timeless western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with eternal cowboy John Wayne opposite fastidious James Stewart and the gremlin-faced Lee Marvin. Another legend of cinema, Kirk Douglas, appears in Lonely are the Brave, a western set a century later, of the last true cowboy trying to live free in the modern era. Lawrence of Arabia provides a chance to see the sweeping sandy vistas and the award-winning performances of Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole. For those of you missing the late great Sean Connery, Dr No will bring him back to the silver screen as the iconic Bond, James Bond. Cold war era paranoia reaches its heights with Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate, and existential dread is omnipresent in real-time French classic Cleo, From 5 to 7. Jack Lemon stars in dark romance Days of Wine and Roses, about a couple whose shared alcoholism threatens to destroy them both, and Ann Bancroft stars in The Miracle Worker, as the woman trying to teach deaf-blind Helen Keller how to communicate with the world around her, and how to make the world believe she can be taught. For all the info see https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/winds-of-change-cinema-in-62

Another strand announced was a focus on the works of Edith Carlmar. The first female Norwegian film director, her debut feature is being shown, Death is a Caress, a noir complete with femme fatales and tempestuous love affairs. The Disappearance of a Young Wife follows the mystery of a young man who returns from a trip to find his wife missing, and The Wayward Girl is about first love between a teenage tearaway and her middle-class boyfriend, as they weather the overwhelming joy of discovering their feelings and the torturous fears of their first relationship. Fools in the Mountains shows Carlmar’s humour, with a romantic farce set in an alpine hotel, when two identical guests check in. For all the info see https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/edith-carlmar

More news to get excited about is the announcement of the African Stories strand, with a cracking line-up of new movies. There’s queer life in Kenya in I Am Samuel, which I can attest is great. Once Upon a Time in Uganda looks a blast, a documentary on the homegrown Ugandan action movies of Wakaliwood and the unforgettable characters who make them. Blind Ambition nearly has you greeting at the trailer, a documentary about a group of refugee Zimbabweans in South Africa who take part in an international wine tasting competition. Drama Casablanca Beats follows the ambitions of young Moroccans to tell their stories through hiphop, and the pushback when they try to show you can be a young, hijabi girl and a rapper. Documentary One Take Grace traces the life of Mothiba Grace Bapela, who throughout her career as a domestic worker has pursued her dream of acting. 70s classic Sambizanga dramatises the Angolan struggle for independence, and its cruel repression, with Domingos de Oliveira as the man whose resistance meets with violence at the hands of the police, and Elisa Andrade as his wife who must go from police station to police station to find out what has become of him. The violence of colonialism is the central theme in Heliopolis too, as the day the Second War World comes to an end turns from celebration to a massacre of unarmed independence demonstrators in French Algeria. The enduring effects of the repressive past become manifest in psychological horror, Good Madam, set in South Africa’s Cape Town, where a live-in carer and her daughter tend to a wealthy white woman whose eerie catatonia seems to fill the house with her silence. For all the info see https://glasgowfilm.org/shows/african-stories

Spoiled for choice! Cant wait, can’t wait, can’t wait!