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