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03 October 2016

In the Spotlight… BFI Head of Exhibition Clare Stewart

Clare Stewart joined the BFI in the newly created role of Head of Exhibition in 2011, since when the BFI London Film Festival has achieved record attendances.
In 2015 Clare championed women at the LFF, dubbing it “the year of the strong woman”, teaming up with WFTV to stage The Geena Davis Global Symposium on Gender in Media. This year, she has focused her attention on black talent, tying in with the BFI’s Black Star season; for the first time, the festival’s Opening Night Gala is a film directed by a black woman, 2015 WFTV Award-winner Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.
She tells WFTV about the importance of the LFF leading by example, finding her voice on stage in Sydney and how she copes with the rigours of the festival fortnight.
2016 marks the LFF’s 60th anniversary. What are you most excited about in this year’s programme?
One thing we wanted to be very clear on was the heritage of the festival, so we ran a pre-awareness social-media campaign, #LFFMemory, where we highlighted a lot of really interesting gems from previous LFFs. There have been a lot of fantastic women, in terms of leadership, who are featured in the history of the festival, including of course my immediate predecessor, Sandra Hebron. In the context of a 60th anniversary you’re also thinking about how you look towards the future, and our LFF Connects programme – which we piloted last year – is returning with a really extraordinary line-up of guests. That’s where we’re really looking at the collaboration between filmmakers and creative leaders working in film, television, music, art, games and creative technologies. That’s all part of celebrating London’s position as a leading creative capital.
Because the BFI was already undertaking a significant celebratory season around Black Star, which happens immediately after the festival, we were very keen to be able to shine a light on both the ambitions of that project but also some of the underlying considerations. Our Black Star Symposium will look at representation and diversity, who’s making the decisions, and are we seeing enough diverse projects coming through in the British industry in particular.
Also, this for me feels like a great year for women directors. We have three very significant films in our headline galas: A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe [directed by Mira Nair], and Their Finest [by Lone Scherfig]. All of those are, unto themselves, very different kinds of filmmaking, very different kinds of approaches to their subject matters, wonderful performances in each, and I think really signify the strength of women filmmakers.
You have a new-build, temporary venue this year, the Embankment Garden Cinema. What kind of experience can audiences look forward to having there?
We wanted to be able to deliver a technically superb and comfortable cinema experience for our filmmakers and audiences. We did a big search, looking at more than 25 sites in London. Victoria Embankment Gardens became a really perfect choice for us because not only was it situated so beautifully between Leicester Square (where a number of our venues are located) and BFI Southbank, it also had a real location which chimed with the heritage of London and gave a real sense of place. There will be a permanent red carpet and people will have the option to come and enjoy it, as well as see some really terrific films in our Strand Galas and Official Competition sections. And I should pay full credit to a very impressive woman, Festivals Producer Emilie Arnold, who is leading the charge on this. It’s a huge undertaking in terms of the actual production of it.

The interior and exterior of the Embankment Garden Cinema.
This year’s NET.WORK@LFF programme is specifically supporting new and emerging BAME writing and directing talent. Why was this important to you?
Part of what we want to achieve here is not only creating a great platform for debate and discussion, which is what the symposium will do, it’s also very important for us to lead by example and demonstrate that there are tactics that you can take with your own programme to enable change to take place. So it was very important to Lizzie Francke [BFI Film Fund Senior Production & Development Executive], Tricia Tuttle [BFI Deputy Head of Festivals] and myself that we take the opportunity of the focus on Black Star to also focus our ongoing NET.WORK project on BAME talent.
The programme brings five producers, five writers, and five directors together who all either have a very low-budget first feature under their belt, or are right on the brink of being ready to make their first feature. It gives them a chance to meet and connect with some of the great international talent that we have coming in for the festival. And it’s not only people with great experience that they’re hearing from, it’s also people whose first and second films are in the festival, so they’re also hearing about that experience from people who are just going through it themselves.
How can industry delegates make the most of the opportunities that LFF has to offer, even if they don’t have a film showing?
We have press and industry screenings of most of the films in the festival at Picturehouse Central during the first week, so that’s a fantastic site for just throwing yourself into seeing a lot of films but also being in an environment where you will see a lot of colleagues in the spaces in between. We’re also running formal networking there every night. And then there’s a whole range of industry events and panels on a variety of pertinent and relevant topics throughout the festival. So this year, for example, there will be a panel around the UK film industry in the post-referendum environment, and the Meet the Greenlighters series where we ask commissioning executives to choose a film in the festival and host a conversation with the director so that we can get a sense of what it is commissioners are really looking for.
Gold and Silver delegates [please note accredition is now closed for applications] have access to the Black Star Symposium, and Gold delegates also have access to our Screen Talks, which this year vary from directors such as Paul Verhoeven and Ben Wheatley through to Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel.

Opening Night Gala film A United Kingdom (dir. Amma Asante)
As someone who has worked in festivals around the world for over 20 years, what still excites you most about the work you do?
There are a number of things that excite me. One is very much how we continue to elevate the festival and build on its international positioning, as well as engaging with local audiences. The other, which I think will always remain the great thrill of programming work, is the great pleasure of discovery, the excitement of watching a first feature film where you potentially have very little awareness about the filmmaker. You know, you go into those screenings with no particular expectations and then you walk out with that complete thrill of feeling like a new talent has just burst into flames in front of you… [Laughs] That’s a bad metaphor, but you know what I mean!
Your role involves a lot of public speaking in front of big audiences, such as introducing gala screenings. Have you always been confident with that part of the job?
I had the great benefit of sort of trying everything in my early 20s. As well as volunteering for the Australian Film Institute and the Melbourne Cinémathèque, I was also initially volunteering and then presenting a film radio show on Triple R. I think that first set of experiences – in terms of actually being in a broadcast environment and having to think fast on your feet with filmmakers you’re interviewing – set me up brilliantly for what has become an increasingly public-oriented career. So a great deal of comfort and confidence has built over time with that. I also remember very vividly my second Sydney Film Festival [where Clare was Festival Director from 2006-11] where, on-stage, I suddenly heard my own voice as being my own voice, rather than being the voice I thought I had to be, and it was a real breakthrough moment. The really important element of the front-facing and on-stage elements of what I do is that I am there as a facilitator.
Your workload in the run-up to and during the festival must be intense, to say the least. What are your top techniques for maintaining stamina over the duration of the festival?
I’m very committed to yoga, and even when I find it too hard – like at the moment – to keep up with more physically challenging yoga I’ll still do restorative practice. During the festival itself I treat myself to massages every second day, just to kind of take the tension out, otherwise I start to actually hear the tension in my voice!
Finally, which director – living or dead – would you most want to direct the biopic of your life, and why?
There’s a part of me that wants to say Douglas Sirk, just because I’m such a huge fan of his kind of lurid Technicolor melodramas. So he would be my dead director. My living director, in the context of this year’s festival as well, would definitely be Lone Scherfig, whose ability to get under the skin of British sensibilities really interests me. As an Australian, I would be very interested to see what she would do with my story…
The 60th BFI London Film Festival runs from 5-16 October at venues across London. Click here to find out more and book tickets.