London’s Film Festival

On the 15th October this year the brash, populist, deliciously unwieldy London Film Festival will roll into town, trumpeting its wares like a mountebank trying to peddle Agent Orange in the guise of Dr. Humpington’s Miracle Cure Spectacular. For make no mistake, London is the Danny Dyer of film festivals -all sound and fury, but signifying very little.

It doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Cannes, the intellectual suffocation of Berlin or the zeitgeist-surfing nostalgia of Sundance. Though it was never meant to – from its genesis in 1956 the London Film Festival was designed to give public fora to a variety of hoity-toity Euro-smut that wouldn’t traditionally find a home in the fleapit cinematic basements of a derelict city that preferred whelks to Wilder and cockles to Cocteau.

But London long ago emerged spitting and kicking out of those dark ages – the Curzon chain, including the excellent Renoir, brings an outstanding variety of foreign films to Central London, while even monolithic chains like Odeon and Vue have their outlets for movies that sit just outside the mainstream. The Film Festival has, admittedly upped its game accordingly, with an extraordinary breadth of themes and events available to Joe Public during the two weeks of autumnal madness in 2007, from the tender bestiality documentary “Zoo” to Werner Herzog’s frankly baffling dip into flag-waving Americana, “Rescue Dawn”.

And it is pleasing that the Mayor is up to his neck in all this filmic tomfoolery. Ken Livingstone, god rest his soul, pumped £100k from the London Development Agency into ensuring that the Film Festival has the facilities befitting such a famous fandango, and also towards making it possible for cinemas outside of the traditional ground double zero of Leicester Square and the South Bank to show LFF films. The Mayor of London’s annual gala at the Festival is one of the few glimmers of glamour in an otherwise rather downbeat coupe of weeks, although exactly why it involved a screening of the resolutely non-London based “Lust, Caution” in 2007 is anyone’s guess.

But despite its purportedly accessible credentials, the London Film Festival still smacks of exclusivity to the vast masses who still balk at the idea of paying £12.50 to see a film and who can’t really afford to take the time off work to see the half-price matinee of “Bee Movie”, no matter how tempting Jerry Seinfeld’s animated shtick.

And here lies Boris Johnson’s big opportunity. London has demonstrated that is has myriad open spaces suitable for showing films to the masses. My first Saturday upon moving to London was spent in gleeful harmony with enough communists to fill a long march watching “Battleship Potemkin” in Trafalgar Square, accompanied by some truly painful drivel by the Pet Shop Boys. Somerset House hosts the Summer Screen season in its romantic grounds, and our multitude of parks offer endless possibilities for a tent, a screen and maybe a bottle of 2005 Clos De Papes to keep the gloaming chills at bay.

The idea of offering free screenings of unusual filmic fayre may well be anathema to distributors and to the culturally disinterested, but to the thousands of film fans who embrace the idea of communal cinema this would be a wonderful way of opening up the Festival and returning it to the roots envisioned by James Quinn and his cabal of film critics in the post-war London gloom.

The London Film Festival should be the talk of the town and spread the excitement across the capital. Community groups should be encouraged to enhance screenings of foreign films with talks, exhibitions and stalls. The London boroughs should be identifying areas in their locality where communal cinema can be established and helping to provide the facilities and the advice that will be necessary to take this project forward. The Mayor should be taking the lead in demonstrating that he is a champion of British film, but also of bringing international cinema to one of the most diverse and welcoming cities in the world.

2008 will be the London Film Festival’s 52nd year. While the organisers will undoubtedly do a laudable job of concocting an eclectic, joyous celebration of world cinema, it is time to simultaneously blaze the trail and go back to the very heart of what the London Film Festival is all about – bringing the magic of cinema to the people of London. All of London.