Chichester International Film Festival reaches its quarter century this summer – a remarkable achievement for a festival which continues to impress.
Artistic director Roger Gibson recalls he was met with the response “Oh yes, tell me another” when he first mooted the idea of a festival; now it is a firm fixture on the arts calendar for many thousands.
And every year, it still manages to break new ground. Among the innovations for its 25th outing will be the festival’s first-ever drive-in movie, Casablanca in the Festival Theatre car park. The festival, based at the Chichester Cinema at New Park, will run from August 11-28.
Roger is happy to confess to an element of pride when he looks back on the great names who have visited the festival down the decades: Alec Guinness, Kathleen Turner, Greta Scacchi, John Madden, Michael Winner, Simon Callow, David Warner, Ronald Harwood, Derek Jacobi, Ken Russell and Ralph Fiennes, to name just a few.
As Roger recalls, the whole thing grew out of Chichester College where he taught film studies and art: “The cinema had closed in Chichester, and we started a traditional film society. It was run by the adult education department, and we used to have a register for up to 200 people.
“But we fairly soon outgrew that, and so we moved over to New Park. I had already moved over there to do a Saturday morning kids’ programme, and we established ourselves pretty quickly at New Park.
“It was a continuation really of what we had been doing at the college. We managed to stretch it to two or three days a week at New Park, and then slowly we tried to grab as much as we could until we managed to go the full seven days. I think it took three or four years.
“We did have a committee, and we felt that we needed to move away from the elite idea of there being a club element, a film society element, so we were stressing to people that it was a cinema, that we really were open to anybody, and of course, at that time, it really was the only full-time cinema in Chichester. And it was a really good location, very central and near a lot of resources.”
It then started to seem a natural progression to add a film festival to the repertoire, another way to raise the cinema’s profile: “For our first year, we were part of the old Chichester Festivities. But it was clear that it was rather overwhelmed by all the other things going on, and so we moved out of the Festivities into August which was a good month for us. August gave us much greater freedom and we had the place to ourselves.”
In that first year, the festival probably had about 30 films: now it has grown to around 120 films, a figure it has stayed at for the past few years – a figure Roger believes to be about right.
“People say that 18 days is quite long for a festival, but it was working with only one screen. A lot of festivals have several screens, but we didn’t. We started using the studio a few years later, and we have now also got the Picture Palace gypsy caravan, and we have also used St John’s. We have also used Chichester Cathedral several times, and we have started to do open-air screenings as well.
“Whether we get a second screen, I don’t know whether it will happen in my lifetime. But I do think it will happen eventually.”
As for content, Roger offers a roughly half-and-half split between new films (premieres and previews) and themed screenings, perhaps retrospectives on particular actors or writers or programmes to mark centenaries or other landmarks.
“For the past few years, we have had distributors asking if we could show their films. But really the big problem for us is that the London Film Festival in October still gets the cream.
“We have a window from August to October – and we have the possibility of trying to get the films that are coming out then.”
The result is invariably a festival which impresses: “I think one of the reasons we have been successful is that when I am looking at films, I am trying to choose films for the audiences and not for the critic. I am hoping the audiences will discover and enjoy new things, but I do think it is about thinking about the audience and knowing the audience.”
It all adds up to a festival which has comfortably found its format: “It if works, you don’t mess around! But obviously certain things always come up that you want to include, and you follow them up. I am always open to various possibilities and doing things perhaps in different ways, but I do think generally we have got it right.”
And the good news is that Roger is keen to shepherd the festival into its second quarter century.
“I can’t see myself retiring!”
Among the features at this year’s festival are:
Two open-air shows in Priory Park including a Calamity Jane sing-along.
Drive-in movie in the Festival Theatre car park – Casablanca.
Celebrating Silent Cinema with live accompaniment, featuring Carl Davis on Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd; and Buster Plays Buster –Sherlock JR with jazz quartet.
Murnau’s Faust with organ accompaniment (Ben Hall) at St John’s Chapel.
Focus on Iranian and Chinese cinema (with related talks).
Tarkovsky Retro (with talk by Ian Christie)
Tributes: Alan Rickman (with related talk).
Partnership with Institut Francais, four new French films.
Previews, premieres, new releases of UK, USA, European and world cinema.
Premieres of low-budget independent world cinema including Elaine Page introducing the film Speed Date.
Focus on the Documentary, including Killing$ Of Tony Blair, introduced by George Galloway)
Focus on Refugees
Treasures of the Archives
Murder in the Cathedral in Chichester Cathedral
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