British Cinema Enters the Roman Arena

Isabelle Cases has introduced us to an adventure she has been living for the last twenty years, the British Screen Festival. An event centered around screen productions from all over Great Britain. An introspection into the challenges of presenting a small British film festival in a small French city and how they can be overcome both by an acquired expertise in the film distribution business and a good management of human relations.

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Isabelle Cases and Richard Lester laughing about his works with the Beatles and the nonchalant acting skills of George Harrison

Introducing British Cinema to a French/Latin Audience

Back in 1997, Isabelle Cases and Francis Rousselet decided to start a festival called the British Screen Festival, or BSF, in Nîmes,  Where Francis would preside the festival and Isabelle would be the vice-president. The project was simple, a week-long festival each year, during which British films (with a shared thematic) would be shown with industry-guests presenting those movies to the Nîmois. But as simple as it seems, at first, the city’s cultural heritage worried some people. “Nîmes, being in the South of France, it is close to Latin cultures, both Italian and Spanish. There is a culture of bullfighting and Spanish traditions which are strong so a British film festival was at first slightly surprising. And many people even seemed to discover that there was any such thing as British cinema.

Turning the odds against themselves, Francis and Isabelle triumphed in transforming what was at first a cultural shock into an ever-expanding cultural experience. Thanks to the very professional and personal approach in the organization of the festival, many great actors and directors came to Nîmes to present their works and meet with the Nîmois. British director John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank) said about the festival: “What impressed me most is that the festival is both serious and thoroughly professional, yet it manages to wear those attributes so lightly and with such charm.” For it is not only the Roman architecture of Nîmes that helped create that charm but also the warm welcome of the locals.

Because the festival grew in size and influence we had to try and be as professional as possible.”

For the kind of endeavour a movie festival represents, professionalism is essential. Each member of the association spends a lot of time surrounded by experts, in order to improve their own knowledge of the film distribution business: “We are not film professionals but people like film historian Francis Rousselet, are very knowledgeable, and we’ve been working with film professionals at the Sémaphore (editor’s note: the art cinema of Nîmes where most movies of the festival are shown). These guys helped us being more aware of all the constraints of presenting films. We had our own professionals teaching us what is the nature of copies or what getting a copy means. They explained to us what distributors and producers are, their importance etc.[… ]Today I think what makes the festival nice to famous guests is that we truly value the copies’ quality…what is shown and how it is shown.”

Along with subsidies provided by institutions such as the city of Nîmes and the DRAC (Regional Managment of Cultural Affairs), the festival has been offered to screen the films in two municipal theaters (Le Sémaphore, the Médiathèque Carré d’Art). Technicians working at the said theaters are therefore free help to BSF.

At BSF, every member of the association contributes in defining themes for each edition. In terms of getting movies or soliciting specialists to introduce and comment the films, the association managed to contact institutes (the British Film Institute, the Irish Film Board), TV channels (Canal +, BBC, Arte), distributors (Doriane Film, Swank, Carlotta) or other festivals. All those partnerships help the festival with getting copies and broadcasting rights and also subtitles files. When it comes to getting in touch with specialists from the movie industry, most of it is handled with the agents. “Thanks to the internet it is quite easy to find the contact of agents. It is actually much easier to work with British agents than French agents,” Isabelle points.

The Perks of Being a Small Festival

Despite receiving subsidies from local institutions and a few private sponsors, BSF as to work with reduced financial resources. This urged the association to focus more on the human input during the festival.

As John Boorman pointed out, the British Screen Festival stages a fine intimate and charming atmosphere. Says Isabelle: “[Guests] are met and welcome in a very simple way. Some people always tell us that big festivals are well organized and very luxurious but actually lacking human contact. We do as much as we can with our little money. When Ken Loach came, we had very little money. He stayed at a very simple hotel. It’s more welcoming and nicer. We also have meals at our places. You would sometimes get famous filmmakers wanting to wash up for you. I remember Pete Postlethwaite, who’s the main actor in Brassed Off, playing football on the lawn with my son. Really nice memories for us, and for them as well.

Dozens of volunteers give a hand to the festival, which eventually helps the latter grow in size. A few years ago, people stepped forward and tried to expend the festival into the digital sphere, for free. Since then, it is possible to find BSF on several social media as well as information regarding previous and present productions. Today, to be present on the web is a fundamental concern for any cultural gathering. As Isabelle underlines: “Because [the festival] is a voluntary thing, it’s being managed by volunteers, and so the website’s evolution is taking some time. It’s not too bad now, but it’s hard work. For instance, if you want to have all the archives and all the updated information. […]

The British Screen Festival also tries to include the audience in the crew. Most of the festival’s volunteers being teachers and lecturers, students are often asked to play a part in the festival. “Whenever we would have young people coming they would help with translations, look after guests or help in the overall coordination. Sometimes they would even present films for the audience. There are plenty of things they can do.

Help is therefore found beyond filmgoers and reach people in various communities. Each year the festival sets up a contest among the city’s Art Schools asking students to design the poster for British Screen. 

The Festival’s Expansion in Time and Space 

 

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Peter Lord’s little Morph hanging out next to the Maison Carrée, an amazingly well preserved Roman temple.

 

Throughout the years the festival has grown into becoming an important element of the cultural arena in Nîmes. 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the festival and notorious figures such as Peter Lord (Shaun the Sheep or Wallace & Gromit) and Timothy Spall (Mr.Turner, the Harry Potter film series) came as guests of honour. As winter approaches, one looks forward to the next edition of the festival which usually takes place between February and March. Projects and ideas for the twenty-first edition have already begun to take form – “One of our big plans is to have Ken Loach back to show some of his TV films that were never shown in France. We’re also trying to establish a contact with Terry Gilliam [Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas].

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Timothy Spall arriving at the 20th edition of the BSF, in front of the notorious Arena of Nîmes.

 

Apart from the festival, Isabelle and members of the association plan other screenings and lectures on British cinema that takes place all year round and not only in Nîmes.

For example, in November, for the documentary month in Nîmes, we are going to have a screening with a filmmaker called Andrew Kötting. So yes, lots of projects !” One thus understands that it takes a full-time devotion to properly structure a film festival where nobody would have tried and without being a film professional.

Isabelle Cases, who once had no experience with festivals, has now been at the head of the BSF for twenty-one years. Relentless motivation and knowledge cultivated through years of impassioned interest in British films (what some might term aficion in Nîmes, which according to Hemingway’s Fiesta is much stronger than passion) are what leaves Cases’ unmistakable artistic touch at the British Screen Festival. Include an endearingly familial and close approach to the organisation of the festival, it attracts guests from abroad and seduces people at home.

The “little Rome”, as Cesar would call it, has today adopted British cinema and all its lovers.

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