by James Yabut, Community Reporter
The Portobello Film Festival is back next month (4 – 20 September) celebrating its 20th anniversary and once again showing the work of new and ambitious film-makers from all over the world. It is, in the words of its coordinator Lee Flude, “the punk festival of film.”
And it is easy to see her point. The UK’s biggest independent film festival cheerfully welcomes anyone and everyone: unlike other festivals it costs nothing to submit a film, and attendance is completely free. “People can’t believe it’s free! It’s unique,” says technician Greg Edwards.
This broadminded approach is key to the festival’s success, and Lee is adamant that she and the others remain as objective as possible and continue to do their bit for up-and-coming talent.
“There’s nowhere else in the UK supporting independent film-makers and giving them a leg-up into the industry. The festival allows you to have publicity no matter who you are.”
The four-strong team have watched all 600-odd submissions received this year – there was roughly an even split between UK and international entrants – and picked around 200 to feature on the two big screens: one at the pop-up cinema that will sit beneath the Westway, the other at The Muse Gallery which will also be putting on a street art exhibition for the duration of the festival. The remaining films go to a video cafe where they will be shown on request.
Entries come in from independent film-makers, production companies and film students. The shortest one this year lasts a mere 20 seconds, while the longest clocks up two and a half hours. Each evening will be devoted to a particular theme such as sci-fi and fantasy or documentary and drama, and there will be something for younger film-fans too: Paddington, Spongebob, and Shaun the Sheep will all feature on screen on each Saturday of the festival.
The enduring appeal of the PFF can, perhaps, be put down to its lack of pretension and willingness to give new filmmaking talent a fair shot. This is, after all, an industry that is famously hard for newcomers to crack. The all-inclusive nature of the event extends to the judging process too: after each screening staff and volunteers will mingle with the audience in the bar area to collect opinions. The organisers will confer, and the winners will be picked.
Directors Nick Nevern and Greg Hall are both previous PFF winners – Guy Ritchie was shortlisted for a Golden Boot at the inaugural festival but came away with nothing. This year the best films will be awarded a golden Trellick Tower sewn by artist Lucy Sparrow, while the best London film will also collect £1,000.
The festival has proven to be a gateway not just for film-makers, but for volunteers too, some of whom have gone on to find work within the industry. This year’s opening night will feature a film from Saloum N’Jie, who worked on the very first festival in 1996 and has since carved out a career within TV and film.
Lee reckons there is something about Portobello Road and its surroundings that lends itself to the festival.
“It’s a really great area with a great cultural mix, a really great vibe and a lot of creativity. Portobello Road has this unique history of film and music – Ken Russell used to live around here.”
The Devils, Russell’s hugely controversial film which threw censors everywhere into a tizz on its release in 1971, will be shown on the first night after an introduction by Russell’s daughter Vicki. Such is the film’s reputation that even at this late stage it is unclear whether the director’s cut can be shown.
That sticking point seems to be the only bugbear. During my visit, a couple of weeks before the festival’s opening, the mood in the office is one of calm. But the pair’s enthusiasm is evident. “This year we have an amazing selection of London films,” Lee says. Greg agrees and adds, ”the good thing about the London films is that they are by young film-makers.” His theory is that smartphones have had a big role to play: films might not necessarily be shot on phones, but the new technology has encouraged people to experiment.
So whether or not you are a committed cinephile, this year’s Portobello Film Festival has to be worth a visit. As Lee puts it: “If you’re interested in independent film or want to have some fun, come along – it’s all free. Except for the beer!”