And so it all begins again. We welcome you to the home of urban film coverage in the UK and another 12 months of insight from those in the know – telling it how it really is. So in time-honoured BUFF tradition, we introduce this month’s guest blogger and whilst he’s not yet a familiar face in the grand scheme of things, he will have been a familiar face to the 1400-odd people who came through the doors over the 4 festival days. Not many people can say that they attended every event and saw every film which was screened at this year’s British Urban Film Festival – but this man did (and why not?) So here to give his considered take on the festival that was #BUFF2013 is the writer and director of the award-winning boxumentary @BloodyLip and honorary member of the famed BUFF alumni, it’s Mr Adriel Leff…
I first met BUFF founder Emmanuel Anyiam-Osigwe in November of 2012 when he attended an industry screening of my debut film. I’m ashamed to admit that at that time I had precisely zero experience of attending (let alone participating in) film festivals – which sadly is the case with a large proportion of the British public.
To my delight, Emmanuel asked to include my film in the 2013 British Urban Film Festival. After talking at length with him I found the concept, and the man behind it, to be both fascinating and seemingly a perfect fit for my film, so naturally I enthusiastically agreed to be a part of the festival – and what a festival it turned out to be…
Before the film screenings began there was a day of free events at the Channel 4 building. This included well-received live readings of the winners of BUFF’s inaugural scriptwriting competition (of which I was fortunate enough to be on the judging panel), an informative discussion on film distribution in today’s ever-changing digital world, and most notably an extremely lively and relevant debate about the portrayal of the black community in film and television.
This was a topic that clearly the majority of those present cared very deeply about and the palpable energy in the room as the subject was explored in an open, eloquent and intelligent manner was testament to the fact that this was an extremely necessary and worthy debate and one that felt like it very much needed to happen. Needless to say I’m sure all the participants are very thankful to BUFF that it did, because I can’t think of another arena where such an event would have been possible. When time ran out and the debate came to an end there was an audible groan of disappointment from the attendees who I’m sure could have quite willingly carried on with the fascinating discussion all day.
The screenings themselves couldn’t have kicked off in better style than with “Calloused Hands”, which turned out to be my own personal favourite film of the festival. Screened in the plush surrounds of the Odeon Leicester Square, I found it to be the most enjoyable cinematic experience I can remember having in a long while. The film itself was funny, exciting, and moving – but most importantly the audience was clearly engaged and responsive.
Usually someone sitting in a neighbouring seat talking throughout a film is a real annoyance, but when it’s an audience member struggling not to vocalise their response to the emotional journey they’re being taken on it is hard not to view it as anything other than a compliment to the film and the environment in which it is being shown – and when you’re aware that your own work will soon be included in the very same festival this has to be taken as an extremely encouraging sign.
The Q&A session following “Calloused Hands” was equally entertaining, with the director and stars all proving very generous with their time and anecdotes, and an afterparty at a nearby club proved to be a fitting end to a very successful and promising opening night.
The highlight for me of the following day’s screenings was “Latvia”, a cautionary tale about the British criminal underworld – a theme that of course we’ve all seen time and again, but the wholly original twist here was that, instead of the usual high-octane, glamorising approach to the genre, the film highlighted the mundaneness and zero-purpose of living a life comprising of nothing more than ending other people’s existences while waiting for someone to end your own. I found it very refreshing to see the restrained performances and obvious moral standpoint that we are simply not used to witnessing in the majority of our homegrown films.
Next up was the shorts block. My expectations were high as I was fortunate enough to have had my film featured in festivals in New York and LA this year and I’d seen some very impressive short films at both, but one characteristic I couldn’t fail to notice at the American festivals was a lack of consistency – there was a feeling of “if you don’t like this short film don’t worry, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes”.
However I can honestly say that out of nearly a dozen shorts featured at BUFF, there wasn’t one that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, which I see as a huge endorsement of not only the talented filmmakers who submitted their outstanding entries but also of the board’s insightful judgement when it comes to film selection.
Of course I had my favourites, but it was the overall quality on show that really surprised and delighted me. It is also worth noting that, whereas the American shorts blocks had featured films from all over the world, each of the BUFF shorts was British-made – testament to the often maligned fact that we really do have a huge amount of domestic talent in our country that desperately needs to be nurtured.
Again, I have to mention the audience who were without doubt the best crowd I have ever seen at any cinematic event – laughing so loud at the comedic moments that at times I’m sure secondary jokes were missed, while maintaining an attentive silence when a dramatic piece required it, and of course freely showing their appreciation with generous applause after every gratifying short.
I could single out several shorts for special praise (as Emmanuel insisted I did on the night!) but to do so would be a disservice to each I neglected to mention, as I would recommend any and all of them to everyone. I understand that a small sample will be broadcast by Channel 4 at some point, but I sincerely hope that those not lucky enough to be selected will be available for public viewing in some other manner.
As Day Four of the festival arrived I had a bittersweet mix of excitement (as my film was due to close the festival) but also a touch of sadness that the event was coming to an end. It really had been a memorable and enjoyable experience and I had met so many lovely and interesting new people – both participants and attendees, within the industry and beyond.
The final day began with “The Fade”, an informative and fun documentary focusing on four hairdressers – from Britain, America, Ghana, and Jamaica. It was a simple concept executed perfectly, highlighting the differences and similarities of both the men’s work and their fascinating personal lives.
The Q&A with the film’s director and cinematographer that followed featured an unusually large amount of audience interaction, reflecting the degree to which that the film had both gripped and intrigued its viewers who clamoured to find out more about the subjects and their documenters.
The film also looked fantastic and, after the screening, I felt the need to ask the cinematographer a question myself – whether he had done much work in post-production to bring out the vivid colours, especially evident in the film’s African and Caribbean locations. In fact, he told me, if anything he’d had to tone the colours down, such was the natural vibrancy of the florid environment.
Following “The Fade” was “Traveller”, a world premiere featuring both David Essex and his son, drawing a very large audience comprised in the main of an unusual mix of Essex fans and members of the traveller community, with both disparate factions receiving the film very well.
Finally it was time for the UK premiere of my own film, “Bloody Lip”, a comedy mockumentary revolving around a struggling boxer in the build-up to the biggest fight of his life. It was a fantastic experience to see my work presented in such a professional and yet inclusive environment, with the relaxed audience being so receptive and responsive, laughing heartily throughout and reacting with genuine warmth to the film’s unexpectedly uplifting conclusion.
Ending the proceedings was a Q&A session with myself and some of the actors which proved to be a great opportunity to give a few insights into the production and creative process behind the film, as well as to hear feedback from the audience who were very quick to put forward their universally positive comments and insightful questions.
Such was the feeling of good humour and playfulness in the room that the Q&A even featured an impromptu boxing lesson from one of the stars of the film (a real-life boxing trainer), much to everyone’s enjoyment. Without wishing to sound like a gushing voiceover on a TV advert for Disneyland, it truly was a magical evening.
One serious point that I felt obliged to make during the Q&A was that without BUFF none of the audience would have been able to sit there and enjoy my film, just as I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of being able to show it in such fantastic surroundings. The festival is all about celebrating films and filmmakers and it is only natural for an audience to focus on what they are seeing on screen – but it is equally, if not more important to remember that none of us would be experiencing these wonderful films if it wasn’t for the festival and its generous organisers’ hard work behind the scenes.
To me, this is an equally poignant thought not only due to how much we owe to people such as Emmanuel and those behind BUFF for selflessly dedicating so much time and effort to such a worthy endeavour, but also because of the sad fact that if they didn’t do what they do, nobody else would. Outside of festivals like BUFF there simply isn’t a platform or arena supporting public screenings of the sort of films that really should be available to everyone but simply are not – and that’s a fairly sobering thought.
The latest Hollywood blockbuster plays in every cinema, on every internet streaming site, you can buy it at your supermarket and, soon enough, watch it on broadcast television. But most of the films that BUFF shows – well, miss them and you may never get another chance to catch them again. And if perhaps you are indeed lucky enough to, it certainly won’t be in as friendly and stimulating company, or such exceptional and historic circumstances; by definition, a premiere can of course only occur just one time.
I began this blog by saying that before I made a film myself I had no experience of film festivals. If I had only known what I was missing then I would’ve done something about that poor state of affairs – so I now feel that it is my duty to let other people know what they are missing, and I hope you will do the same.
A huge section of the public, and especially young people, who could be getting a great amount of enjoyment and inspiration from seeing these personal stories, these pieces of art, these exciting adventures, are not doing so, simply because they aren’t aware that film festivals exist, or have a sadly misconstrued opinion of what they involve. And no one is going to make an effort to inform them otherwise, besides film festival organisers and those, such as yourselves, who have already discovered this unfortunately often neglected world.
So if you attended BUFF this year then tell someone about it – not just on Facebook or Twitter, but face to face. Tell them how much you enjoyed it. Tell as many people as you can. And tell them they should come along themselves next year, because if they don’t they’ll be missing out on being included in something unique and momentous and very special. We, the audience, should be the ones promoting these festivals and their films – not the festival organisers or filmmakers.
And if you saw one film this year then next year go see two. Or three. Or do what I did and just watch them all – after all, you never know when you might have another opportunity to see them again in the future. Chances are, quite possibly never.
(c) Adriel Leff
Images courtesy of David Bevan Photography, Yvonne Philip (@Impact10TV), Way Out Films, BUFF Enterprises.
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