A LONG-standing supporter of the Belfast Film Festival (BFF), film-maker Mark Cousins has now further reinforced his endorsement of the city’s annual celebration of cinema by becoming its chairman.
Having already been involved behind the scenes as a BFF board member, now the Coventry-born, Co Antrim-raised director, producer and critic/presenter will be at the forefront of promoting the festival’s 18th year of screenings and film-related events.
As a former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival who regularly shows his own work at film events around the world – 2015’s I Am Belfast premiered at BFF while his most recent movie, Stockholm My Love, premiered at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival – Cousins (52) knows ‘the circuit’ inside and out.
Thus, he is ideally positioned to fulfil an ambassadorial role for the BFF, programmed by Stephen Hackett under director Michelle Devlin.
“[The job is] to support Stephen and Michelle and to try and be an advocate out in the world,” Cousins explains. “Belfast Film Festival is really great and has a good impact on this city, but outside, in Los Angeles and Paris etc, it’s not talked about very much. So that’s my job: to get out in the world, use my contacts and try to create a kind of buzz or excitement about the festival.”
As mentioned, Cousins is a film-maker who knows the film festival world all too well. He’s keen to emphasise how the BFF is vastly superior to some of the more corporate-minded events he has encountered.
“One of the things that attracted me to Belfast Film Festival under Michelle’s tutelage is that sense of it having values,” Cousins enthuses. “It has real content. Lots of film festivals feel like retail outlets for the film industry. They’re simply there to fill hotel rooms and promote the film industry, but this festival is about feminism, social justice, LGBTQ issues – and that’s what’s attractive about it. It has meaning and a heart.”
Indeed, the 2018 programme – launched today – presents a series of films marking the 50th anniversary and legacy of 1968’s epochal socio-political upheavals, including the documentary 1968: The Day The Troubles Began which focuses on the infamous Derry civil rights march which ended in police-on-demonstrators violence on October 5 1968.
Cousins firmly believes that the BFF can use Belfast’s history and post-Troubles reputation as an evolving city to the festival’s advantage when it comes to attracting prospective films and international guests.
“There are so many film festivals now competing for the same films and guests,” he tells me. “That’s where the spirit and energy of a film festival is crucial – you need incisive thinking, distinctive programming and fun, engaging encounters. We have the spirit here.
“Belfast is a fascinating city, it’s a transitioning city – a ‘trans’ city I might say, to use modern parlance – and that’s what we can say to people.
“Of course, there are still social fights to be had here about equality in various areas, and that’s another reason for doing a socially aware festival. We haven’t won all those battles, but we’re getting there – and film festivals play a role.”
He adds: “I went to a huge film festival in Poland which is going through a very right wing political movement: the opening film? A big, f***-off gay movie. The closing film? A big, f***-off gay movie. And they were packed – this was an act of protest and a celebration of difference.”
Ironically, one thing the 2018 event doesn’t include is a Mark Cousins-directed movie. But while the Edinburgh-based man admits that he feels “it would maybe be a bit weird” to have a film in this year’s programme given his new role at the festival, he’s not ruling himself out of contention for the future.
“I’m currently working on a film about Orson Welles,” Cousins tells me of his on-going projects which might yet make their way to a future BFF. “It’s almost finished, but not ready for the Belfast Film Festival just yet. I’m also doing a big film about women directors in film history.”
It’s a timely project, given that the #TimesUp movement is currently enjoying such a high profile in Hollywood and beyond, and Cousins is also keen to emphasise the crucial supporting role that events such as the BFF can play in fostering new film-making talent, female and otherwise.
“One of the things that a film festival does for a community, a city or a country is to give film-makers confidence, to be able to see their own work up on screen,” he enthuses.
“Y’know, it’s that big thing when you first see ‘someone like you’ up on the big screen. It’s remarkable, because it used to be for Northern Ireland that it felt like cinema was something that was ‘done’ to us by Hollywood.
“But we’ve changed now – we’ve got production now, film education is going really well and that is why the film festival leg of the ‘stool’ is so important: we need to see film-makers from here on that big entrancing screen.
“It really does a lot for your confidence, particularly when we talk about the fact that women have been forced out of the film industry substantially. That will make a difference.”
He adds: “For example, there’s a young woman from Derry, Myrid [Carten], who’s just gone from making a two-minute film to making a 10 minute film.”
BFF director Michelle Devlin agrees, highlighting the catalytic role of the festival’s regular short film competition in fostering new female talent:
“We have 33 shorts that are local drama shorts,” she tells me of the 2018 event. “This year, a third of those are [by] female directors. And that’s increased year on year – you can track it through that programme. There have been a lot more women directors featured at the festival over the past couple of years.
“There’s also a young woman with her first feature in this year’s programme [Aoife McCardle’s Kissing Candice] which is kind of new – because usually it’s fellas.”
Of course, in terms of getting people to come out and actually watch these films, events like the BFF face an ever increasing struggle against broadband-enabled home viewing where thousands of movies are now only just an internet search away.
“When I was growing up, it was hard to see stuff: it took me 10 years between hearing about Citizen Kane and seeing Citizen Kane,” recalls Cousins, who played a key role in the cinematic education of an entire generation during his stint on the BBC’s cult film strand Moviedrome from 1997 to 2000.
“We were hungry for cinema. Now, that the table is overflowing with ‘food’, the new role of the film festival is to suggest ‘try this’: we are taste-makers, we are curators, we are saying ‘yes, we know the choices are overwhelming, but try this – we like it’.
“We are quality control and we are pointing at great cinema. I think that makes film festivals more necessary and more valuable than ever before.”
The Belfast Film Festival runs from April 12 to 21. See Belfastfilmfestival.org for programme and tickets.
WHAT’S NEW AT BFF 2018
:: Documentary Panorama
Michelle Devlin: “This year we have a new documentary section. We kept finding that we were getting short docs [submitted] that weren’t quite sitting in the short film competition, so last year we extracted them and put them into their own section sponsored by Doubleband. Last year we had about six, this year there’s 20 – so it’s really interesting the kind of upstep and interest in that area in just 12 months.”
Mark Cousins: “We are living in a golden age of documentary, partly because cameras can now get closer to what’s happening, but also because reality has got so weird – post 9/11, it’s become stranger than fiction.”
:: Belfast Film Festival Virtual Reality Studio – The Barracks, 8-12 Exchange Place, Belfast, BT1 2NA
Michelle Devlin: “We have a new VR Lab with a selection of VR films which people can book in to try out. There’s a lot more films being made in VR – and it’s fantastic. I was a bit of a cynic because I like to watch films in a room with a big group of people, and I’m a wee bit claustrophobic too. Then I put these things on and I was won over.”
Mark Cousins: “It’s a revelation. People think VR is different to cinema but it’s actually what cinema has always been trying to do – to transport you to an elsewhere. It’s a highly creative medium. For me, VR is as much of a revelation as when widescreen or sound came along.”
THREE TO SEE
:: Tigers Are Not Afraid – QFT, Thursday April 19, 9pm
“Director Issa López’s new film Tigers Are Not Afraid is a raw, socially realistic and current story but with fantastic and terrifying twists that call to mind the cinema of Guillermo del Toro. Issa Lopez is travelling from Mexico to the Belfast Film Festival to talk about her film after the screening.” Mark Cousins
:: The Dig – Saturday April 21, Moviehouse, Dublin Road, 7pm
“The Dig is a first feature from the Tohill brothers (Ryan and Andrew) who come from the short film stable. It’s a very good, interesting film featuring an incredible performance from Moe Dunford [Patrick’s Day, Vikings]. Brian Falconer produced it, who also produced Boogaloo and Graham which won the Bafta for Best Short Film.” Michelle Devlin
:: Arsenal – The MAC, Thursday April 19, 8pm
“Bronnt Industries Kapital perform a live score to accompany a new print of the 1929 silent film Arsenal by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, one of most innovative and moving silent films.” Mark Cousins