Last year, the Foyle Film Festival opened with ‘The Artist’. The black and white silent movie went on to become a box office hit and cleaned up at the Oscars earlier this year. But Bernie McLaughlin didn’t know any of that when she put it on the big screen in Derry. She took a risk.
With the screening, the festival was challenging its audience. That, says Bernie, is one of the things it continues to do best.
“It was the best response to an opening night that we’ve ever had,” she says.
“We want our audiences to go and see films they wouldn’t normally go and see. We’ve always tried to push the boundaries, otherwise, what’s the point.”
Alongside promoting independent cinema, the Nerve Centre-born festival manages to produce an impressive education programme, a competition which has awarded film makers who’ve gone on to achieve massive critical acclaim and of course an enviable programme of movies which, year in, year out, pulls in impressive audiences.
“This year is the usual Foyle menu,” says Bernie, who took a break from a hectic schedule for a chat in the Nerve Centre’s Cafe Nervosa on Tuesday.
Bernie took over the role of festival director in 2007, having worked behind the scenes for 15 years. Despite its continued success, she’s not one for resting on laurels.
“Literally, as soon as one festival ends, you start preparing for the next one,” she says.
“Every year you start from scratch and putting the festival out there doesn’t get any easier. Last year was brilliant but for us it’s about consistency, you have to be as good as the year before. It’s about keeping those standards. We never want to lose that quality.”
This year, the festival celebrates its 25th birthday and publicity around that fact is loud. The festival will be opened on Wednesday coming by none other than actor Ray Winstone, who will premiere his film ‘Ashes’ at Brunswick Cinebowl. He’ll be joined by Jim Sturgess and director Mat Whitecross. All three will take part in a discussion about the film after the screening.
Other highlights include the screening of ‘Good Vibrations’, charting the story of Terri Hooley, the DJ and record store owner responsible for bringing the punk movement to Belfast and signing acts like Derry’s Undertones. Derry’s favourite punk band will perform a live set in Derry’s Nerve Centre after the screening. Also on the must see list is the Irish premiere of Great Expectations, starring Ralph Fiennes.
While it continues to attract the attention of big names, with Brendan Gleeson having opened last year’s festival, the Foyle Film Festival has never solely focused on the red carpet. And therein lies its strength, according to the woman at the helm.
“We have three distinct parts,” says Bernie. “We have the education programme, the festival programme of screenings and the competition element.
“Without any one of those strands, the festival wouldn’t be what it is today. We’re on the ground working with schools, we’re putting out a programme which keeps the movie buffs happy, and our awards continue to recognise the talent of independent film makers. Our ‘Light in Motion’ awards give those who receive them the confidence to go on and put their work out there. Year on year we’re attracting more film-makers from all over the world. A number of people who’ve won our LIM awards have gone on to do great things and had their work recognised internationally. For each person who goes away with an award, that’s another person talking about the festival. We’ve had award winners who’ve said their recognition at the festival has reaffirmed their talent.”
Word of mouth has certainly put the festival on the map since its humble beginnings 25 years ago. The fact that the festival survived some of Derry’s darkest days is a testimony to a mountain of effort from its loyal supporters, says Bernie.
“I think it’s great to be able to say we have a festival that’s 25 years old. At the beginning, we had film makers coming here who didn’t know what to expect from Derry. That was before the peace process. But the festival continued throughout all that and I think over the years it has made a positive impact and a lasting contribution to the city.”
For Bernie and her colleagues, at its very heart, the festival hopes to let the magic of cinema “wash over the audience”.
The dedicated team, all of whom, with the exception of Bernie, work part-time, have enjoyed continued support over the years which, Bernie says, has made their entire success possible.
“Northern Ireland Screen are our main funders, alongside Derry City Council,” says Bernie.
“This year, for the first time, we’ve partnered with Brunswick Cinebowl, who have an absolutely amazing space which really brings the cinema to life. We’ve also got Da Vinci’s Hotel and the Tower Hotel on board. As well as that we have the unwavering support of Michael Bond at City of Derry Crystal, who designs our student awards and our Light in Motion Awards,
“No one would argue that it isn’t tough to run a festival in this economic climate but with those kind of partnerships we’re able to continue to do what we do.”
For more information on this year’s programme visit www.foylefilmfestival.org