The phone rings off and on again. Outside Clare Stewart’s office, the BFI Southbank is thrumming with activity. With the London Film Festival and its 230 films steadily approaching, the commotion is understandable. As the festival’s director, Clare spends much of the autumn as the city’s busiest person; her life, she explains, is currently broken up into fifteen-minute intervals. Technically, the two she spends with me are her lunch break, but an ill-attended soup is the only real evidence of the fact.
Clare speaks with an intensity that’s almost overpowering, but one gets the impression that her keenness doesn’t spring from impatience or from the perpetually ringing telephone. Coiled and fervent on the sofa, she brims with manifest eagerness to talk about her ardor for film programming, soup be damned.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Negotiating 230 films into the festival is a huge undertaking, but I love it. The exchange that goes on between the sales agents, the distributors, the filmmakers themselves. There are all sorts of considerations: will the film come into the festival, what position will we give it, where will it screen? There’s a great deal of responsibility but it’s also an exhilarating moment when you realise you’re introducing that film to a UK audience for the first time. The lights go down and you can feel this palpable sense of excitement, because the audience are seeing this film for the first time. I always get such a sense of professional satisfaction in that moment because of how much effort has gone into getting that work on that screen, but it all appears easy and effortless.
How were you first drawn to film programming?
I studied both production and film theory, and I couldn’t reconcile the two. I decided that I needed to see more films so I started volunteering for my local cinémathèque. I discovered that what I loved was connecting films with audiences. It reconciles the two because you’re thinking about the film critically in the way you might if you were working in an academic context, but you’re also thinking about what’s gone into the production and how you bring those two things together to engage an audience. It started as a bit of a compromise, but I stumbled into what I feel I have a real skill for.
You used to be the director of the Sydney Film Festival. I wonder how much your choices relate to the city itself. What challenges are specific to London?
London has a long heritage of film culture being really loved and protected and admired and looked after. We have a very loyal audience base, but that also meant that we have to think about, well, how do you expand the festival? How do you open it up for new audiences and make it feel accessible for someone who may find 230 films a daunting proposition if they’ve never been to a film festival before? London has many cultural hubs, not just one. While its moviegoing heartland is in Leicester Square and at the BFI, we understood the value in expanding out to venues in other boroughs.
How do you balance commercial instincts against the impulse to show more challenging works?
The whole process of programming is about the mix. You’re looking at it from all sorts of angles: some films have great integrity as works of cinema, some are popular and open the festival up to a wider audience, some are very hardcore experimental works, and there’s also everything on the scale in between. You look at that full spectrum to try and create a perfect mix on just about every matrix that you can, so there’s everything from very low budget independent works with great vision through to something that’s technically immaculate and intensive and grand scale.
Do you like going to other film festivals, or does it always feel like you’re at work?
I love the differences between festivals. For people who don’t travel to different festivals around the world, there’s a sense they’re all the same, but each one has a unique way of doing things and engaging their audience and the industry. Of course, when you’re seeing your first film at eight in the morning and then four or five more, meeting with sales agents in between, then you’re off to the reception circuit in the evening and crawling to bed past midnight and getting up and doing it all again, that can certainly feel like work. But I love the atmosphere of a film festival. I thrive on it.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Eighteen. Photograph by Mathieu Ravier.