As the 55th BFI London Film Festival comes to a close today, Artistic Director Sandra Hebron will witness her final day working within the fest. After fifteen years working within the BFI, Hebron is moving on. In the midst of her final edition at the helm, she sat down with indieWIRE to discuss why she decided to leave, what advice she’d give to her predecessor, as well as some thoughts on the particularly strong year UK cinema had at the festival.
So first off, the obvious: Why did you decide to leave?
When I came to the festival in 1997, I came here as festival programmer and I did honestly expect to stay for a couple of years. But then my job changed and the festival changed… I did a year as festival programmer and then I was the deputy director and then in 2003 I started the role I have now. I guess the fact that the festival was developing so much during that time there was always enough to keep me interested.
In 2009, we raised extra funding from the UK Film Council. I think originally I’d been concentrating on raising the money and then thought when the money was raised maybe I’d kind of hand the festival over. But then having secured the money, I decided I wanted to stay and work through the developments we’d planned for.
I think I’d always had in mind that I wouldn’t be the kind of festival director who’d stay here for life. Partly because I am a great believer in the idea of cultural renewal. Both for the festival and for myself. And I think one of the nice things about doing the job I do on this sort of festival is that you do have a degree of latitude in terms of how the festival is shaped and looks and feels. And I’ve been very happy whilst I’ve been here to make a version of the festival that is essentially a festival that I would like to come to.
But, you know, London is a big, important festival and I think it’s a moot point about whether one person should be shaping the festival for too long. I’m actually kind of excited to see what happens when someone else comes in. Because I do feel like I’ve had energy for – and ideas about – the festival but I think once you’ve been here for 15 years there’s a limit as to how much longer you can keep on.
So the decision to leave is essentially a very personal one. Though it’s also true that there’s been a structural change at the BFI. My job as artistic director of the festival and a second job which is head of BFI Southbank have been combined into one role that oversees all the exhibition activities at the BFI. Which I think is a fantastic job but it’s a fantastic job for someone is coming in lots of energy and new ideas and things to prove. And I guess I feel I’ve been through that phase already, and now I wanted to work in a different way. As much as I love the festival, I just think it’s good for me and the festival.
What will you miss the most about the job?
First of all, I’ll miss the fantastic group of people I work with. Many of whom I’ve recruited and brought into the festival and some of whom I’ve been working with for a really long time.
I’ll certainly miss – during the festival – that kind of amazing buzz that you get from being part of it. And also the opportunity to spend time with people who are truly creative and here to present their word. Again, that’s very energizing. But in a way these are not going to be things that stop completely. I’ll just be experiencing them in a different way. I won’t be doing it from the position of being responsible for the festival. But I’m excited to come to the festival and be part of it in a different way. When I think about the festival and what I’ll miss, there isn’t really anything that will stop completely. Apart from the obvious things like negotiating the program. So maybe I’m just in denial but it doesn’t so much feel like leaving as it does that I’ll now have a different relationship with the festival. I can’t imagine not wanting to be at the festival.
What advice would you give your predecessor in terms of what you’ve learned over the past 15 years?
Hindsight is a fantastic thing, isn’t it? It’s not really a piece of advice, really, it’s just about keeping things in perspective.
There are two crucial elements of that. The first one is that if you want to occupy the sort of role that I do, you’re essentially a curator. That’s an important job, but the curator is never as important as the filmmakers or the work that we’re trying to present. I think the people who are the best festival directors are the ones that recognize that and who don’t occasionally lapse into thinking they are bigger than the work they are showing.
But I think the really important thing about perspective that I’ve always found really helpful is to just think, you know, ‘what’s the worst that can happen.’ Because festivals that are well planned are not normally beset by massive problems. But you know, everyday on any festival there are small things that come up. I think when you’re in that very intense period of being in the midst of a festival and everybody is stretched and tired, small things can loom very large. I have gone home on many evenings anguished about something that has gone wrong over the course of that day… Only to realize the next day that it was not a matter of life and death. So I guess what I’m saying in a very rambling way is that it’s a question of balance. It’s that sense of knowing what we do is important. Every festival wants to be as well run and as well programmed and as enjoyable as possible. And yet, it’s not a matter of life and death. If things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world.
And it must nice for considering it’s your last festival to witness such an incredible year in UK cinema. The films from Britain here are collectively quite astounding. Especially considering the doom and gloom some were predicting based on economics.
I think it is an incredibly strong year, and that’s really gratifying. But what’s even more gratifying is that it’s the second consecutive year that we’ve been able to say that. That’s what’s unusual. I think every now and again there have been years that have thrown out really fine selection of British work. We don’t often get that two years in a row. That’s what’s really pleasing about this year.
Again, I think what’s significant is not just the quality of the work but the breadth of the work. So obviously there are people like Michael Winterbottom and Andrea Arnold and Ralph Fiennes making really intriguing adaptations of classic literary tales. At the same time as lots of really interesting filmmakers whether they are working in fiction or documentary and in some cases across the two forms. If you think of films like Carol Morley’s “Dreams of a Life” or “Shock Head Soul” or “The Somnambulists.” These are films where the boundaries between fact and fiction are really being blurred and merged. So I find that very heartening as well. We’ve got filmmakers who are imaginative but working more or less in straightforward narrative terms. But then we’ve also got filmmakers doing very different kinds of work.
I also found it quite interesting how two British films in your program – “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “Shame” – are actually two of the most insightful depictions of American contemporary issues that we’ve seen all year.
You’re right. It’s interesting that you just asked me the question of British cinema and those are two of my favorite films in the festival. I think they’re outstanding. But I haven’t even talked about them as British cinema because they do seem to somehow transcend that. They are really significant pieces of work that stand up there with any kind of international cinema. And yet there clearly is a kind of British sensibility going into them.
Where do you feel British cinema is going in the coming years?
I’m always very hesitant to answer that question. Not least because I think some of the films I’ve seen this year have been really surprising. In terms of what they’re dealing with. You know, I hope that for the moment we have a fairly robust infrastructure in terms of films being made. I certainly feel optimistic. But history tells us that in relation to British cinema, optimism has to be cautious. And of course, we are sitting in the midst of a huge economic recession. So the fact that we might not have seen massive effects in terms of film production yet… Doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods. Two great years in a row is fantastic. But next year and the year after still remain to be seen.