Back to IndieWire

Sheila Whitaker Dies

Sheila Whitaker Dies

Sheila Whitaker was one of the first people I met on the international film circuit in the days in the 80s and 90s when the London Film Festival meant much more in the world of festivals than it does today.  

The obituary below direct from Variety  and is written by Pat Saperstein, another woman I have always seen covering film affairs, and I have so often read her articles in Variety without ever noticing the byline. Not only is she an editor at Variety but also for  I think she deserves more tribute than this, but for now, I want to quote her on Sheila and thank her for letting me know that Sheila, one of my early role models, has passed on.   I will be aware for a long time that she is no longer at the places that matter so much in our world, starting with this upcoming Toronto Film Festival where I always would know I could find her at the Dubai and Doha receptions. I know Dubai will miss her greatly as will so many of us. 

Sheila Whitaker, who served as director of international programs for the Dubai International Film Festival, died Monday in London.

She was previously director of the London Film Festival from 1987 to 1996, and head of programming at the National Film Theater in London from 1984 to 1990.

Whitaker had been working with the Dubai festival since the fest’s beginning in 2004.

“She dedicated her life to understanding the emerging cinema…From the Arab world, Iran, and Latin America. She engaged with the people of those regions, with their culture and true nature,” wrote the artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali on the Dubai fest’s website.

A lifetime lover of film, she headed the British National Film Archive collection of stills and posters and co-edited “Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema” and “An Argentine Passion: The Films of Maria Luisa Bemberg.” She served on festival juries from Venice to Syria and was also founding editor of “Writing Women,” a journal of women’s writing. In addition, she wrote obituaries of entertainment figures for the Guardian newspaper.

She was awarded a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Newcastle and an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the University of Warwick.

Instead of flowers, Sheila requested that donations should be made to Palfest at


This Article is related to: News and tagged


Sydney Levine

1936 – 2013
By Simon Field
For nine energetic years, Sheila Whitaker was one of the people at the heart of the Dubai International Film Festival. From its very beginnings and founding in 2004 as the first international film festival in the UAE, Sheila brought her extensive international, festival and programming experience to its development. She played a crucial role in helping it to be built on solid foundations and become internationally recognised as one of the important new festivals in the world, particularly for its celebration of Arab cinema. Over those nine years of her involvement and in her final role as Director of International Programming, she helped to bring some of the best – and often off-beat – films from around the world to Dubai. From Hollywood too. Her selections often echoed her particular interest in cinema from Latin America, films about music or ones reflecting social and political issues.
The Artistic Director of DIFF, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, who worked closely with her, has spoken movingly of her importance to the festival and to him:

“I knew Sheila to be meticulous, clear, understanding, opinionated, professional, and passionate…. She dedicated her life to understanding the emerging cinema…the Arab cinema, and Iran, and Latin America. She engaged with the people of those regions, with their culture and true nature. She knew them well and she formed so many friendships.”

Dubai marked the culmination of a remarkable career in the cinema. A keen cinemagoer and member of the then National Film Theatre in London, she was appointed in 1968 to be Head of the National Film Archive Collection of stills, posters and original designs. Only in 1975, as a mature student, did she enter further education to study comparative European Literature at the University of Warwick. One of the most important UK film journals of the period – it was a period of polemical film journals – devoted to independent cinema around the world, Framework, was initially based at Warwick and she was a co-editor from 1976-78. In 1979, she was appointed director of the Tyneside Cinema, one of the most lively and committed of regional film theatres which also had its own Tyneside Festival of Independent Cinema, which she also directed. Her success and that of the cinema was reflected in her receipt of the Variety Club of Great Britain Northern Personality of the Year in 1983 !

The experience in Newcastle-upon-Tyne set her in good stead to move to London to become Head of Programming at the BFI’s National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank). In 1987 she combined this post with being Director of the London Film Festival and did both jobs until 1990 after which she dedicated herself solely to the burgeoning film festival until 1996. She oversaw a significant growth in the size and international impact of the festival, which until this point had only had screenings at the NFT. One of the achievements of which she was most proud was extending the reach of the festival and its location out into the cinemas of London’s West End to access a broader audience.

A regular visitor to the Farj Film Festival in Iran during the years when the festival played an important role in discovering the new directors, she co-edited Life and Art; the New Iranian Cinema in 1999 to accompany an NFT season. In 2000 she edited a book devoted to the Argentinian screen writer and director Maria Luise Bemberg. Throughout her career she wrote articles that were widely published, including obituaries for The Guardian, and edited books that reflected her passionate, radical and humanitarian perspective, her feminism, her commitment to certain cinemas and to the work of women directors in particular. But she was also a lover of classical Hollywood, in particular westerns. And one of her first publications was an NFT monograph on Martin Ritt.

Her interests and commitments went far beyond the cinema into the other arts. She was the founding editor of Writing Women, a journal devoted to women’s prose and poetry between 1982 and 1984. Her passionate interest in the events and the culture of the Middle East were reflected in her activity as a board member and one of the founders (in 2008) of the Palestine Literature Festival (Palfest) designed to support Palestinian cultural life and to bring together Palestinian and international writers.

Sheila was a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (France) and received honorary degrees from both the University of Newcastle and the University of Warwick.

Earlier this year, soon after the last Dubai International Film Festival, Sheila who was 77, was diagnosed as having the first indications of motor neuron disease. She faced the increasingly debilitating consequences of the disease with fortitude, grace and humour, watching films and listening to music to the end. She died peacefully at home in London on 29th July.

There will be a private cremation for close friends and family with a memorial to be held in October.

She is survived by her brother.

Sydney Levine

From Clyde Jeavons at The Guardian
Friday 2 August 2013 12.23 BST

Sheila Whitaker expanded the London film festival into the West End.

Sheila Whitaker, who has died aged 77 after suffering from motor neurone disease, was an influential film scholar and festival programmer whose eclecticism and political awareness earned her respect and admiration at an international level. Sheila's 45-year career in cinema culture took her from London and Tyneside to the Middle East, where, in 2004, she helped found the Dubai international film festival, becoming its director of international programming.

As well as celebrating Arab film-making, Sheila endeavoured to bring the best of world cinema to Dubai, imprinting on the festival her particular interest in Hollywood and Latin American films. The artistic director of the festival, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, described her as "meticulous, clear, opinionated, professional and passionate … She dedicated her life to understanding the emerging cinema." She also had unyielding feminist convictions, championed female film-makers, and actively supported the Palestinian cause.

Sheila was born in Thornton Heath, south London, and grew up in north London. During the second world war, her parents, Hilda and Charles, decided against evacuation, and, as Sheila liked to put it, she slept through the blitz. After the war, the family lived in Manchester, Cardiff (where she was a pupil at Cathays high school) and Birmingham (where she attended Kings Norton girls school). Sheila declined a scholarship to study history at Birmingham University and trained as a shorthand typist. It was her experiences as a secretary in engineering factories that helped to politicise her.

Sheila was appointed, in 1968, to oversee the stills, posters and designs collection at the British Film Institute's National Film Archive, where we became colleagues and close friends. In 1979, after co-editing the cinema journal Framework and gaining a degree in Comparative European literature at the University of Warwick, she was made director of Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema. There she established the Tyneside festival of independent cinema and began a lifelong friendship with one of her award jurors, Julie Christie. She was also founding editor of Writing Women, a journal dedicated to women's prose and fiction.

In 1984, Sheila became head of programming at the BFI's National Film Theatre (now called BFI Southbank, eventually adopting full-time the role of head of the London film festival (1987-96). As well as her adventurous and groundbreaking programming of world cinema, she was proud of expanding the LFF beyond the exclusive NFT membership ghetto and on to West End screens, crucially extending its public profile. She also showed, for the first time in a mainstream international film festival, new restorations of classic and rediscovered films preserved in archives.

After a period as a consultant, festival juror and arts charity administrator, during which time she edited two books, Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema (1999) and An Argentine Passion: María Luisa Bemberg and Her Films (2000), Sheila was invited to help establish the Dubai international film festival. It was there that she developed her interest in the culture of the Middle East, reflected in her role as a founder of the Palestine festival of literature.

With her signature mop of curly hair, ready smile, penchant for good food and wine, and delight in all kinds of film – she loved westerns and screwball comedies as much as the emergent cinema of Iran and Palestine – Sheila lit up the festivals she hosted and attended. She was a long-term contributor of film obituaries to the Guardian and was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Newcastle and Warwick. In France, she was appointed a chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Typically, she was just as pleased with her receipt of the Variety Club of Great Britain's northern personality of the year award for 1983.

Sheila is survived by her older brother, Geoffrey.

• Sheila Hazel Whitaker, film scholar and festival programmer, born 1 April 1936; died 29 July 2013

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *