Books, Film & TV Thursday, February 16th Words by: Mark Bowen, pictures by: Borderlines Film Festival, via Flickr

An Oral History of Borderlines Film Festival

Books, Film & TV Thursday, February 16th

An Oral History of Borderlines Film Festival

As Borderlines Film Festival celebrates its 15th year, we sat down with the founders and main players to chart the history of a cross-country fest where good films come first.

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With enthusiasm for film on the wane in the mid-80s someone came up with the idea of shoving several screens under one roof and showing Hollywood movies not quite, but almost, by the dozen.

The arrival of the multiplex cinema was meant to give us more choice. They are the fast food option of the film industry, purportedly created to give the masses what they want. The masses in Herefordshire, however, do things differently.

The noticeable lack of big screen cinema in Herefordshire – that is, until the Odeon opened in Hereford in summer 2014 – allowed breathing space for another film offer, namely a festival with rurality, independence and the opposite of blockbusters at its core.

Borderlines Film Festival launched in 2002. Eschewing big hitters, it aimed not to dismiss mainstream movies but celebrate the obscure and introduce rural audiences to films they might otherwise never see.

Film was taken to tiny venues; village halls were turned into mini cinemas and even more unlikely venues, sometimes with four wheels, were deployed. While multiplex audiences were watching Spider Man and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the first ever Borderlines audience was watching the likes of Kandahar, an Iranian film set in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban.

Well and truly embraced by the community, Borderlines is now one of the best attended film festivals in the country. This year will feature 225 screenings, involve 300 volunteers and, joyfully, continue to innovate.

New for 2017 will be the introduction of the F-Rating, a growing recognition of the under-representation of women in film making and more previews (films screened before they go on general release) than ever before. 

With the 15th Borderlines starting on February 24, we sat down with Jane Jackson, chair of the Borderlines board; Naomi Vera-Sanso, festival director; and Jo Comino, head of marketing and press, to chart the festival’s changes from day one to 2017.

BFF2016 Courtyardfoyer PhotoChristopherPreece

The Courtyard, Hereford, during Borderlines Film Festival 2016.

The Start

Naomi Vera-Sanso, festival director: It was very much a rural film festival right from the very beginning. Part of its remit was to look at films made in rural areas or look at rurality so people would see films that would then speak back to them. It was that idea of a film festival on your doorstep, that you didn’t have to travel a long distance to see interesting and unusual films.

Jane Jackson, founder and director of the Borderlines board: There was an increasing number of media practitioners in Herefordshire and Shropshire at that time - people making films, freelancers working from that area. There was a heightened view at the time that the creative industries were on the up and that government should be doing more to support it to try and win the arguments for the creative industries. From the point of view of the Rural Media Company [where Jackson worked in 2002] they wanted to showcase somewhere where people would come once a year and watch good films from all over the place as well as good films made locally.

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The Films

Jane: For me one of the important things about the festival is we can open a door on other worlds, on all kinds of different cultures. It’s about opening people’s view of the world, about them seeing films they may not necessarily see on television. Television has become more restrictive in a way and more domestic, and cinema has opened up and been more far reaching. You see much more of a range of different cultures, different civilisations, and different ideas in the cinema nowadays than you do on television.

Naomi: What we specialise in is British independent film and world cinema.

Jo Comino (head of marketing and press): There are a lot people living in our areas that have had a much wider experience than just living in Herefordshire or wherever. There are certain areas of world cinema that people are incredibly drawn to. If we show any films that are from Nepal, the Himalayas, it will sell out. 'The Eagle Huntress' is absolutely the type of film that would do really well in our festival. People like to see completely different ways of living. They like to see traditional ways of living.

Jane: I think you would have to say that rural audiences are quite sophisticated. I’ve sat in village halls and watched artsy films. You can appeal to audiences across the board.

Naomi: 'Ten Canoes', a film made with Aboriginal actors, sold out throughout the village halls and that’s quite a few years ago. It’s sophistication and curiosity. What Borderlines brings and what everybody is aware of is we have really high attendances nationally. I think four or five years ago we were the fifth biggest film festival in England by attendance. That is because over the 15 years people know Borderlines is coming, they know we offer a certain range of films they won’t see for the rest of the year locally. They buy in, you get people who take off holidays so they can see a week of films. You have people who are buying £360 worth of tickets. People come up to us and say ‘I’m seeing 27 films’, ‘I’m seeing 34 films’. So we have a strong commitment from people who really treasure it. It really fills a cultural gap for them.

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From 2012: Former festival director David Gillam with Terry Jones.

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ICO programmer David Sin and head of marketing Jo Comino at the Courtyard 'ticket office'.

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Francine Stock and actor Toby Jones at a Borderlines screening at Booth's Bookshop Cinema, Hay-on-Wye, 2015.

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From 2015: David Thomas at the screening of Five Years in the Fifties at the Courtyard, Hereford.

BFF2016 HayMobileCinema PhotoChristopher Preece

The Hay Mobile Cinema at the The Festival of British Cinema at Hay-on-Wye, part of 2016's Borderlines Film Festival.

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Screenings at Shobdon Airfield in 2012 helped mark the festival's 10th anniversary.

The Venues

Jo: There are at least 50. Some remain the same year after year.

Naomi: We have done things like bring in the vintage movie bus which was commissioned by Tony Benn in the 1960s for the hot, new world of industry. There were projectors and screens in there and 22 people could sit down. 

JaneThe oddest venue? Shobden Airfield.

Naomi: Yes, in a World War Two air hanger. We had a weekend of films there. It was great. It was tied in with flights so people could go up at a cheaper rate in a plane and then come down and watch 'Casablanca' or 'A Bridge Too Far' or 'A Matter Of Life and Death'. They got into the spirit of it so much they made a bunker for us to sell the tickets from and they also found one of these air raid warning sirens and got the Cosford Museum to lend us costumes so all the staff on site were wearing RAF uniforms.

Memorable Moments

Naomi: We have sometimes taken risks on content. Sometimes we have put forward films and we thought ‘what sort of reaction is this going to get?’ It may be a little bit too out there. Sometimes you are looking at the sexual aspects of a film and you think this may be a little difficult for our audiences. We completely missed in one film [Post Tenebras Lux] that a dog was shot and that was why people were walking out. People walked out crying. I went up to them and said ‘what’s wrong?’ And they said ‘I didn’t realise they were going to shoot the dog.’ It never even occurred to me that that would be something that would upset people.

Jane: I don’t think we have regretted showing anything.

Naomi: But some people have a reaction.

Jo: Our audiences are very good in that way because quite often they will come up and say ‘I didn’t like that. I found it really difficult but thank you for the opportunity to see it’.

Naomi: Another was 'War Witch'. Three women walked out of that. It was difficult material about a child soldiers in East Africa but if they had stuck with the film a bit more they would have had a different impression of it. We don’t shy away from showing difficult material.

Jane: For me, it was the 10th anniversary that stood because that year, which was 2012, we had the extra festival in May and those very interesting venues like Shobdon and the movie bus. We had a tiny little caravan which was converted into a teeny cinema too.

Jo: We also had outdoor screenings at Berrington Hall that year.

Jane: The films [The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Artist] were shown on a huge blown-up screen. It was zero degrees and everyone came in their fur coats.

Jo: It was a beautiful evening - the stars came out.

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An open air screening at Berrington Hall, near Leominster, 2012. 

This Year’s Festival

Jo: For 2017 we have 28 previews [films screened before going on general release].

Jane: And that’s pretty amazing.

Jo: That’s a third of the programme so that’s a huge amount.

Naomi: We are challenging our audiences there. It’s an opportunity for them to see films way ahead of London audiences. We are also challenging them to trust us and see films that they may not have heard about.

Jo: We’re introducing the F-Rating too. It is an idea that originated with Bath Film Festival because they wanted to highlight films either directed or written by women or those featuring a prominent female character. The idea is to have a stamp, a bit like a Fair Trade stamp, to highlight work and make it more visible. A lot of festivals and venues have adopted this system. The idea is to make it universal.

Jane: I think [the lack of women directors] reflects the in-built sexism in society, the film industry is no different really. Often the people making the decisions about what films get funded are men and they are looking at stories that might appeal to them. They are not thinking that women might have a different point of view. So in a way it’s that women’s point of view is not there at the centre of power, or hasn’t been, so all the subject area, concerns and interests have come much more from men. The status quo keeps it the way it is.

Naomi: The number of screenings is now huge - it’s 225 this year. None of that would be possible in anyway whatsoever without support, not just of our venues but of all the people who volunteer for Borderlines, at a pinch I reckon it’s at least 300 volunteers. They are acting as promoters, they are selling the tickets, running the screenings, and if you go to The Courtyard they have got 100 stewards. If we are screening eight films a day, without the volunteers' input the festival would not exist. In terms of how Borderlines has gone on for 15 years, it is not just the programming and the ability to find funding, it’s the on-going commitment and enthusiasm of all these volunteers that can’t be missed.

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Borderlines Film Festival 2017 runs from February 24 to March 12 in venues across Herefordshire, Shropshire, The Marches and Malvern, Worcestershire.

borderlinesfilmfestival.co.uk / @borderlines / #borderlines2017

Herefordshire Live is a proud co-sponsor of the 2017 festival.

Full programme here.

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