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The BFI London Film Festival (LFF) is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Held annually in October, it showcases the best in new British and international cinema to audiences in London. On the first day of there 2023 edition, Ikon London Magazine spoke with Rowan Woods, a programmer for the festival, about what goes into curating the lineup each year and what attendees can look forward to.

London Film Festival themes

People often talk about films reflecting current concerns, acting as a barometer of what particular social concerns there are, but even in the best case scenario, it can take two years to take a film from development to production to post-production and into the festivals

Rowan Woods

According to Rowan, there is never a set theme imposed on the festival ahead of time. While there is a basic structure with designated sections like the main competition, gala premieres, first features, documentaries, etc., the actual programming comes organically from the films submitted. “Once we start watching the work, every year, new different themes emerge,” she explained. “For example, this year we noticed a lot of comedic work, while other years had more political films or work exploring women’s experiences in a post-#MeToo world. The programme tells us what it is,” Woods said.

Of course, considering it takes years to make a film, the films at a festival often reflect the Zeitgeist from a few years prior. “People often talk about films reflecting current concerns, acting as a barometer of what particular social concerns there are, but even in the best case scenario, it can take two years to take a film from development to production to post-production and into the festivals,” acknowledged Rowan. The films may depict issues that were most pressing a couple years ago, but they can still resonate if they capture universal human experiences. She cited this year’s in-competition film Shoshana, which took 15 years to make but still feels relevant in its exploration of the 1938’s British Palestine.

Filmmakers in focus

When asked if there are any tricks for getting your film noticed and selected for LFF, Rowan emphasized there is no real “hack” or special access through connections. “We are really actively tracking British filmmakers from a really early stage,” she said. “Many selections have directors whose shorts or early projects have previously screened at LFF or been supported by BFI funding or other public finders. However, they also take a lot of films from open submissions, including work from directors they aren’t already familiar with or that haven’t received the support from public founders”.

For aspiring filmmakers attending the festival, Rowan recommends seeing as many films as possible. “It will be inspirational to you as a filmmaker honing your craft and knowing what kind of filmmaker you would want to be.” She also advised paying attention to what kinds of films are resonating on the market. To make the festival accessible, LFF offers discounted Discovery passes to see lesser-known gems, special £10 tickets for all screenings, and reduced rates for under-25s. A highlight will be the onstage conversation with Martin Scorsese—an invaluable learning opportunity, as Rowan put it, to simply “be in a room with such an icon for an hour and hear him talk about his work.”

Audience is at the heart of LFF

Rowan stressed that serving the audience is central to everything LFF does. “As London is a diverse, multicultural city, we aim to program films that speak to its various communities. There are also free talks, panels, and screenings as part of the “LFF for Free” initiative to provide other ways to engage with the festival besides just seeing films.” In their programming, diversity is a priority across many axes, including storytelling voices, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability.

“Diversity is at the core of our programming. We really look to pursue diversity in almost every possible form. We think about the diversity of the London audience. We appreciate that we have different audiences with different interests. We also look at the overall tone and texture of the voices we platform as well as ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability – we track all of those markers.”

Rowan emphasized that in selecting the films and programming voices showcased, the festival aims to represent the full diversity of London’s multicultural population. This means serving different communities and interests across the city’s diverse makeup. A key goal is ensuring the festival platforms a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds when it comes to factors like ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and more. By spotlighting underrepresented stories both onscreen and among featured speakers, diversity and inclusion are central parts of LFF’s mission.

What sets LFF apart

What makes LFF stand out, according to Rowan, is its public audience focus and timing in festival calendar. “We can cherry-pick titles that debuted earlier at other festivals, while also giving UK premieres to upcoming awards contenders, which is valuable for distributors.” There is also a strong showing of British cinema, while the international lineup gives global exposure to some of the year’s best work.

Looking ahead, with BFI nearing the end of its current 5-year strategy, Rowan said to expect an increased emphasis on the industry side of the festival under new director Kristy Matheson. “We have really strong line up of talks and panels every year as well as works in progress showcase which showcases new work to international industry audience,” she noted. “That’s really important part of what we do and we will only be going from strength to strength in the next five years I’m sure.”

The US strikes

Speaking of the US strikes that seem to affect every corner of the business at the moment, Rowan noted, “We were already a long way down the road with putting the programme together before the strikes kicked in, so we had to just hold our nerve and keep moving without worrying too much about things that were out of our control. With the SAG-AFTRA strikes still in effect our carpets may look a bit different this year, but a significant proportion of our guests each year come from outside the US, so we will still have a rich array of visitors in town to support their films.”

The 2023 BFI London Film Festival runs October 3-10. Check the website for the latest program and ticket information.

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Editor in Chief of Ikon London Magazine, journalist, film producer and founder of The DAFTA Film Awards (The DAFTAs).