INTERVIEW: Mark Cousins

While Sundance in Utah, US and Rotterdam Film Festival in the Netherlands herald the film festival season in January 2014, Glasgow prepares for a busy time itself. In February the Glasgow Film Theatre will host the Youth Film Festival (Feb 2-12), the Short Film Festival (Feb 13-16) and finally the main Film Festival (Feb 20 – Mar 2). But this year’s season goes on and extends for Moving Glasgow, the city’s first ever mobile phone film festival, taking place on March 20. It is part of a wave of new specialized film festivals flourishing worldwide – LGBT, human rights, indigenous film; you name it. Together with former Edinburgh Film Festival director Mark Cousins we took a closer look at this new direction of festival making.

Over the past decade mobile phone film has become a new player in the festival circuit. Not only major film festivals, like Rotterdam (screening Cyrus Frisch’ Why didn’t Anyone tell me it would be this bad in Afghanistan in 2007) or Berlinale (screening Park Chan-wook’s Paranmanjang in 2011), boarded the bandwagon, also specialised festivals, like the Mobil Film Festival in San Diego (since 2010) have been launched. Cousins points out that “festivals constantly need new ideas. And often new ideas come from young people.” Mobile phones are the communication tool of especially the young generation and if you add one plus one, it seems only natural that Glasgow’s first mobile phone film festival is founded by students of the University of Glasgow. Moving Glasgow calls for short films involving life in the city of Glasgow, anything from fiction over documentary to experimental is welcome. The aim is to provide a new perspective on the former industrial stronghold of Scotland and eternal antagonist of medieval Edinburgh, and to celebrate the city in an artistic way. The project is funded by the university’s Creative Practice Fund.

Cousins is by no means a dark horse to independent festival making. In 2008 he organised the imaginative Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, taking place over 8 1/2 days in the North East of Scotland, together with Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton. One year later they came back to pull a truck, a cinema on wheels, across the country and screen some of their favourite films in Scottish villages. With no budget, but plenty of ideas they attracted the attention of the world press – “because nobody had quite done that before.” Cousins votes for a revolutionary attitude towards festival making: “It is about planting a thought bomb, trying to explode the more conventional ideas and say to people – Go for it!” Of course, he points out, there are good aspects to the mainstream festival industry, like education, training and marketing; but festival directors have to balance the industry’s interests and their own intention to tell stories via programming and organising. “They must insist on their editorial freedom in order to celebrate, but also to criticise.” Re-organising typical festival structures, like Cousins did at Edinburgh Film Festival in 1996, does not rule out economic success.

The usage of mobile phone cameras presents a democratised way of filmmaking. Everybody can now be part of what Cousins calls the “former citadel of film”. However, with everyone involved it gets even harder for a single film to stand out. The fact remains that it’s the idea which will attract attention, and the same counts for film festivals. The rising number of festivals and the cutback of financial support forces festival directors to be more creative: “Film festivals are not business-led, they’re not retail-led, they’re not industry-led, a film festival is ideas-led. So the question is, how to make your film festival distinctive from the others.” Again, unexpected directions and surprises will not only attract curious audiences, but also allure possible sponsors, looking to construct their image by supporting something unique.

Cousins is excited about the new festival movement and about Moving Glasgow bringing mobile phone film to Glasgow. He says “the future of film festivals is guided by people, like you and me.” Film festivals might seem to be about red carpets and world premieres, but their innermost core is the celebration of art and humanity, whether they are in their 60th season or appear for the first time. Moving Glasgow’s open call for submission closes on January 25.

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