Clare Stewart interview

The director of the London Film Festival talks about this year's event

Clare Stewart is boss of the London Film Festival (October 10-21) and the BFI Southbank cinema in Waterloo. An Australian, Stewart arrived here last autumn to take up the job and has given the LFF an overhaul, ditching regional programming strands in favour of sections dedicated to emotions such as ‘Love’, ‘Laugh’ and ‘Thrill’. Dave Calhoun spoke to her about this year’s festival

You’ve shaken up the London Film Festival. What changes are you most proud of?

‘I’m proud of them all! I’m very proud of taking the festival out more widely – out beyond the West End and BFI Southbank to cinemas like the Ritzy in Brixton, the Screen on the Green in Islington and the Hackney Picturehouse.’

Festivals are seen as exclusive. Are you trying to counter snobbery?

‘Well, for me the whole idea of film festivals is that they’re about moviegoing. And how people choose what they see is informed by what experience they want to get from a film. So the way we’ve geared the programme is to appeal in that way. But I rush to add that there’s still a lot of great intellectual integrity to it.’

What would you say to those reading this who can’t get hold of tickets to the big, sold-out films?

‘I’d say join the BFI and you’ll get the priority booking period next year! Also, there are still tickets available for most films. On top of that, we release tickets right up to the film time. We encourage people to come down because last-minute tickets do become available.’

Is there one new filmmaker – one discovery in this year’s festival – you’d like to shout about?

‘One film generating a lot of buzz is “Wadjda”, the first feature film made by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, in Saudi Arabia, where cinemagoing has been banned for 30 years. This is not only a terrific film, it feels miraculous that it even exists. I’d also isolate three British films in our First Feature Competition: “Shell”, “Comedian” and “My Brother the Devil”.’

Who are you looking forward to introducing on stage?

‘So many people! Of course I’m delighted that we’re accidentally framing the festival with one of London’s great love affairs, with Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter both coming to the festival with new films. I’m also vaguely terrified about what a girl should wear when she’s on stage introducing the Rolling Stones, who will be coming with the documentary “Crossfire Hurricane”.’

You moved to London from Sydney to do this job. What do you love and hate about the city?

‘It would be highly risky to say what I hate! But what I have loved is the incredible energy around the Olympics. The thing I don’t like as an Aussie – I won’t say the weather, that’s too predictable – is the light. I struggle with it during the winter. It’s so disorientating to me how late it stays dark and how early it gets dark.’

Away from the festival, is there one director whose work you’re always first in line for?

‘That’s a good question… Oh God, that’s difficult! I have to say Michael Haneke – and that’s not just playing to the fact that his new film “Amour” is the Time Out gala at the festival. I don’t always respond to a Haneke film in the same way, but one of the things I love is how surprising he is. I’m always champing at the bit to see what both Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold do next too.’

Festivals concentrate on more serious, director-led cinema. But are you a fan of the populist stuff?

‘Absolutely, and I think you can see that in this year’s festival – there’s populism in its broadest sense. There are films like “Hyde Park on Hudson” and “Argo”, which have very broad appeal. I’m also championing Bollywood: we’ve two great Bollywood premieres in the line-up. So it’s about recognising that popular cinema is not only American popular cinema.’

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