Farewell to London Film Festival boss Sandra Hebron

Dave Calhoun celebrates the outgoing artistic director of the LFF

The London Film Festival came to a close last night, and if you glanced at Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have noticed a campaign from film fans to get the Twitter hashtag ‘#HebronRules’ trending.

The Hebron in question was Sandra Hebron, the Yorkshire-born curator who stepped down yesterday as artistic director of the LFF. In the nine years she ran the festival, Hebron transformed it from a vital survey of new cinema into an unmissable one that celebrated the true breadth of cinema, from mainstream animation to wild experimenta – all the while closing the gap between filmmakers and their audience. She also proved popular with audiences who enjoyed her heartfelt and smart introductions and reacted well to her lack of empty hyperbole, and willingness to let films and filmmakers take centre stage at her festival.

One of Hebron’s major initiatives was to move the LFF from November to October, placing the festival more squarely on the pre-awards season circuit so that the film world came to view London as an important stage in a film’s life after Cannes, Venice and Toronto. But anyone can invite big movies to a festival and give studios and distributors what they want to help market their films. Hebron’s trick was to combine this approach with impeccable curatorial taste.

Rarely did a film achieve a gala slot in Hebron’s festival without it being obvious why there was cultural value for audiences in its being there. If her choices proved controversial, she was willing to stand her ground and defend them. Her opening-night selections illustrated this well. Some may have dismissed Mike Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’ as too glum to kick off a night of partying in 2004, but Hebron gave Leigh top billing because she was convinced of the film’s quality and said so. Similarly, in 2003 she proudly gave Jane Campion opening honours for ‘In the Cut’, a film which divided opinion but which she still defends eight years later.

A scene from Jane Campion's 'In The Cut', a London Film Festival opening gala in 2003 A scene from Jane Campion's 'In The Cut', a London Film Festival opening gala in 2003

Other festivals (Edinburgh, we’re looking at you) have tried to remove the red carpet from their events in a po-faced attempt to focus on the art. What Hebron achieved at the LFF is more clever. She gave the red carpet over to films that wouldn’t normally grace it (this year, films such as ‘Once Upon A Time in Anatolia’), so dragging foreign and ‘difficult’ work out of the ghetto and presenting it in the same environment usually reserved for premieres of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’. Before her tenure, the festival was coy about giving major slots to foreign work. Hebron put these films in the spotlight, making room lower down the programme for more unheralded films. It was unsurprising that director Terence Davies spoke so warmly of her on the festival’s closing night last week: Hebron is well-liked by filmmakers, and as a diplomat for the festival she has shown grace, energy and tact.

Earlier this year Hebron took the decision to leave the LFF when she learned her job would no longer exist after a restructuring of the British Film Institute: responsibility for the LFF was to come under a new ‘head of exhibition’ role, which would also include running BFI Southbank. Hebron decided it was time to step up her training to be a psychotherapist.

Her replacement is Clare Stewart, an Australian who ran the Sydney Film Festival for five years until June, and is known for increasing that event’s profile while ditching sections dedicated to regions or genres. Instead she gave strands tags such as ‘Fire Me Up’ and ‘Make Me Laugh’. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Stewart at last week’s festival awards dinner and can report that she’s smart, fun, dynamic and dying to get stuck in. She’s going to change the LFF, and we look forward to seeing what she does. She inherits a festival in rude health and one that comes with a huge amount of goodwill attached from audiences and filmmakers. For that, Hebron deserves an enormous amount of respect and thanks.