26th Cambridge Film Festival 2006Tideland - Closing night film of the Cambridge Film Festival 2006

Cambridge Film Festival 2006 Review

Unlikely as it must seem, a Golden Retriever called True was the star of the 26th Cambridge Film Festival. A Labrador who resides in Long Island, True was the lead in one of the festival’s retrospective features from the film work of photographer Bruce Weber.

Weber shares a place in everybody’s hearts for his iconic adverts, notably for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Anybody who watched television in the late 1980s/early 1990s is bound to recognise them, with their potent mix of nostalgia and gorgeous black and white imagery. Weber is probably best known for his photography but he has also been making films for years, notably garnering prizes for his 1989 homage to jazz great Chet Baker in Let’s Get Lost. Weber’s latest A Letter to True, shown along with many others, was a light hearted discourse about the second Gulf War told in the form of a letter to his pet dog True. Anybody unmoved by this display of frolicking canines in the summery Long Island surf was clearly a staunch cat lover.

After a week of watching Weber’s films the sight of True lounging in his owner’s lap during a live video link-up was such a delight, that waves of daft joy broke out around the auditorium. Each surrounded by their respective entourages (canine and human), the stars submitted themselves to a question and answer session. Yet as sublime as Weber’s films are, watching the man himself ensconced on a couch, wearing shorts with a dog draped over him made for a surreal end to the retrospective. Weber barely able to comprehend that a cinema audience all the way away in Cambridge were conversing with him confessed that he was bemused in the extreme. As True swished his tail indolently the encounter achieved a deliriously off-kilter feel with the slight time lag and informality of the setting (Weber’s home) marking the session as a festival highlight.

Although little seen by audiences in comparison to sell-outs also being shown at the festival including Volver, It’s Nice Up North or The Notorious Bettie Page, the other illuminating programme strand in addition to Weber was the Projecting Britain section of documentaries. Both the Weber retrospective and this strand took something that everybody might have known something about and then took them way elsewhere.

Seemingly always in vogue, particularly the work of the General Post Office Unit led by John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings’ films, these documentaries have constantly been championed by the academics as something Britain has actually got right at the cinema. The trick here then was to show these films with a relatively new theme – Government Information films – thereby linking this rich vein to the near-present via other luminaries of British film-making including Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger and Peter Greenaway.

Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, that snobbishness about British film associated with British documentaries extended to another programme standout - the UK Focus. Somewhat hidden within the main programme of New Features these were lower budget home-grown films looking for distribution. Not quite traditional art-house these were films that had so far been ostracised by the multiplexes and forced into exile - all the more a shame considering their various merits. Unsurprisingly given their indie backgrounds many of these had stories to tell, notably Powerless where director Matt Daniels sold end credit acknowledgements on eBay, or The West Wittering Affair which, after evolving into a feature from a highly personal short film project for director David Scheinmann, tellingly found an audience on the US festival circuit. Almost surprisingly most of these screenings were sell-outs as audiences somehow circumnavigated their miniscule marketing budgets.

That’s the good, so what about the bad? I’m clearly biased towards Cambridge but a good film festival can be an amalgamation of hard to find works, so even if one doesn’t like a film one should at least be stimulated about it. In this sense there wasn’t any bad! Usually the heavily promoted or anticipated films suffer most as expectation fails to match up with product. It’s Nice Up North is one such example, that built itself up in one’s head before revealing itself as exactly the genial film you were expecting: a curio piece shot by photographer Martin Parr. On the inaccessibility stakes, apparently The Lottery of the Sea, Allan Sekula’s long documentary about the world’s oceans, tested audiences severely.

Personally the main festival let-down were the Iraqi short films. Despite admiring how they had come about under such adverse circumstances, in no small thanks to the dedicated Iraqi Short Film Festival head Nizar Rawi, the few I saw (the fictional shorts) were an absolute mixed bag ranging from great finds to student experiments. Naturally given the ‘Iraq’ factor there was considerable media buzz. What I wanted to know was who exactly the audience for these films were? Or were they being watched in Iraq? Iraq is more than likely awash with pirate DVDs like the rest of the developing world but what do Iraqis like to watch. Probably trash like the rest of us, but given the Western media scare stories of Jihadi propaganda movies hitting the streets to further their cause, perhaps something else is going on and it might not be culturally hermetic short films. So top marks for programming something topical but once was enough.

The funniest disappointment of all was not strictly speaking a disappointment at all. As it was the surprise film you couldn’t really be that upset because you’d effectively paid to see a random film. Testing audiences’ appetite for wizened folk rock singers by utterly unexpectedly showing Neil Young: Heart of Gold, concert footage of Neil Young in action at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the surprise film lived up to its name. Half the audience moodily stormed out in disgust whilst the remainder enjoyed themselves. As surprise films go it was one of the best I’ve ever seen, for the surprise alone. Again once was enough.

Off screen, as the festival programme was announced a vitriolic ‘flame war’ broke out on the comment forums for the new festival podcast over the merits of having both Iraqi short films and a season of Erotic films on the same slate. Seemingly motivated by an attempt to co-opt the festival towards an environmental agenda the debate was great. It was though utterly misguided in not grasping the basic concept of the Cambridge Film Festival as being a platform for a diverse bunch of programming strands, not just one topic hammered home tediously. On the positive side if the passions really went beyond comment tit-for-tat, Cambridge may have a dazzling environmental film festival to look forward to at some point in the future.

On the technical front this year’s festival stood out by having daily half-hour podcasts every day of the festival making the festival the most accessible ever. All of these are currently stored on the festival website allowing many of the interviews to be listened to all year hopefully. In parallel Cambridge community radio station 209 covered the festival in a series of daily live discussions on their show Bums on Seats. If that wasn’t enough audio content, also did their own ‘unofficial’ podcast, teasingly recorded in increasingly outlandish locations around the Picturehouse cinema. Lastly the Festival Daily, the festival’s daily newspaper (which I was involved with hence the bias), grew in strength from previous years.

One way of assessing a film festival is to revisit the programme and work out how many films were missed which one wanted to see. By this definition the 26th Cambridge Film Festival may have been one of the best yet since the revival. Notable misses included the Suwa Nobuhiro selection, a couple of the films showing in the Erotic season (The Beast!) and the other Kujtim Çashku film Kolonel Bunker.

Countering post-festival blues the festival finished with the launch of the Cambridge Film Trust over the final weekend. A new charity aiming to promote the film festival and film culture in the city the trust should hopefully be up and running soon. Somehow through dedication and sheer will this little film festival has affixed itself to the UK film calendar despite lacking the institutional support of its peers, Edinburgh and London. With the Cambridge Film Trust in place to level the backing the future for the Cambridge Film Festival looks rosy. A place welcome to all forms of cinema, even that of the canine persuasion.