What, no mud? John Nugent reflects on London Film Festival and sitting in silence in the dark

Our film columnist examines the jack-of-all-trades annual film festival in the capital

Wellies mud festival

What not to expect

Head to your local branch of CarpetRight around this time of year and you’ll notice that they’re running low on stocks of Tuscan Red. And with good reason: the 58th annual London Film Festival is back in town, and with it, a clutch of glitzy red carpet premieres, jetlagged members of international film press, autograph hunters with the fire of Hades in their beady eyes, the odd celebrity if we’re lucky – and films. Lots of films.

But does the LFF do enough for cinema? Does it live too much in the shadow of other international film festivals? Does it cater for anyone outside of the critical community and hardcore cinephiles? And does it really count as a festival if you can’t get naked in a field and drink tequila from a stranger’s muddied hip flask?

Let’s address these quibbles point-by-point. The LFF has frequently sustained the criticism that it is a jack-of-all-trades. When is it going to be a master of something? In fact, those multiple trades are right there in its origin story: it was first conceived, back in 1953, as a ‘festival of festivals’, a response to the longer-established veterans of the field. It was designed as a ‘best of’.

But some worry that this creates a bit of a personality problem. Many festivals have distinct themes: Cannes is for the old school Hollywood razzle-dazzle; Sundance for the indies; SXSW for the trendy up-and-comers.

LFF is a mish-mash of the lot, and often picks up the leftovers from rival festivals. It rarely attracts major world premieres. (There are none this year.) Perhaps it springs from British cinema’s supposedly timid ambition that you could not name a typical LFF movie. Then again, one man’s ‘mish-mash’ is another man’s ‘diverse programming’.

Indeed, LFF’s trademark jack-of-all-tradesery does mean that most bases are covered. Film festivals are regularly charged with elitism, appealing only to pampered critics or industry darlings. And while you could reasonably argue that among the 248 features on this year’s programme, mainstream tastes aren’t especially well catered for (wot no Transformers 9?), the LFF was always envisaged as public-friendly festival.

You need only look at the festival’s ‘Family’ strand, for example, to find accessible entertainment, with films like Animal Farm, Moomins on the Riviera, and Robot Overlords. There’s other efforts for outreach, too – workshops, talks, free screenings, school partnerships. There’s even participating cinemas - whisper it - outside zone 1, catering to film fans in the sticks.

But what of that word, ‘festival’? It conjures images in the mind of fireworks, music, dancing, human laughter and merriment. Befitting an art form that requires prolonged time sitting in darkness and silence, film festivals are uniquely un-carnivalesque. The closest they come to any sort of party atmosphere are the ‘gala events’, which tend to be schmoozy invite-only canapé-and-champers affairs - speaking, again, to a sense of elitism.

Still, if - like me - you are a member of the press, you can usually blag your way into most of these events with a press pass, a recently ironed shirt, and a defiant sense of confidence that you are, actually, on the guest list, if you just want to check your clipboard again please? Elitism is actually pretty great when you can convince others you’re in the elite. Pass the tequila!

John Nugent is a writer at Sky Movies online. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_nugent

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