Prove your humanity

In lead up to the fifth year of the British Film Festival Grok spoke to the festival’s Program Director, Kim Petalas, about his role, the strengths and weaknesses of the British film industry and why this year’s selection will appeal to a younger audience as well as an older one.  


What is the British Film Festival and where did it come from?

This is the fifth year of the British Film Festival; Cunard is our sponsor this year and BBC is the national sponsor. The British Film Festival was something that I developed five years ago. I felt that it was important to have an English-speaking language to complement some of the other foreign film festivals. The British seemed like a logical choice because Australia has got such a close affinity with British Cinema. We’ve got a strong history that ties in with [it], and when the Brits do it right, they really do it right.

You’ve been Program Director at Palace Cinemas for over 25 years and the Director of the British Film Festival for the past five years, with so many years in these positions, what’s the best and worst thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is discovering a wonderful film, and fortunately the 250 films I see every year are those gems that pop out. When you discover one of those films and you see it performed to your expectations across the circuit, that’s incredibly satisfying. Finding a smaller-quality film that you find the audience responds to, that can be very rewarding also. The difficult parts of my job are the negotiations; sometimes it’s difficult securing every film that you want to secure.

Is it easy securing those major, well-funded films?

No, because there are some films in the festival that at one stage were in, and then they were out, then there were international holdbacks, then we were able to secure them again, then we had to wait for a world premiere, then we were the world premiere. So, there’s a lot of toing-and-froing that goes on to secure the right films in the festival.

Could you explain to a simple soul such as myself what your role as Director involves exactly?

My role is the selection of all the films, and negotiating with both the distributors and international sales agents to secure these films for the festival. You basically start with a blank canvas and you piece the whole thing together, and you try and secure the best quality British films. Sometimes we can look at international film festivals like Toronto and the London Film Festival, and see some of the key films that are programmed across that circuit and try and secure them for our festival.

How do you think British cinema and film is going at the moment? Do you think it’s flourishing?

It’s definitely flourishing and there’s all these quality films. Some of these that we’ve secured in the festival are going to be major releases in 2018, like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)—which is a wonderful film. Also, The Bookshop (2017), which is really superb, with Emily Mortimer—it’s probably her best performance this year. All these films are going to be major releases in 2018. So, it’s a very vibrant industry at the moment.

For you, what makes British film different from, say Hollywood, or even Australian films?

I don’t think anybody does period detail to the level that the British do. They’re meticulous in their set designs, and those period dramas are just wonderful. I mean, with British comedy, we’ve got the same sensibility as they do. And British comedy is a lot more appealing to an Australian audience, and to me, than mainstream, Hollywood comedies.

I’ve recently reviewed The Journey, which is one of this year’s festival’s films. In it, I commented that although poignant, the target audience may not be young people like myself. Who is the British Film Festival aimed at, and do you see it broadening its audience reach in the future?

A lot of the British films that we’re screening are period films and they do filter in that older audience, so I totally understand what you’re saying. But we have certainly complemented this festival with some films that will appeal to a younger audience, films like England is Mine (2017), which is the story of Steven Morrissey before he became the front man of the 1980s band The Smiths—there’s been a lot of interest in that. I think both younger audiences and also older audiences are going to enjoy Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars (2017), because his music speaks to all ages. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017) and Mary Shelley (2017) are other films that are going to appeal to that younger, hipper audience.

Looking at this year’s program there are a few great films lined up; which ones are you looking forward to in particular?

Breathe (2017), the opening night film, is a wonderful film. Claire Foy’s in this, who audiences have really embraced since she played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown (2016) [television] series. I think Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (2017) is a fantastic documentary about an eccentric shoe designer. That’s a really fun documentary with quite an incredible character. The Bookshop (2017) is a wonderful film, and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) [is] a film based on a true story about Gloria Grahame—a 1940s-1950s American actress, who actually won an Academy Award in 1952. [It’s about] her relationship with a much younger Brit, who’s played by Jamie Bell, the boy out of Billy Elliot (2000). That’s a fantastic film that I think audiences will really embrace. Another one is On Chesil Beach (2017), again, really, really good film, with Saoirse Ronan.

I noticed that a lot of the films in this program are historical films; ranging from the Northern Ireland peace talks in The Journey, to the true story of a WWII prisoner-of-war in Another Mother’s Son, to the recreation of the early years of Steven Morrisey in the 1980s in the film England is Mine. Do you think the Brits love history a little too much and there’s a void there for science-fiction, adventure and action films etc., that could be filled?

What you have to remember is that a lot of the films these days are co-productions. There’s been some quality action and science-fiction films that you’d be surprised actually came out of Britain. Gravity (2013) is one of them. It was a UK-USA co-production with two major American stars. I think it might have even been filmed in the UK. I think [the British] certainly do make those action and science-fiction films, but when you’re looking for a true British film, you’re looking at those classic, historical, British dramas—wonderful romances and wonderful comedies. That’s where the Brits have that point of difference. When you see some of these films, including Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), they really transport you to that period, and you become part of that period.

Finally, I need your help. If I wanted to start my own film festival, is there any advice you would give me?

Be prepared for a lot of late nights, early starts, speaking to all those people internationally, and also being able to sit through a lot of films to get the right mix. It’s a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of dedication and passion. If you’ve got all those elements, you can certainly put together something successful whether it’s a festival, or something else.


The Cunard British Film Festival is running from October 26 to November 15 at Cinema Paradiso, Windsor Cinema and Luna on SX.