On how film festivals can change the world: discovering the Bolton Film Festival

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Interview with Adrian Barber, director of the Bolton Film Festival that in 2019 will be at its 3rd edition. A journey on the relevance of cinematographic events.

(Featured Image by Julie Lomax)


In the past few weeks, everyone has probably read news about the Cannes Film Festival. In a few months, the same will happen with the Venice Film Festival.

Both festivals are beautiful events, that strongly impact our culture and leave a sign not only in cinematographic production, but also in social and human-related topics. Something me and my colleagues have been studying for the past 7 years with the OSFC project (Sociological Observatory of Film Festivals).

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A shocking example of a movie with a social impact: The Look of Silence, documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer presented at the 71st Venice Film Festival

These festivals represent only a small part of what our world offer in terms of cinematographic events. Sometimes it is surprising to find out how significant and inspiring some less-known festivals are, especially when they get together to share their passion for cinema and create a connection between different audiences in different countries.

This is what will happen this June at the River Film Festival, a festival dedicated to independent filmmaking and short films, that takes place in Padova, a city whose cultural and scientific quality is well represented by the presence of one of the oldest universities of the world: the Università degli Studi di Padova.

The RiFF19, at its 13th edition, will host a section of works coming from two specific International festivals: the Bolton Film Festival and Kinofilm – Manchester International Short Film Festival.

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The collaboration with these English festivals stems from a common purpose: the desire to promote emerging talents and the constant search for new authorial styles within the variegated audiovisuals world

From the River Film Festival 2019 catalogue

I contacted Adrian Barber, festival director of the Bolton Film Festival and member of the jury of RiFF19 (at this link, the program of the festival), and he kindly agree to share with me an insight on his festival and on the importance that cinema plays today in our society. Here’s what he said.

An interview with Adrian Barber, director of the Bolton Film Festival

The Bolton Film Festival is among the Top 100 Best Review Festivals by FilmFreeway. An important recognition that makes us even happier to have some of your films at the River Film Festival. Could you tell me more about the story behind BFF?

The festival came into existence through the building of a new nine screen cinema in the heart of the town – before that a festival in the town wasn’t really viable. As organisers we felt that regional towns like ours shouldn’t sit in the shadow of big cities culturally and the festival was the perfect way to address that.

What were the main challenges you had to face to create and organize this festival? 

Any new festival is going to struggle in the beginning with funding and at the start it was difficult to be treated seriously, but as one sponsor came on board it gave confidence to the next and before too long we started to attract serious financial support. I always knew that if I wanted to offer a festival of the highest standards, there was to be no cutting of corners, and it’s because of the high standards of films, great venues, the hospitality and the awards that we’ve recently been voted as a “Top 12 UK Indie Festival” by Film Daily magazine. 

Oscar winning director Chris Overton said about your festival: “[It] has so much heart and the festival organisers are super professional and really care about the filmmakers. Their passion shines through”. Passion is a fundamental push to make an event like this work. I wonder: what do you think is the role of cinema and independent cinema today, in our society? Do you think it has the power to shape/influence opinions or is it important for completely different reasons?

That’s a big question which is multi-faceted, because cinema is more than just culture and although it’s a priority it’s more than just supporting film-makers careers, it’s also about inward investment to towns that economically might be struggling.

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Bolton Film Festival’s screening of Dog Shat Dan by Luke Bourne. Ph. Credits: Julie Lomax

There are case studies where cinemas have brought shopping centres back to life, increasing the foot fall by 20% in some cases; some of those cinema goers will also shop, drink and eat in nearby venues so economically cinemas can change a large part of a town or a city. Curzon’s Victoria Cinema in central London is a great example of that.

Yes of course film can shape and influence opinions but it’s rare you’ll see topics that aren’t already being covered in some way on TV, newspapers or social media. It does happen occasionally though and those films tend to make headlines, but mostly  I think cinema is more about a shared experience. it’s about watching a film and the conversation that then follows. 

In your opinion, is there a recurring theme that independent filmmakers today feel the need to talk about and why? Also, speaking of filmmakers: how would you describe the community of independent cinematographic artists today?

There are always themes that pervade through films, “love, anger, hate, revenge, loss, laughter, loneliness” etc, but the topic of the moment also comes through. In recent years that’s been about immigration and asylum seekers, but the next one in the UK is bound to be Brexit. I’ve only had one or two that have touched on it so far (a/n: such as “British by the Grace of God” by Sean Dunn, see Tweet below) but I’m waiting for the flood gates to open in the months to come.

I think as far as community of film-makers it’s strong and is only getting stronger. Film-makers have always enjoyed each others company through film nights and film festivals, but it’s social media that means these relationships can be strengthened easily now. I’m amazed how many doors have opened for me personally through e-introductions and I know that’s the case for all film-makers embracing social media. 

BFF presents very interesting awards categories. One, in particular, could be very revealing about the times we are living in: the Audience Award. What can you tell us about it?

It’s the first time we’ll be doing an audience award this year. I know from asking around that film-makers love that award more than any other but I’ve always felt there was a weakness in the voting system for audience awards. For example a big Friday or Saturday night screening is always going to get more people and more votes than a film screened on a Tuesday morning. I’ve been looking at other festivals systems and finally I’m confident I’ve found a system that is fair to everyone regardless of what time of day and size of audience your film attracts. 

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A beautiful moment at the Bolton Film Festival captured by Matthew Nuttall

BFF is not only films, but also talks, networking, parties. I wonder: which aspect of your festival do you consider your biggest strength?

Foremost it’s got to start with great films, but great films attract big audiences and film-makers like to see that. By offering talks you can bring in a different crowd in the day time, students, young film-makers, the free-lancers, the film-makers who are in attendance supporting their own films. They are going to appreciate networking because networking is the biggest thing you can do for a film-makers.

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Industry talks at Bolton Film Festival. Ph. credits: Joseph Richardson

Last year I know twelve projects came to life on the back of networking sessions because people wrote back to thank me for help and for making that happen through networking. The parties are just another version of networking, it’s the same thing plus alcohol, music and laughter. Think of a festival as a “house” and you see that all the components are equally important, it’s the bricks, the doors, the windows, the roof, the heating, the furniture and if you have just one part missing it will be noticed by it’s absence. 

There’s been a lot of talking about VR. What do you think of this medium and of its relationship with cinema and storytelling?

The jury is out for VR right now for me as a storytelling medium. I still think it’s finding itself and its still trying to find its audience. Yes, it will find its place but at the moment it’s to dispersed and unfocused. I think as platforms such as Google and Youtube build it in to the architecture, it will find it’s place and become more focused.

Film audience and technology: on the left, The Fifties in 3D by The National Archives UK.
On the right, oculus crescent by Saurabh Datta

At the moment I don’t see it working well at festivals, as I said I believe a festival is about a shared experience. Everyone starts to watch the film at the same time as an audience. That’s not really happening with VR in most cases. A few festivals are doing an audience experience and those are the festivals who will succeed with VR in my opinion, but it’s very expensive to offer a VR cinema experience and for that reason I’ve walked away from it for the time being (a/n: if you are curious to know more about VR and its role in entertainment, take a look at my interview with VR producer Marc Guidoni here)

Final question: are there any projects for the next editions of the Bolton Film Festival that you are starting to work on? What can we expect from the future of this festival? 

The festival will again be three days, but with more partners. We’ve been able to run the five venues from morning to midnight and that means more choices – a day of focused documentary talks and screenings, a day of SVFX and animation talks and screenings. We’re offering talks on distribution and sales, looking at things like Blockchain and new avenues for film-makers with new platforms that are emerging and we’ll be doing more masterclasses and more screenings with Q&A’s than previous editions. The focus at Bolton Film Festival now is not to get any bigger as such, it’s just to become more refined and more focused – quality not quantity. 


The Bolton Film Festival will take place from October 1 to October 3, 2019 at the Cinema Light, Market Place Shopping Centre in Bolton, Lancashire UK.

While waiting for this 3rd edition, though, you can enjoy some of the shorts presented at BFF that will be hosted at the River Film Festival in Padua, Italy, on June 15. Here’s the official selection:

Adrian Barber will be at RiFF19 as a member of the jury who will award the prizes for the eight categories of films.

I sincerely thank him for sharing with us such a passionate insight on his festival. The quality of events like this one is testimony to the skill and the moving passion of those who work in this beautiful field.

See you all in Bolton next October!


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