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Leytonstone Loves Film: How film festivals kept rolling in lockdown

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10 Aug 2020
2 min read

With no big budgets to fall back on, independent organisations got creative. We look at some of the independent film festivals behind this year's Leytonstone Loves Film festival. 

You know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. For small-budget independent film festivals that’s been particularly apt this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic meant they’ve had to adapt quickly, and with imagination.

While some decided to cancel their activity for 2020, others have been getting to grips with technology in a variety of ways, to ensure the show goes on. 

Natalia Garay Ceron and Vera Hems Anderson launched, Cheap Cuts Documentary Film Festival in 2015 because they felt there weren’t many events promoting short documentaries. ‘The first one was very DIY,’ remembers Hems Anderson, but it grew quickly and expanded to Rio cinema in Hackney, and this year was due to take place at the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel on 29 June-5 July.

‘When we first went into lockdown we tried to keep an open mind, hoping the festival would still be able to go ahead, but by June we knew we had to start thinking about how we could go online,’ says Garay Ceron.

With so many submissions this year the team didn’t want to let down any filmmakers. ‘We really wanted it to happen – I’m quite stubborn in that way,’ says Garay Ceron. ‘We really wanted to make sure the selection could be shown.

‘We had no idea how it would work, or if anyone would watch the festival online. There were hosting platforms out there, but they were expensive and we didn’t know if we’d get enough people paying to cover the costs.’

Women Over Fifty Film Festival (WOFFF) started six years ago. Founder Nuala O’Sullivan explains all the films are either written/directed by, or have a woman over 50 at the heart of the story. ‘Without even thinking about it, we’ve ended up being very inclusive,’ she says. ‘A 17-year-old boy can make a film about his 58-year-old grandmother and will be welcomed.’

The annual festival takes place at Depot in Lewes, East Sussex, every September, with a ‘best of the fest’ tour taking the best films nationwide and to Ireland. 

Early on during the lockdown period, O’Sullivan took part in a watch-along organised by Reframed Film Club, and realised it would work well for the WOFFF audience. Since then, she has run 17, all of which have involved people watching a free-to-access film at home, then taking part in a discussion on social media afterwards. 

Cheap Cuts held its festival online, using a combination of YouTube and Vimeo. 

‘One of the real positives about being online was we were able to reach a very international audience,’ says Hems Anderson. ‘Film directors were also able to be more involved. We don’t usually have budget to pay for filmmakers to come, so they could take part because they didn’t have to travel here – we had people from as far as the USA and Colombia.’

All three women are taking the lessons learned from their lockdown experience and are applying them to this year’s Leytonstone Loves Film festival, which is run as a partnership between the Barbican and local film organisations and filmmakers. O’Sullivan’s watchalongs inspired Leytonstone Loves Film’s own ‘Watch Party’ series with Cheap Cuts hosting one of the online gatherings in September. Along with WOFFF, they are also programming a series of short documentaries that will be shared as part of a mostly digital programme of events.

This will be the event’s second year, after being commissioned as part of Waltham Forest Borough of Culture last year. Last year’s over 8,000 people took part in a broad range of workshops, activities and film screenings.

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