Category Archives: Film Festival Reviews

Shared Experience: Document Human Rights Film Festival 2018

With all the political upheaval going on in the UK at the moment, it is tempting to want to just hide under a duvet and sleep throught it all. However, once we look outward and explore people’s lives outside our own living environment, we will often find astonishing parallels and might discover a shared human experience we didn’t realise existed.

Document Human Rights Film Festival Glasgow has been around for a decade and a half and this year’s edition took place from 30 November until 2 December 2018 at the Scottish Youth Theatre in the heart of Merchant City. The festival presented 40 feature length and short documentaries – many prize-winning and all inspirational – from around the world plus a number of intriguing discussions with international filmmakers. As every film was only shown once, it was a tough choice, but I still managed to make it to a good range of screenings, which were all fascinating in their own way.

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On Friday night I picked a special screening curated by Creative Interruptions of restored films from the time of the Palestinian revolution, which was followed by a Q&A with Iraqi filmmaker Kassem Hawal. My own knowledge of this part of the world is fairly limited and it was interesting to see that the PLO with their generally military approach to conflict also worked on preserving the local culture, which included a filmmaking unit, aiming to keep alive a collective memory, so important to the survival of any culture. It was a glimpse into a world which the other side tried their best to hide from the people and the wider world. Listening to Hawal talk about his own experience trying to make and distribute films about difficult or controversial topics and a limited budget reminded me how little we really know about non-Western cultures unless we really do our own research. Document Film Festival was therefore a welcome window into an often hidden, multifaceted world.

My first film on day two was a nearly 2.5 hour long meditative piece by experimental American filmmaker Ben Russell entitled ‘Good Luck’, which explores the differences and similarities of two groups of men working in the mining trade in vastly different conditions in Serbia and Suriname and was shot on Super 16mm film. As there were some tech problems (later resolved) and as I was feeling pretty rotten because of a cold, I decided to leave after about half an hour, but sincerely hope there will be another chance to see this film. It was received very well at the festival.

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I returned to the Scottish Youth Theatre later that night for a screening of Chaos by Syrian filmmaker Sarah Fattahi, who is currently based in Vienna. The film portrays three Syrian women living in exile with very different stories but united in their experience of trauma and all the complexity it involves. Sadly, a workshop with the filmmaker scheduled for the same day had to be cancelled, but we were lucky to have a skype Q&A with Fattahi touching on the topics covered in the film. I was really impressed by Fattahi’s work and approach and will definitely keep an eye out for any future films.

The last film I saw was probably my favourite and was very moving from start to finish. In ‘A Woman Captured’ filmmaker Bernadett Tuza-Ritter had unprecedented access to the life of Hungarian woman Marish for a year and a half and followed her from a situation of what can only be described as modern slavery (like an estimated 45 million people worldwide!) to standing on her own two feet and forging a positive future for herself and her family. I was close to tears several times when I saw Marish getting treated literally worse than any animal and the difficulties she faced escaping this terrible situation. In times where cuts to social budgets are the norm in this country, too, it begs the question what we are doing in our own communities to avoid such terrible abuse. Not easy viewing, but with (luckily) a hopeful ending, it motivated me to keep fighting against injustice. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for all of us to do so.

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After an empowering weekend of films and discussions I highly recommend checking out this small but important film festival, which boasted an incredibly dense programme of brilliant documentaries you won’t see in your local Cineworld. Yes, it can be difficult to take a closer look at issues around the world most of us are lucky not to have to deal with on a daily basis. However, those you care about human rights will instantly find their tribe at events like Document. It was easy to get talking to other attendees and the dedicated and friendly festival producers and volunteers (see pic above), many of them students of human rights and similar degrees. I had never been to the venue before, but will definitely look out for future events there as it is in such a central location and had a nice vibe about it.

I’m already looking forward to Dardishi Festival, a new feminist zine and arts festival happening in Glasgow from 8-10 March 2019. Their fundraising booklet with women’s writing and art (see below) is really beautiful and partnering with Document was a great idea. It’s so good to see smaller festivals supporting each other. They often get less press than bigger events with larger marketing budgets, but like with Document, the programme quality is often at least as high. In fact, finding local festivals and helping them thrive could be your new year’s resolution, how about that?!

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This Way Up! Kendal Mountain Festival 2017

As far as I’m concerned, the best excuse to visit any place for the first time is attending a great festival. So I hopped on the train to Kendal – the gateway to the Lake District – for a weekend of mountain films and culture, readings by nature writers and a visit to the famous Lakes, of course.

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Kendal Mountain Festival (16-19 November 2017) is the largest festival of its kind in the world and brings together enthusiasts from various mountain sports, such as climbing, trail running, caving, snow sports and other outdoor pursuits. This year, they also had a literature festival, which was a welcome addition.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon in time for the opening ceremony, a procession in the dark from a little park outside a pub in Kendal to the Brewery Arts Centre led by a local traditional band. Once we got there, there was an introduction by the festival organisers and we got to see a few of the shorter festival entries and the pretty awesome festival trailer ‘A Spark in the Dark’ with a poem written by festival artistic director Claire Carter.

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The next day I explored the festival and the town properly. With Kendal being not such a big place, it was easy to walk between various festival venues, a church, the Town Hall, a film truck (very warm and cosy), community centres and a number of screens right at the Brewery. There were also sessions for local schools, ‘secret sessions’ (which were alas sold out by the time I figured out they existed) as well as baby and dementia friendly shows. Most films were packaged up into two-hour long sessions, so you picked a collection of films (called ‘Strive’, ‘Reach’, ‘Seek’ etc.) and each of them had a variety of shorter and longer material. I liked pretty much everything I saw.

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There was also a basecamp in the courtyard of the Brewery Arts Centre, where all the sponsors, such as Columbia and Mammut, as well as some outdoor charities, had stalls to explore. Inside the tent, which was decorated with colourful prayer flags, were also two bars, and the Marmot Café with lots of seats for people to hang out, have their lunch and listen to inspiring speakers, such as Chris Bonnington, Gemmita Samarra, Dan Milner and Steve McClure. The tiny Shackleton Tent, i.e. yurt, just outside offered free films and talks all day. Four-legged festival goers were not allowed inside the tents, but there were lots of dog-friendly cafes and pubs around town and in many other places in the Lake District.

In addition, there was a half-day film summit in the Town Hall for industry professionals with inspiring presentations by filmmakers and producers and a 10K trail run for those actually wanting to go out there and get some exercise done.

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While outdoor sports tend to be dominated by men, as most other types of sport, too, it was the female adventurers that I enjoyed listening to most. My favourite event all weekend was probably the Findra Women in Adventure session on Saturday morning. Four exceptional young women, Jenny Tough (e.g. ran solo across Kyrgyzstan and the Atlas Mountains), Emily Chapell (e.g. cycled alone through Iceland in winter), Megan Hine (TV scout for adventure shows and leads private expeditions) and Rickie Cott (who with Lee Craigie cycled from Canada to Mexico by bike). Each of them had amazing stories to tell of how they overcame obstacles, including people doubting their abilities, and how they pulled through by believing in themselves and becoming more and more resilient with every trip. Way to go!

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I also made it to a couple of author events. One was with Karen Lloyd talking about her book ‘The Blackbird Diaries’ charting encounters with birds and wildlife over a calendar year. The other was with Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley on his latest book ‘The Nature of Winter’. Both told of unforgettable wildlife experiences and discussed the future of national parks, the reintroduction of predatory species to UK forests, the impact of climate change, among some of them.

There were so many great films last weekend, here are a few I especially enjoyed:

My Irnik (family life in the Canadian Arctic), Weightless (fab humorous short paragliding film, won best adventure sport film), The Last Honey Hunter (following Nepali honey harvesters on their dangerous job, won best visual), My Big White Thighs and Me (moving film about womanhood and braving the elements), Skye’s the Limit (a woman circumnagivates the Isle of Skye on a paddle board), Stumped (brilliantly funny climbing film, won best climbing film), Ditch the Van (musician ditches the tour bus and bikes from gig to gig) and Becoming Who I Was (simply stunningly filmed and very moving story of a Tibetan boy searching for his destiny, won best culture).

These are the official winners of altogether 12 categories at this year’s festival.

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As it looked like it was going to be a beautiful, if crisp, day on Sunday, I decided to escape for a day trip around the Lake District. I went on a mini bus tour with Mountain Goat, which was absolutely brilliant. In around 7 hours we got taken to 10 lakes in the area, a slate mine, a viewing point high above one of the lakes, the Castleriggs stone circle, a waterfall (reminded me so much of my recent Iceland trip), stopped in the lively town of Keswick (which has an intriguing pencil museum, as it is the place where pencils were first invented, apparently) and also in Grasmere (where the grave of William Wordsworth can be visited for those with a literary interest and the special Grasmere gingerbread, only made in this village, can be purchased for those with a sweet tooth). Along the way we saw lots and lots of Herdwick sheep, a beautiful local breed, and passed through many lovely villages. While we did run into a bit of traffic towards the end of our tour, the quieter winter months are a great time to explore this beautiful part of the UK, the landscapes were impressive and we had them almost to ourselves.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with tickets to select festival events by Kendal Mountain Festival. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

Highway to Adventure: The Adventure Travel Film Festival 2017

The Adventure Travel Film Festival, which took place from 11-13 August 2017, had been on my to do list for a few years now and I finally managed to pay it a visit. It is a film festival showing mostly independently produced outdoor, adventure sports and travel documentaries combined with camping just a tube and a bus ride away from Central London at Mill Hill School. The annual event, which also has sister festivals in Scotland  (September) and Australia (February), is run by adventurers and filmmakers Austin Vince and Lois Pryce and apart from the extensive film programme offers talks by well-known explorers, workshops (first aid on the road, medicinal plants, bushcraft, spoon whittling) and even motorbike trial lessons.

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I managed to make it to two of the three festival days, but even though the films were repeated at different times it was really difficult to choose between them as they all sounded really enticing. Some of them also had filmmaker Q&As at the end, like Liemba (a journey on Africa’s oldest steamship), whose director Julie Clavier came over from Paris to present her film. The first film I caught was called Man with a Pram and featured Swedish adventurer and now family man Mikael Strandberg who set out on a two-month walking journey from Manchester to London together with his two-year old daughter Dana and assistant Georgia Villalobos. Alternating between staying with friends and acquaintances and wild camping along the way, the three encounter an intriguing cast of characters, old and young, friendly and odd, on their journey to figuring out what the English are really like as a nation. Definitely one to watch if you think travelling with children is (nearly) impossible, just put them in a pram, pack some nappies and off you go!

This was followed by a triple bill of shorter films: Kapp to Cape, a three-month high-speed cycle journey from Norway to South Africa by British Iranian Reza Pakravan; Two Bedouins, A Camel & An Irishman follows Leon McCarron and his local guide Musallem Faraj into the Sinai desert where they explore the fascinating landscape and learn about the traditional way of life of the nomads; In The Eyes of God Latvian extreme kayaker Tomass Marnics and a handful of his friends tackle the most dangerous rivers in remote Kyrgyzstan.

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Unlike at most other festivals I’ve been to, the venue provided all the food (and I’m assuming they don’t allow outside vendors), so if you’re planning on attending the whole festival, I highly recommend booking your meal plan in advance (this covered cooked breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday as well as dinners on Friday and Saturday night). As I wasn’t staying the whole weekend, I brought my own snacks and supplemented them with coffees and sandwiches from the indoor café (plus there was a BBQ, which included veggie kebabs and veggie sausages, for extra food options). Talking of practical things, there was a shower and toilet block not too far from the camping areas as well as portaloos and indoor toilets in the venues and plenty of drinking water available. I also picked some lovely blackberries right behind my tent, which made for a delicious foraged snack.

After dinner, it was time to attend a talk and the one by native Sri Lankan Dylan Wickrama was very inspiring. He decided to tackle the Pan American Highway on his motorbike and build his own raft to cover the Darién Gap (where no road exists) between Central and South America, resulting in a 30-day solo boat journey (bike on board), which made for a profound experience, including meeting a pod of inquisitive dolphins. It was a beautiful story illustrated by videos and photos from the trip.

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As the weather was quite windy and cloudy on Friday night, the Starlight Screening, which would have normally happened outside, was moved to the sports hall with hundreds of chairs set up for us. The whole festival was efficiently run by the organisers and dozens of friendly volunteers like Kathy and James, who checked me in on Friday afternoon. The feature on Friday night was called DugOut and was a film by and about Ben Sadd and James Trundle, who ventured into the Amazon enlisting a local man to help them fell a tree, turn it into a dugout canoe and then take it downstream for a river adventure. The film is a beautifully made testament to what can be achieved when you have an idea, follow through with it and are open to learning from the locals thereby discovering a whole new world and skills which our Western societies have largely lost.

After a lovely bluegrass live set by The Jolenes (including festival director and ace banjo player Lois Pryce) by the campfire on Friday evening and a peaceful night in the happy tent, the first sessions of the day started at 10am (sadly clashing with the morning yoga class). I picked the How to Make a Film of Your Adventure by festival director Austin Vince talk, who explained in an hour and a half the rules, pitfalls and ideas around making a TV-worthy travel and adventure documentary. So do remember to work with a shot list, vary your sequences (bits of story) and transitions (bits to link the parts of the story, i.e. maps, local flora and fauna, day counters with commentary and/or music), include children, older people and animals and aim to show interesting places, artefacts and experiences plus try and shoot only what you need.

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I also watched Paddle For The North, a Yukon canoeing adventure which, to my delight, included two puppies, Taiga (a golden retriever) and Zephyr (a wire-haired pointer), who made the already intriguing film even more fun to watch. I somehow managed to see a lot of water-based films during the weekend, another one was Rowed Trip describing Canadians Julie and Colin Angus’ seven months rowing and cycling trip from John O’Groats in Scotland all the way to Aleppo in Syria in 2008, particularly poignant to see given the current political situation.

The final event I attended was a talk by explorer Benedict Allen who, together with BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardener in his wheelchair (he was shot by terrorists), embarked on a quest to see Birds of Paradise in Papua New Guinea. It was another good example of how having a dream and following through with it is what adventure is all about. And this is what this festival is really good at. Inspiring people to turn their dreams into an adventure, learn from the experts and just go for it. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be an adventurous type to enjoy the event. In fact, the festival was definitely on the quieter side and is suitable for families, more laid-back folks (many of them into motorbikes) and anyone with an interest in travelling and filmmaking.

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Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a weekend pass for the 2017 festival in exchange for a personal review of the event and mentions on social media. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the same as the official views of the event organisers. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

3 Festivals, 2 Weeks, 1 Amazing Festival Trip to Ireland!

My first real festival adventure of the year was actually three events rolled into one. First I headed to the very top of Donegal, to a village called Malin for Guth Gafa Documentary Festival followed by a week in Dublin visiting friends and volunteering with both Dublin Writers Festival and Dublin Dance Festival. As you can imagine this made for a busy schedule, just the way I like it.
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It was Guth Gafa’s first year in Malin and the festival team got an enthusiastic welcome by the local community. We stayed in a couple of lovely houses near the village with sheep grazing outside the window and a short walk to the Green where the festival tent was pitched. There was also the pop-up cinema truck and the world’s smallest cinema, an old phone booth ‘screening’ a short film called Bye Bye Now, about the disappearance of phone booths around Ireland. You can watch it here. Despite summery temperatures one day and a flood the next, it was a blissful weekend, spending time with old and new friends, volunteers, filmmakers and local folks. I also discovered two lovely bands, who both performed as part of the festival: The Henry Girls and Kate O’Callaghan and her husband Seamus.
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Then I was off to Dublin, which was exciting after nearly three years of being away, but I also felt like I’d outgrown it somehow after living in Vancouver and now London. Still very nice to be back. Spent a week alternating between Dublin Dance Festival and Dublin Writers Festival, incredible fun! Both festivals had the usual fantastic programme of international and Irish guests and I got to know  a lot of interesting people. A typical day would consist of doing a meet & greet with authors at the festival hotel or walking them to the venue, stewarding at a dance performance and helping with box office followed by a few hours at the writers festival club for a gig at the Clarence hotel.
Some of the many highlights at both festivals were: Rebecca Solnit (brilliant creative essayist), Tom Keneally (eloquent author of Schindler’s Ark), Kevin Powers and Ben Fountain (both ex-soldiers who wrote fascinating novels about the experience of war); the ‘dual’ between Caitlin Moran (1200 people at sold out NCH!) and Jon Ronson, both fabulously entertaining; the Dennis O’Driscoll tribute evening with Seamus Heaney; Untrained by Lucy Guerin (two professional dancers and two non-dancers, humorous and thoughtful performance); Egg Charade by Aoife McAtamney and Nina Vallon (intense, ironic and playful two-women piece)
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It was really one of my best festival trips in a long time and the perfect start to another summer of festivals!

Amazing Adventures: The Banff Mountain Film Festival UK 2012

I’m so glad I found the Banff Mountain Film Festival UK, which was held in the beautiful Union Chapel in Islington from 21-24 February 2012 and various other locations around the UK as well. So how come a Canadian festival does screenings in the UK? BMFF has been inspiring adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts since 1975 and for the past few years the World Tour has screened the festival winners in 30 countries across the globe. Nell and Simon, both hailing from Australia, set up the UK tour in 2010 and it has been going strong ever since.

What is unique about Banff UK is that instead of showing individual movies at various times, you book a ticket for a whole evening of films of different lengths, which all won prizes at Banff. I helped out at two of the four nights with signing punters up for the free raffle and giving general information. I really loved ‘Obe and Ashima’, a docu about a 9-year old girl who is one of the new talents of the bouldering scene. Other films were about extreme mountain biking, slacklining across canyons without a net, a gruelling climb to the top of one of Pakistan’s 8000 metre peaks in freezing cold and a tragic but inspiring story of a cayaking trip in the Congo.

Even if you’re not that much into extreme sports, watching people fight so hard for their dreams can be a great motivation for anyone to succeed in their chosen field. For me Banff UK also brought back good memories of my first festival in Vancouver last year, the Vancouver Mountain Film Festival, which was just as much fun. Take a look at each festival website for some video clips that will make your jaw drop. Urban downhill skiing anyone?

Defying The Darkness: London Comedy Film Festival 2012 vs Death Festival 2012

Loco  (26-29 January 2012) was my first festival in London since moving here in January and it was also the first time it was being held. Interestingly, it coincided with Death – Southbank Centre’s Festival For The Living (27-29 January 2012), both happening in the supposedly most depressing week of the year during a freezing cold and dark January. As Loco was about ‘championing the craft of comedy filmmaking’ and Death Fest about confronting issues around death it was intriguing to jump between the two.

Loco is based at the BFI where we had various comedy screenings, LoCollege (two days of industry panels for comedy writers and filmmakers), a mood lounge as well as a number of networking events in the Benugo Bar. Death Fest at the Royal Festival Hall had the most extraordinary ‘crazy coffin’ exhibition, tips on designing your own funeral, organ donation, a colourful and musical ‘death march’ by members of Kids Company and death rituals from around the world.

Volunteering with LoCo was a rather relaxed affair. We were a handful of film enthusiasts, some seriously into comedy, who did a mix of working the info table, assembling make-your-own-muppet packs for kids, decorating the mood lounge and generally being helpful. With Death Festival pretty much next door, it was intriguing to observe the different atmosphere at both events. I was surprised that I found Death Fest almost more cheerful than LoCo, which was at times really quiet, especially in the afternoons. What both events had in common though was to help us look at ways of overcoming the darkest part of the year by focusing on positive things. Which of the two strategies we would choose is up to each of us I guess.

Small Town, Big Screen: The Asheville Cinema Festival 2011

Last November I had a wonderful time travelling around some of the US states and as I’d heard good things about Asheville, North Carolina, it came in handy that there was a film festival on during my visit. It was the first time the Asheville Cinema Festival (3-6 November 2011) was being held after the Asheville Film Festival ceased to exist two years earlier. It is never a small feat to revive or start a new festival from scratch. It was all the more impressive what the organisers managed to pull off.
ImageMy weekend in Asheville couldn’t have been more fun and interesting. I stayed with a lovely local couchsurfer and spent my days taking tickets at screenings, counting audience award ballots, handing out flyers and attending various events. One of my festival favourites was the inspiring filmmaking workshops that were on offer. From screenwriting to editing we learned a whole lot from industry experts, such as Blair Daily and Joseph C. Stinson. Another one was the inaugural awards ceremony where everyone got together for a few drinks to celebrate the best of the fest.

If you’re looking at spending a weekend in Asheville and love films I can highly recommend volunteering with the ACF, you’ll be guranteed a warm welcome, fantastic movies and a great atmosphere. Hope to be back myself sometime soon!