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The curators of London Short Film Festival talk us through its 21st year

Philip Ilson, the co-founder of London Short Film Festival, wasn’t expecting the festival to have such a long life. He launched it with Kate Taylor, who is now with the BFI and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, off the back of a film club he was running in London. “The club, which we called the Halloween Society, was started in the late 90s as an underground alternative film space. A friend and I had been making short films together, and the club was part of a burgeoning explosion of the slightly left field alternative underground,” he tells us now. The club took off, and Philip was approached by the Institute of Contemporary Arts about putting on a short film festival.

Philip had been working with Kate Taylor on a temp job with the British Council, so they decided to start the festival together. They put on a four day festival, utilising his burgeoning connections with filmmakers and accepting submissions via VHS. They put on bands and other events alongside the screenings, and after a few years, it was enough of a success to change their name to London Film Festival and expand to venues like the Soho Curzon cinema. Now in its 21st year, the festival is Philip’s full-time job.



Words by Marianne Eloise

“The remit of the festival is pretty much the same now as it was when it started. We’re always looking for the new, the alternative, the underground, the interesting stuff that’s out there,” says Philip. Now taking place over 10 days and at notable venues across the city, the London Short Film Festival is a BAFTA-recognised, beloved event that draws in filmmakers and fans from across the country. We collaborated with the festival for the first time last year on a poster campaign, and this year we’re proud to put flyposters and a 48-sheet billboard across the city featuring the festival’s new branding. “Our logo is a projector with sharp teeth, and we’ve deconstructed it across the branding this year,” says Charlotte, LSFF’s co-director.

The posters and campaign will be across London in high-traffic areas, letting passersby know–if they didn’t already–that the festival is happening. The programming is split in two, with new submitted shorts, and special events that are collaborations with film collectives or curated by the team. We caught up with Philip, Charlotte and Sylvie, who works alongside them on pre-selection and programming, to learn more about this year’s festival.

Why do you think the festival, now in its 21st year, has grown so much?

Charlotte: Film culture has changed a lot. It used to be a top down thing wherein the auteurs, the big white male directors, were at the top. There was always the alternative underground independent scene, but those lines have blurred and film culture has become more democratic, and we’re all carrying a video camera around in our pocket. In the UK, there’s more focus on young filmmakers and people getting into the industry are supported through things like the BFI Network and Short Circuit in Scotland. I think LSFF has survived because of having a broad programming ethos with really engaged and talented programmers, and with the ongoing relationships and support from the industry and our audience, which is also expanding all the time.

How has the festival managed to survive and be constantly interesting?

Charlotte: We have a collaborative programming ethos and a looser structure and I think people, especially in London, really respond to that DIY ‘punk’ aspect that still runs through the festival. It’s genuine, and that’s why I took the job in the first place. It’s an authentic, radical film festival that also has a really good reputation within the industry. The programming is very responsive and interesting. You can watch something quite serious and political and then go and watch the weirdest shorts. People really respond to that, and I think filmmakers want to be part of it. We offer space for films that are made for a couple of pounds, or only last for 20 seconds, and I think that’s pretty unique.

What do you look for when you’re choosing who to highlight and feature?

Sylvie: I’m on the frontline of submissions, but when I started out, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I remember trying to decide whether a YouTube video of a Lego football match was ironic highbrow, or some random guy, and which is better? I was really deeping it. Literally anyone can submit and you have to trek through a lot of random stuff, but there is this common thread, and that is that it has to be different. We prioritise lower budget stuff, so it’s not about how clean or slick it is. We actively reject things that seem like they’re from someone with an advertising background. We look for the rough around the edges, the stuff that you remember. When you’re watching like 600 films, if you remember something, then that’s what you want. Something that feels like somebody has done something very cool with very little.

How did the collaboration with JACK ARTS come about?

Charlotte: I was on a bus in Stamford Hill, and I saw the MUBI poster campaign, and then I started seeing BUILD HOLLYWOOD everywhere. I had just started in the role, and I thought it would be so cool to get the posters in these spots where people are walking a lot. I sent a speculative email, and then Khaly got in touch and was really helpful. We had the campaign last year, and then Phil and I were putting brochures out and saw the billboard near Limehouse station. It’s cool to be able to walk around London and see the posters. Collaboration is such a massive part of the festival, it’s mutually beneficial because it keeps us engaged. The other partnerships that Build Hollywood does are in keeping with LSFF. It’s just very cool to see what you’ve been doing on a laptop for months out in London.

Why is London so important to you and the festival?

Philip: I’m from London, so I wasn’t planning to move anywhere else. Growing up in London as a teenager and in my early 20s, I’d go to Scala and watch all these films. My friend’s dad took us to the BFI Southbank to watch the 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers when we were 14, and I thought it was amazing. I’ve always wanted to do something, and London is my city. The film club took off and was quite successful, and that led to the founding of the festival.

Charlotte: London is so diverse. There are so many different communities, film collectives and art forms. Every area of London has its own cultural scene. London’s film history is really interesting, and that’s something we try to tap into every year. Phil’s doing a film history of the Isle of Dogs programme with a guided walk, which will be really cool. Our screenings are all over London this year, and we have great relationships with venues like the ICA, that are willing to give us the space to experiment and have done for two decades.

What are you most excited for at the festival this year?

Sylvie: In new shorts, I always love the Rural Gothic films, because I think there’s been a folk horror revival. We have some elements of Slow Cinema in the programme this year. I always enjoy WTF, because it taps into doing so much with so little and it’s super inspiring for young filmmakers. Maya Sfakianaki’s programme at FOLD nightclub is that great blend of music, dance and screenings. It’s exactly how a short film should be experienced.

Philip: We’ve got a couple of in-conversations with established filmmakers who’ve made a short this year. Ngozi Onwurah, who’s best known for her 1995 film Welcome to the Terrordome, the first commercial feature film by a black woman, we’ve got her in conversation. We’ve also got Yann Demange, who’s just directed the new Blade film, in conversation with Riz Ahmed. It’s nice to have those older, more established filmmakers doing these events.

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