Sharon Stephenson talks to long-standing film festival chief Bill Gosden about what inspired his career and why Pollyanna nearly traumatised him
The best films can alter forever how you see the world. BILL GOSDEN
Let’s pretend for a minute you’re Bill Gosden. It’s 1960 and you’re a 6-year-old growing up in suburban Dunedin.
Your father works shifts as a train driver for the Railways and your mother is keen that you and your two younger siblings don’t disturb his sleep.
So she takes you to the Octagon Theatre, then an elaborately ornate cinema in Dunedin’s main square. In the magical darkness of the Octagon, you’re smitten — not just by the moving pictures but by their ability to transport you out of your ordinary existence. That rainy afternoon, you discover the industry you will work in for life.
For Gosden, now director of the NZ International Film Festival (NZIFF), that film, the first he ever saw, was Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills as the maniacally cheerful child of the title.
“I grew up in an era when films were something that happened somewhere else,” says Gosden. “New Zealand films weren’t really made until the 70s, so to see a film set in early 20th century America took me into a completely different world. The best films do that, they can alter forever how you see the world.”
Although, he laughingly recalls, the scene where Pollyanna falls out of a tree almost gave him post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It was the first time I’d seen something bad happen to someone good. At the time, it was a shock.”
We’re chatting in the NZIFF’s cramped Wellington headquarters, a floor above the Embassy Theatre. A framed poster of Bruce Weber’s classic 2001 film Chop Suey is propped against the wall, next to a large and complicated spreadsheet, a rainbow of coloured post-it-notes, detailing the schedule for the 49th NZIFF.
At this time of the year Gosden is, quite possibly, the busiest man in New Zealand. There are hundreds of submissions to comb through, films to watch and rights to negotiate with global distributors. Every year between 150 and 170 films make the cut for the 18-day festival, from documentaries and animated features to foreign-language and home-grown offerings.
Although staff in Paris, Melbourne and Wellington help cull the numbers, Gosden has the final say.
“I don’t get to see all the films we screen but I’m confident in the recommendations of my team,” he says, running his hand through saltand-pepper hair that leans more towards salt.
Whether Gosden personally likes a film or not has little to do with his decision to screen it. “The NZIFF is about offering audiences a wide range of films from all over the world, of extending the cinematic options of audiences and film-makers throughout New Zealand. Naturally there will be some films I don’t like, but it’s about the audience, not me.”
Pinning him down about the criteria he and his team use to select the programme is a little harder. What makes one film stand out as opposed to another is hard to define, he says. “There has to be something a little special about a film to make it into the festival. That something special is hard to explain but easy to recognise.”
GOSDEN, WHO looks younger than his six decades (he is 63) is single and lives alone (“a one-song-on-the-iPod walk from work”). He prefers to screen the 300-plus potential festival films each year at home and estimates he probably watches another 30-40 annually for pleasure. In the moments that hover between films, Gosden reads, hikes and cooks for friends.
The day we meet there’s no time for such pleasures: his perennial bugbear, the Cannes Film Festival, is once again proving a challenge. The French film festival finishes around 10 days before the NZIFF programme goes to print, which doesn’t give Gosden long to secure the rights to films he wants to screen.
“It can be a nightmare trying to get people in the film industry to commit to the films we want in such a short time period. But we’re always keen on securing some of the films screened at Cannes because they’re hot and audiences are dying to see them.”
It can often go down to the wire, with the 16 NZIFF staff and volunteers almost camping out in the office prior to finalising the programme.
But it’s worth it: last year, more than 248,000 film-goers across New Zealand filled cinemas in 13 cities. It’s why Gosden bristles when I ask if the NZIFF is elitist. “I don’t think that’s a problem with our festival. We’re driven to present the best content around so we can only work with what’s out there, because we’re not film-makers, we don’t make the films. But I believe our programme covers such a wide and varied range that there’s always something to keep film-goers happy.”
This year’s programme, he adds, is no different. He’s particularly pleased with the strong Kiwi documentary contingent, including Gaylene Preston’s My Year with Helen, the Wellington film-maker’s fly-on-the-wall look at former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s bid to become the United Nation’s first ever female Secretary-General, and Kim Dotcom: Caught
in the Web, Annie Goldson’s take on the battle between Dotcom, the US Government and the entertainment industry.
Gosden thinks the United States currently has one of the most interesting film industries, as evidenced by two of his favourites of this year’s NZIFF schedule: A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and I Am Not
Your Negro, an Oscar-nominated documentary which examines race in America entirely from the writings and interview footage of civil rights icon James Baldwin.
GOSDEN IS a man who knows his way around a film festival. Every September he travels to the Venice, New York and Toronto film festivals, and a month later to Melbourne’s event. And although he would say that, the godfather of NZ film festivals reckons the NZIFF is “pretty extraordinary. For starters, about 90 per cent of our festival’s costs are covered by ticket sales, in contrast to other film festivals around the world, where tickets account for around 40 per cent of costs, and the rest has to be made up by sponsorship and government funding. So in that respect, the NZIFF is quite unique.”
Kiwi audiences also tend to be more pampered than their overseas counterparts, with fewer queues and allocated seats.
“Often overseas festivals don’t allocate seats, so there’s a lot of standing in line and rushing to grab seats, which we don’t have to do here.”
This is the 34th festival Gosden has curated, but he’s never tired of it. From where I’m sitting, his appears to be a dream job: fly around the world, watch movies all day and get paid for it. It’s probably why he’s never had a Plan B. Or much of a CV, having really only worked at the NZIFF and, for two years when he first moved to Wellington in 1976, for an independent film distributor located, ironically, in the building next door.
“I’m lucky that I’ve never had to think about what else I would do for a job,” says Gosden, who also has no plans to retire. “I can see myself maintaining a relationship with the NZIFF for some time.”
His highlight of the past 30-something years is, without a doubt, sitting down with audiences and seeing them react to a film.
“I also get a great deal of joy when audiences meet film-makers, particularly when it’s a firsttime film-maker.”
And although he often mentors young filmmakers, Gosden has never been tempted to step behind a camera. “No, I’ve never felt a burning need to say anything on film. ”
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Bill Gosden says the NZIFF is “pretty extraordinary” compared to others around the world.