SCREEN TIME

Sharon Stephen­son talks to long-stand­ing film fes­ti­val chief Bill Gos­den about what inspired his ca­reer and why Pollyanna nearly trau­ma­tised him

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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. ”

THE NEW ZEALAND IN­TER­NA­TIONAL FILM FES­TI­VAL SCREENS IN AUCK­LAND FROM JULY 20-AU­GUST 6. SEE NZIFF.CO.NZ FOR OTHER CITY DATES.

Bill Gos­den says the NZIFF is “pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary” com­pared to oth­ers around the world.

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