Since launching the Chichester International Film Festival in 1992, artistic director Roger Gibson has seen it all. Here he discusses Alec Guinness, ambitions and Ukrainian cinema
Roger Gibson is an incredibly modest man. Not only the president of Chichester Cinema at New Park, which was founded in 1979, he is also the man who decided the area needed a proper film festival. “There were all sorts of people showing over the Chichester festivities [Festival of Chichester] and calling them festivals, which I thought was ridiculous,” he chuckles. “So I thought we should do something, which was relatively ambitious for the time.”
This was in 1992 when, as Gibson explains, he put on “50 screenings, 12 previews, nine new British films and 12 new European films”. When I say that sounds like a lot, he almost nonchalantly adds: “I suppose it sounds a lot, but the A-list festivals show about 500-600 films! It was ambitious, but I didn’t really think about it too much, I thought let’s see what we can do. Having already negotiated films for the normal runs [at Chichester Cinema], I had the contacts and I went from there.”
Does he recall a particular highlight from the very first festival? “Christine Edzard [the director] came down to present As You Like It. We had a few guests and Christine was big at the time, [her film] Little Dorrit with Alec Guinness was quite an epic thing. Looking back, I was quite impressed with some of the films I got. We had Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, we had the opera Rigoletto, and Howard’s End was probably the biggest British film looking at the programme.”
The positive response was immediate and has grown substantially across the decades to where we find ourselves today, preparing for the 30th anniversary event and a much-evolved festival. “We only had one venue 30 years ago, which was just the main auditorium [of the cinema],” Gibson reflects on how things have changed. “We also started with 50 shows and we now have over 150. We are now using Chichester Cathedral for a screening of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, we have got open air screenings in Priory Park, Petworth is joining us for some screenings, which is a new venue for us. So there’s the development of the venues, development of the number of previews and premieres, but the other important thing is I have been importing films from abroad too that are not released in this country, so they are very exclusive.”
When Gibson looks back at highlights over the years, he picks out some extra special guests. “It was quite amazing that we had Alec Guinness,” he says delightedly. “He was wonderful, speaking for about an hour. He never gave interviews, or very rarely, and I have correspondence with him on these funny little postcards as he never had an agent or anything like that. Then there was Kathleen Turner – I wrote to her immodestly and she agreed to come along, and she introduced War of the Roses. More recently, we had Ralph Fiennes for Two Women, which was based on A Month in the Country, a Russian film. He actually spoke Russian, too. He closed one of the festivals a few years back. But there have been so many others.”
This year’s schedule looks a belter, but two things stand out for me, one close to home, the other a little further away, but extremely pertinent. “We are doing an extensive homage to Ukrainian cinema,” Gibson says about the latter. “We will have lots of retrospectives with an illustrated talk. Then we have Made in Sussex – we have got connections with the Sussex Film Office and we are going to be showing three films they were involved in. The most relevant one for Chichester that never got a theatrical release is a film called Blackbird. There’s Stan & Ollie, shot largely in Worthing. Then there’s a lovely little documentary about an 87-year-old weaver, Ann Sutton, and it’s called My Bones are Woven – she is from Arundel.”
It’s all wonderfully engrossing stuff, so how does Gibson feel when looking at how far the festival has come? “I am amazed that we have reached 30 years,” he smiles. “I do remember a journalist saying to me when we started, ‘do you think this will be the Cannes of the South Coast?’ and I said don’t be ridiculous. And although I am not claiming that, it’s certainly closer to that than it was when we first started!”
What to expect at the 30th Chichester International Film Festival
This August, Chichester International Film Festival (CIFF) will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an outstanding programme of quality film screenings and special events to mark three decades of bringing the best in cinema to the south coast.
Derek Malcolm, one of the UK’s greatest living film critics at the age of 90, will officially open the annual festival, which runs from 5-28 of August. His impressive career in film spans several decades: having worked for the Guardian and the Evening Standard, he is also a published author and president of the British Federation of Film Societies and the International Film Critics’ Circle.
This year’s festival promises to be an outstanding event with over 130 feature films including exclusive premieres and previews from around the globe as well as tributes and retrospectives, silent film screenings accompanied by live music and inspiring talks from special guests.
The festival will commence with three open-air screenings over 5-7 August in Chichester’s beautiful Priory Park: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and family favourite, Lightyear.
Recognised for its diverse and inspiring programme, this year’s festival will include a special homage to Ukrainian Cinema, in recognition of the ongoing conflict and to honour the Ukrainian people as well as the country’s rich culture through the art of film. The festival will also take a fascinating glimpse closer to home with Made in Sussex, a selection of films that were shot in the local area.
This year’s selection of retrospectives which aim to showcase the work of actors, composers, film directors and screenwriters who have helped shape the industry, include Olivia Colman, the anniversaries of Ralph Vaughn-Williams, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alain Resnais with tributes to the late Peter Bogdanovich, Jean Paul Belmondo and David Gulpilil. The film composers of the late Ennio Morricone, Vangelis and Charles Mingus centenary will be also celebrated.