NETWORK @ LFF: 17 for '17

We look back at this year's edition of NETWORK @ LFF.

24 October 2017
By Jack Casey
Jack is Events Coordinator at BFI NETWORK.
Back in July, we made the call for exciting, bold, original cinematic voices; disruptors, agitators and iconoclasts taking risks and breaking new ground in narrative and form. 17 outstanding filmmakers answered us loud and clear, and earlier this month we brought them together at the BFI London Film Festival for the fourth edition of NETWORK @ LFF.
The group gathered the morning after the Opening Night Gala for an introduction to the Festival from Festival Director extraordinaire Clare Stewart, and a call to arms from Ben Roberts, Lizzie Francke and Matimba Kabalika. Ben challenged the participants to identify the most punk thing they’d ever done, and with anecdotes ranging from incognito hitchhiking around Cuba to an unspeakable act with a glasses case, it was clear we’d found a group who were unafraid to tell shocking and unique stories! Next, it was a dive into the deep end for a perfect example of channelling that punk spirit into narrative filmmaking: a screening of Rungano Nyoni’s powerful parable, I Am Not a Witch.
Lesson for the day: what makes you original is what will make your work stand out.
We began the morning with a stellar line up of speakers: Faye Ward (Suffragette, Country Music, Stan and Ollie), Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete, 45 Years, Weekend) and Jodi Shields (Casarotto Ramsay & Associates), breaking down the realities of building a sustainable career in film. From working on both sides of the Atlantic, across film, TV, and commercials, to navigating the many false-starts and crises that filmmakers can encounter throughout their careers, the message was clear: resilience is key, and the only resource greater than a thick skin is a strong support system of friends and peers who can help you out in a jam. 
Next came lunch with Gary Michael Walters, the CEO of Bold Films, and executive producer of Drive, The Neon Demon, Whiplash and Nightcrawler, followed by a screening of Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ brilliantly baroque lesbian werewolf melodrama, Good Manners
After the film, we regrouped to explore the first feature market with Bridge Pedgrift (Protagonist Pictures), Ellie Gibbons (Altitude Films), Jo Duncombe (ICO) and the BFI’s own Ben Luxford. It was time for some real-talk, with the brilliant and incredibly knowledgeable panel breaking down the facts on theatrical releases for first features, the importance of building early relationships with sales and distribution companies and knowing where your film sits in the market even at script stage. The session reminded us of an important truth: not every first feature will get a theatrical release, and not every one will need one to find its audience!
Lesson for the day: surround yourself with supportive people, and remember that your film exists in a marketplace, not a bubble.
Perhaps the biggest question on everyone’s mind was, how do you make the leap from shorts, theatre, or moving image work, to a feature that can play in the Festival? Rungano Nyoni kicked off the day in conversation with I Am Not a Witch’s executive producer Mary Burke for an incredibly generous and candid exploration of the film’s inception, evolution and production, alongside her own career trajectory. From shorts including the BAFTA-nominated Mwansa the Great to a first feature that premiered at Cannes, Rungano gave us invaluable insight into crafting a career that demonstrates the power of a singularity of vision, of knowing the story you want to tell, and of being able to make other people fall so in love with your ideas that they’re willing to take on all the risks involved in bringing them to life. 
After lunch, it was all about not only knowing which story to tell, but also which story to tell first. Rungano was joined by her fellow IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary nominees Daniel Kokotaljo and Michael Pearce, alongside Julia Oh, Creative Executive at Film4 and producer of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Daniel’s first feature, Apostasy, and Michael’s, Beast, were both nominated for the Sutherland Award at LFF alongside I Am Not a Witch, and all three filmmakers shared the origins of their projects, the various iterations and incarnations they’d been through, and the projects that fell by the wayside in the process. One commonality from all three of them emerged: whether writing spec or for schemes, solo or collaboratively, the ideas that became their fantastic debuts are the ones that kept returning again and again, refusing to be ignored. Julia’s message, meanwhile, was clear: what matters most is your voice, so find collaborators you trust, and tell the story you want to tell, not the one you think commissioners want to hear. 
After a day that placed so much emphasis on finding a powerful and original cinematic voice, we wrapped up with a screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest feature is a masterclass in the evolution of a cinematic voice, blending his trademark dialogue and performances stripped of almost all empathy with a Hitchcockian premise to produce a film that could not have been made by anyone else.       
Lesson for the day: trust your instincts, don’t ignore the story that insists on being told, and remember that there is no one correct way to tell it.
Moving on from outstanding British first features, we began the day by looking across the channel to France. Following a screening of the Sutherland Award-nominated Ava, the film’s writer and director, Léa Mysius, gave us the lowdown on bringing her controversial film to life. Léa is a graduate of La Fémis, the French state film school that gave us such incredible filmmakers as Claire Denis, Céline Sciamma and François Ozon, and the radical spirit of the school is visible in her debut, which charts the sexual awakening of a teenage girl struggling with the loss of her eyesight. Léa’s insight into French public funding, and particularly the heavy investment in first features, highlighted the massive importance of standing out from the crowd in the UK, where opportunities are fewer and further between. Léa’s determination to make her complex and bold film without compromise or bowing to external pressure taught her a valuable lesson that she shared with the group: if you’re taking risks in the stories you tell, you’re going to be challenged, again and again, to justify them, so it’s vital to know your story inside out, and not be too proud to defend it.
It’s important to find champions that can get a first feature made and seen, and an appetite for a filmmaker’s work beings with their shorts. To delve deep into how a filmmaker can build up an international audience before they make their feature, we were joined by a brilliant line up of short film programmers from international film festivals. Katie Metcalfe (Sundance), Ben Thomson (Tribeca) and Peter van Hoof (International Film Festival Rotterdam) joined the British Council’s Jemma Desai to share their considerable wisdom, and examine the new horizons for emerging talent on the festival landscape. They explained that planning a festival strategy carefully is key: knowing the programming remits of each festival and what place your film might have in it, and of nurturing relationships with programmers. They also underlined that space for shorts is miniscule compared to the number of submissions they receive, and that films are usually programmed not only as individual works but alongside other films that explore similar themes and motifs, so a rejection is more often because there isn’t a home for the film in that year’s shorts programmes, rather than because the work is poor.
Keeping with the day’s international focus, we settled down for a screening of Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name. An Italian / French / Brazilian / American co-production in English, Italian, French and German, Guadagnino’s fifth feature is not only a richly textured emotional powerhouse and a peach-sweet love letter to Italian filmmaking, but also a shining example of how clever international financing can raise the funds to produce complex queer work with integrity. After the screening, the incredibly eloquent Guadagnino joined us for an in-depth discussion of his career, and the film’s journey to almost inevitable Oscar glory. His cine-literacy outweighed only by his modesty, Luca’s most valuable lesson was the importance of learning the name of everyone working on your film, and of always being the hardest working person you know.    
Lesson for the day: ditch the hubris, and know your crew as well as you know your craft.
The final day of NETWORK @ LFF continued its international exploration with Cory Finley, whose chilling study of teenage privilege, Thoroughbreds, was the only first feature in Official Competition at this year’s Festival. Cory joined us after a screening of the film, and spoke about his transition from theatre to film. Cory taught us that making your first feature is always a daunting task, and attracting cast to a project in its early stages can sometimes bring forward production dates much more quickly than expected, so it’s important to roll with the punches, embrace the chaos, and have faith in your ability! 
Up next was Marco Dutra, the co-writer and co-director of the Brazilian werewolf fairytale, Good Manners, also in Official Competition, which he made with his frequent collaborator Juliana Rojas. Marco spoke of the value of listening to each other when working together, and of never arguing in front of your cast and crew! Collaboration ran deep in the making of Good Manners: Marco and Juliana ran improvisations with their cast to really discover their characters’ voices, and this led to changes in the script. 
After lunch, we returned to the first feature landscape one last time, with South African writer/director, John Trengove. John’s film, The Wound, which won the Festival’s Sutherland Award for best first feature, is a complex study of sexual identity amid Xhosa rituals shrouded in secrecy. John gave the group incredible insight into the responsibility that comes with telling stories from communities that are not our own, and of why it's important to plan everything diligently but be ready for those plans to go out the window on the day.
Lesson for the day: know your production inside-out, but don’t be afraid of changes – to your script, to your schedule, or to your shoot.
At last, it was time to live up to the NETWORK name, as we assembled an A Team of industry guests for this year’s one-to-ones. Speed dating-style, the group met with agents, execs, producers and filmmakers for a whistle-stop tour of what the next step in their careers might be, and of the pathways they can take to get there. Then all that was left to do was raise a glass to our brilliant participants with colleagues, friends and alumni, and celebrate an incredibly insightful, inspiring and motivating 5 days at NETWORK @ LFF! 
We assembled a group of bold, disruptive filmmakers whose work is going to challenge and change the British film industry, and they’re already living up to that task. We can’t wait to see what they do next!