Speaking with Iris Prize founder Berwyn Rowlands

Film writer Fedor Tot catches up with the mind behind one of Wales' leading LGBTQ+ initiatives

7 June 2019

Since its inception in 2007, the Iris Prize has become one of the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ film festivals, and the biggest film festival in Wales. It’s also proven to be a steadfast presence in encouraging young filmmakers on their path, particularly those invested in LGBTQ+ stories. For the audiences (and this writer), Iris feels much like a never-ending celebration of the quality LGBTQ+ filmmaking, and it's unrestricted by the trudge of networking obligations and creative inaccessibility, favouring a good old fashioned post-film chat instead.

I spoke with festival director and founder Berwyn Rowlands - a cheerful man whose eternal optimism and calm you sense is vital to the festival’s health - who recalls the inspiration behind starting the festival:

“From an industry point-of-view, it was driven from within Wales, wanting to prove that you could have a big British event coming out of Cardiff, challenging the perception that it must be London-based," he says.

"Unless it was sports or music, no one paid attention to Cardiff."

“The other objective was applying all the expertise that I’ve acquired over 20 years and making use of the contacts I had globally in all my other roles. If you had those basics: access to studios, producers, film festivals, etc., could you bring it together in Wales? The rest was smoke and mirrors.”

Rowlands admits that for Iris' first edition, the prize-winning money had yet not been sourced. Which was just as well, as its winner, Dee Rees, took some time to mull over her next move; “Otherwise we would have been in a very interesting position!”

Crucial to the Iris mission is the desire to reward the best up-and-coming talent in a way that encourages filmmakers without smothering them:

“Our intention was always to improve standards…I think agencies, who develop talent, with them there’s a danger that you support new talent in a way where you literally cradle them,” says Rowlands.

For the winner of the main Iris Prize – a shortlist of 35 LGBTQ+ short films from all over the world – the reward is £30,000 to make their next short, as well as production support from Iris. For the winner of Best British Short – a separate competition of 15 films that started when Berwyn became “unbelievably paranoid that it was more difficult getting into the Iris final because we were more critical if you were British” – the prize is a £20,000 credit note from Pinewood Studios to aid with sound and post-production on their next film.

Such rewards open doors. A Pinewood Studios credit note aids budget-building, with international investing ears pricking up at its mention, whilst all the post-Iris Prize films have been filmed in Wales. Not a stipulation, Berwyn says, but because the filmmakers are interested in the expanded horizons of international work, to the point where most are already shooting the summer after winning the Prize in October. The last few years have also seen an output deal with BBC Wales (currently winding down) so the follow-up shorts have had an immediate home.

Some of the winners have been students with one film under their belt, others have been experienced filmmakers with a portfolio. All get the same support. The aforementioned Dee Rees was the winner of the first edition with Pariah. The Iris-funded follow-up became Colonial Gods. Fast forward a few years, and Rees helms Mudbound, nominated for four Oscars in 2018, including the first nomination for a woman in Best Cinematography, Rachel Morrison. Rees is a runaway success story in this case, but Iris’ commitment to helping the winners with the next step of their careers – beyond just the obligatory ribbon on the poster – is part of the puzzle.

It’s not just the money, but the infrastructure; “we care about the film; we don’t demand the premiere. Once the film is made, if it’s obvious it should go to somewhere else first [then it does] and it has happened. Similarly, Involuntary Activist [follow-up to 2017’s winner by Mikael Bundsen] went straight to BBC Wales and then international.”

Berwyn at times wonders if Iris maybe put too much focus on the winners: “If I compare Iris to politics, I’d say we’ve gone with traditional first-past-the-post.” But he’s also at pains to point out that they’ve gotten better at treating all their filmmakers. It’s hard to begrudge the success of a festival operating in two niches – that of short film and of LGBT+ cinema. “We’ve definitely not gone for the easy option! But over 12 years we’ve created something that is actually global. We don’t have to use the word ‘international’ in our title.”

You can find out more about the Iris Prize and all the work that they do here.