Watersprite Film Festival 2018: Tackling inaccessibility in the film industry

Will Tilbrook 29 January 2018

‘There need to be more opportunities in the industry based on merit rather than personal connections’ emphasises Sofia Lyall, Head of Awards for this year’s Watersprite Film Festival.

 It’s an important statement to make as Watersprite begins to set itself in motion once again as a showcase for filmmakers. Past festivals have shown a wealth of excellent short films, accompanied by speakers including Eddie Redmayne, Olivia Coleman, and other industry experts. This year’s event, running from the 23rd to the 25th February, promises just as vibrant an atmosphere. There is a sense of a strong commitment to give international talent looking to break into the notoriously difficult industry a real boost.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday evening’s ‘past award winners’ celebration at the ADC theatre, Lyall is clear about what the committee hope to see next month. ‘I like films where you can tell the filmmaker has a clear vision.  (That) they’ve had an idea and want to see it on the screen; when you watch the film and it feels unique to that particular filmmaker. For me, that’s when they are most successful.’  Tuesday night is set to be an opportunity to see a selection of high quality shorts that have been submitted annually to the festival since 2010.  Last year’s submissions included some real stand outs, notably Elisa which Lyall counts to be a favourite, the work of two Russian student filmmakers. ‘It’s about a young girl who has a very controlling mother. The colours are beautiful; they use lots of soft pastel tones but create such as tense, angsty atmosphere. It’s very powerful. The young girl is a very impressive actor – they told us they found her on the metro in Moscow and knew they wanted her to be in their film!’

This is just one example of the festival’s international appeal and consequently, the sheer variety of voices and experiences brought to the fore in the films produced. ‘We’ve had student filmmakers come to the festival from Russia, Nepal, Iceland and Myanmar in the past. It’s amazing to meet these filmmakers from all over the world, get to know them, reward the incredible amounts of effort they put into their fantastic short films and see how much the festival means to them.’ What remains impressive is the willingness of this worldwide talent to converge in the Cambridge bubble, in many ways an unsuspecting centre for inspiring burgeoning filmmaking careers. Lyall emphasises it’s ‘the relationships between the filmmakers and the committee’ that makes this Cambridge festival particularly attractive. ‘We’re a really small film festival so it means it’s much more intimate. The students come here for a weekend and we celebrate their talent, offer them amazing opportunities while also giving them a really friendly, fun weekend and showing them our university life in Cambridge.’

While the festival is highly accessible, there is an acknowledgement of the inaccessibility of the film industry itself. For many aspiring filmmakers, getting a foot in the door continues to be seen as a considerable challenge. ‘I think it comes across as daunting and difficult to navigate for students entering the industry.’ For Lyall, getting in is often a case of ‘who you know. Film courses and camera equipment are very expensive so it immediately limits who can enter the industry. There should be more internships and apprenticeships that support diversity.’

Watersprite can be considered a key participant in the grassroots work tackling this issue head on. ‘The festival offers filmmakers a great way to meet people with similar interests and ambitions. They can speak to other aspiring filmmakers as well as professionals from the industry who speak and host the Gala events. Last year, the winner of our Filmmaker of the Future prize got to go to Cannes Film Festival to take part in the producers’ workshop there.’

With #OscarsSoWhite remaining very much an emblematic reflection of the mainstream film industry today, there is a sense of optimism and confidence that the Watersprite Film Festival is working to encourage change at a micro level. ‘I think student filmmakers are more and more eager to use their voices as borders seem to become ever more concrete around us. It’s a nice thought that while borders are closing on a global scale, we are welcoming people from further and further afield each year.’