We have reached the 31st edition of the Chichester International Film Festival - and this is my last. What an extraordinary journey it has been, from those modest beginnings in 1992 to this year's event. With a record number of more than 25 UK premieres, and with so many film makers coming to Chichester to present their work, it must indeed be our biggest Festival yet.
This Festival is dedicated to the late great film critic Derek Malcolm (1932 - 2023).
We are honoured that Hugh Bonneville is to introduce ‘To Olivia’ - in which he plays Roald Dahl - as part of the first major retrospective of HB’s work. Although he is renowned for ‘Paddington’ and ‘Downton Abbey’, we have concentrated on his other films and a rich selection of his TV work.
As part of her retrospective, we were delighted to have Cate Blanchett agree to be part of a Q&A after the screening of the superb ‘Tár’ (for me, the best film of the year - and was she not robbed of the Oscar?), but can now not appear due to the SAG and writers'strikes in the United States.
Writing this piece at the end of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and surveying our programme, I noticed connections between the films, some accidental (subconscious?) and others deliberate. Several of the selections reflect Russian culture: ‘Tchaikovsky's Wife’, from dissident director Kiril Serebrennikov, portrays the tumultuous relationship between the composer and his obsessive spouse. It was shown at last year's Cannes and now receives its UK premiere. As an interesting comparison, I have included Ken Russell's equally feverish ‘The Music Lovers’, starring the late Glenda Jackson as Nina. To mark the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth, Tony Palmer will introduce his outstanding documentary, subtitled ‘The Harvest of Sorrow’; and we also have Rudolf Nureyev's 1981 film of ‘Don Quixote’, starring Robert Helpmann.
From Austria we present the art of Vienna at the turn of the 19th century with two lavish biopics, both directed by Dieter Berner: ‘Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden’ and ‘Oscar and Alma’ (a UK premiere). Isabelle Huppert features in ‘By Heart’, a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary from the Avignon Festival, where she is seen rehearsing Chekhov's unforgettable heroine in ‘The Cherry Orchard’, while Fabrice Luchini recites Nietzsche. Huppert is in three other films: ‘Slow Motion’, part of a tribute to Jean-Luc Godard; ‘About Joan’, recollections of a tempestuous life; and Chabrol's ‘Merci pour la chocolat’, a portrait of pure evil from Huppert and one of my most cherished movies.
As this is my swan-song, I have indulged myself in selecting some favourites. I must emphasise that these are not the ‘best’, or ‘greatest’, films ever made; indeed, I doubt if many are in the latest ‘Sight and Sound’ decennial poll of the 100 greatest, which we will debate in one of our illustrated talks. My personal list ranges from ‘Fantasia’ to ‘The Wild Bunch’. Another of my ‘faves’ is Hitchcock, who looms elsewhere: ‘Strangers on a Train’ is part of the ‘Loving Highsmith’ strand; ‘Madeleine Collins’, enjoying its UK premiere, has echoes of ‘Vertigo’; and it will be interesting to see Mark Cousins’ re-examination of Hitch in the new documentary ‘My Name is Alfred Hitchcock’.
Once I thought documentaries remained suitable only for television – sorry, Mr Grierson – but they continue to evolve into a major cinema genre. They are strongly represented in the Festival, with many UK premieres. I especially recommend ‘I'm Still Here’, a thought-provoking plea for compassion towards the homeless, and we are delighted that Elizabeth Healey (co-director) and Elizabeth McGovern (producer) will attend the screening for a Q&A. From Ukraine, Serge Krutsenko’s ‘The Address on the Wall’ was initially to be confined to the 1941 Babyn Yar Massacres, but it became overtaken by the Russian invasion of his country in March 2022. In his touching and quietly humorous ‘Much Ado about Dying’, Simon Chambers records how he became the carer of his uncle, David Gale, an octogenarian former Shakespearean actor: it is discomfiting but life-affirming. We are proud to have the first UK screening of the important and timely ‘Afghanistan’, which chronicles a British soldier’s return to the country amid the Taliban takeover. In contrast we have two enjoyable mockumentaries: ‘Ufologists’, a credible TV profile of four members of Cornwall Ufologists pursuing their quest for a close encounter; and, hot from Sundance accolades, ‘Theater Camp’, a hilarious send-up of drama instructors, in the style of Christopher Guest.
Humour is not far away elsewhere, with a bittersweet Belgian/Swiss comedy, ‘Last Dance’, in which an elderly widower joins an experimental avant-garde troupe beloved by his late wife. There are films by Woody Allen and Jacques Tati; Miloš Forman 's wonderful comedy ‘The Firemen's Ball’; and classic silents, including Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last!’. Neil Brand presents the story of Laurel and Hardy with clips and live accompaniment. John Sweeney's piano wizardry will accompany René Clair’s charming ‘The Italian Straw Hat’ in the Guildhall, Priory Park. Ben Hall returns to give us the creeps playing organ to Lon Chaney' s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in St John's Chapel; and, also in the Guildhall, Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ will be afforded the jazz treatment by the Buster plays Buster quartet. Finally, our regular event combining a documentary with live jazz will focus on Ronnie Scott's Club. With a terrific quintet led by Andrew Cleyndert, this promises to be another great evening of jazz – and a highlight of CIFF 2023.
Please note with so many UK premieres, we are adding the symbol ‘Film Festival Exclusive’ for films that have been imported especially for our Festival. So, catch them here as they are unlikely to return.
We would like to thank our continued partnership with the Institut Français who are providing us with three outstanding French previews.
My heartfelt thanks to the incredible Cinema staff, including Patrick Hargood and the education team, along with the enthusiastic volunteers who over the years have made these marathons possible. I would especially like to thank Walter Francisco who works miracles, and I would also like to extend my thanks to John Coldstream who has been so helpful to me with this Festival. As the Festival has grown and developed so has my stress and grumpiness. I must therefore pay tribute to my wife Josephine for her patience and all her enthusiastic support.
Roger Gibson (Artistic Director) July 2023