Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Cinecity 2013: My guide to being a film festival volunteer

In November, I helped out at Brighton's annual film festival run by the fantastic Cinecity team. The theme for the festival's 11th year was 'Adventures in World Cinema', so as you'd imagine, the schedule spanned global offerings from mellifluous Mexico to forward France and many film making nations in-between. The festival also payed homage to Jan Švankmajer, the wonderfully imaginative Czech surrealist filmmaker, with free screenings of his bizarre short films and an exhibition of his incredibly detailed and eclectic treasures, kindly on display for the inquisitive.

This is the first film festival I'd helped at. I work at a number of educational film and arts related events in Brighton and London, so had a margin of an idea of what to expect; lots of smiling, 'all hands to the pump' attitude and a great opportunity to learn. I've also been to a number of film festivals as both press and as a film fan, so my experience overall wasn't too much of a shock to the system, but more a completion of a cinematic circuit, of sorts. So I thought that instead of just giving an account of my experience at the festival, I'd compose a more practical breakdown of what a festival steward does, and how you can benefit by volunteering at your local festival.

Lots of Smiling

The iconic legs of Dukes@Komedia, Brighton
Whether you are working for free as a volunteer or getting paid, the ability to smile genuinely is a base requirement in the service industry. Cliched yes, but be it a volunteer taking tickets at the door, sharpening pencils ahead of film surveys or gracefully gliding around an audience handing out the microphones during Q&A sessions, you are one small cog in a fantastic machine that should result in a great 'experience' for each and every screening attendee. Putting it simply, pretend the festival goer in front of you is you. You would want to be greeting cheerily, any questions you may have you would want answered promptly and confidently, and any information that may be beneficial to your visit, highlighted to you. It's not rocket science. We can all spot bad customer service a mile off, but good customer service is a silent art. It should be seen and heard, but not so often spoken about; an accepted norm. Then there is great customer service - it can be equally viral as bad, but with an added fuzzy glow that can't be bottled.

Be Prepared

Cinecity 2013 Film posters - Geek Girl blog by Kerensa Bryant
At a film festival like Cinecity, the screening lineup will often be an exciting assortment of first screenings, so only members of the press and people in the film industry would have seen the titles up until this point. So use this as an exciting opportunity to really do your research. You may never get asked about the directors filmography or the camera's used in a film's production, but at a festival like this one where many of the pictures are of international content, get clued up on the country of origin, the language spoken (if foreign with subtitles), watch as many trailers as possible so you have a flavour of what to expect, and a tip I found handy was keep an eye on other films in the programme with similarities. As not everyone in the queue is a film buff, they often look to festival stewards to be able to recommend other films in the festival lineup. If a customer has just come out of Jan Švankmajer's Little Otik and they really enjoyed the emotion and offbeat styling, naturally you could recommend his other films in the festival, or screenings with heart, such as riotous coming-of-age punk-romp We Are The Best or the stunningly creative found-footage compilation of All This Can Happen. Naturally, you will also need to know the when and wheres of these screenings, so also never be far from a copy of the festival programme - ideally have spare with you to hand out too (I had a mini print-out always in my pocket).

Having a natural interest in film, I also found it advantageous knowing other films and seasons coming up outside of the festival that would be screened at the local Brighton venues. For example, I know that one of the Picturehouse cinema managers puts on a really strong LGBT programme throughout the year called Eyes Wide Open. Films such as Stranger By The Lake, Floating Skyscrapers and Jeune Et Jolie all featured during the Cinecity run, so films like Blue Is The Warmest Colour or Break My Fall; films showing concurrently or in future months as part of the special Eyes Wide Open lineup, may be good recommendations to those asking for films with such a thread.

At your festival induction (always make the effort to go to inductions when offered), you should have been given a building tour so you should already be prepped regarding locations of the basics such as toilet facilities, food and drink outlets and fire escapes (and procedures). If you have questions at the end, this is a great opportunity to source the info, as it's likely a customer or another steward will have the same question, but you'll be the one left stuck and on the spot, often when you cannot leave your post to seek the answer. Be it the dress code expected from you, the details of the festival promotional ticket offers or the location of the other venues involved in the festival, do your homework.

An opportunity to Learn

I love helping and running events and film festivals because I learn so much. From all of my simple and practical tips in this post, to the spectrum of films I get to watch (when before I may never had even heard of), to the conversations I have with the new film industry people I get to meet - every event, film and conversation is an opportunity to learn about the industry, broadening my tastes and further submerge my passion for film. From the pure enjoyment as a viewer to my sheer love of business and processes, what you take away from your experience will always be individual to you and wholly down to what you want to get out of it.

I was new to Jan Svankmejer's body of work, but after watching many of his short films and features at the festival and streaming online, I've also learnt about The Quay Brothers; stop-motion animators who, in the same ilk as Svankmejer, are incredible artists whose work I encourage everyone to find out more about. I got to watch films that I had no preconception of; a rarity in this day and age of the multi-trailer and many-media film review.

I also find that many localities and industries can prove surprisingly small, which can prove a great benefit of those looking to perhaps find a job with a film twist or network with creative equals. Both Brighton and the UK film market prove no exception. I often bump into filmmakers, cinema chain faces and avid film fans as a direct result from being part of these great events. Be it a job to some or something to do in spare time for others, the invisible celluloid of the love of film running through all these individuals is more often than not the same, so a common ground of familiarity is ever present.

Why work at a film festival?

For someone wanting to get into festival and event management, working at a film festival will give you an insight as to the sort of person you need to be; there may be smiles on the outside, but the ability to clone oneself and organise like a demon are commonplace necessities in all levels of festival and venue staff.

For someone who just wants to get to watch a load of films for free, you also get to meet great people with similar interests, who you can make great friends with over a pint of Fanta and vat of popcorn.

For someone wanting to network with film industry professionals, keep an eye out for Q&A panels with the actual filmmakers or contributors in attendance, as there may be opportunities to meet them and network after the event - but don't be a pest; remember your duties as a volunteer still come first (if you want your reputation to remain in tact) and try and have a business card, or something to exchange contact details via.

Support your local film festival

Whatever your pull towards getting involved, support your local film festival by going along to watch a film you are intrigued by that might not be your 'usual' cup of tea. Sign up to a festival volunteer list (usually advertised anything from 1-4 months before the start of a festival) and be an asset within a hub of cinematic fun. Don't be put off by your age, day job or the worry that you'll be competing against film students and film buffs. There will of course be a maximum number of volunteers that any one festival can take on, but the volunteer criteria is often very simple; the ability and willingness to help, and a love of film, oh and flexibility - some volunteer dates will be set in stone, others may be a very last minute request to step in. We are all so lucky to have a wealth of film festivals happening around the British Isles, so hopefully you can find one local to you.

Further links:

legendary Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer
legendary Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer
legendary Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer
Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 18:30