In the digital age, even the most established film festivals are finding the going hard. But as it approaches its first quarter century, London’s Raindance Film Festival is embracing the chaos ushered in by the rise of new technologies. “You’d think after 24 years it would get easier,” says festival founder Elliot Grove. “But it doesn’t, it just gets different.”
And what was different this year was the festival’s global reach: the event received more than 8,000 submissions from over 100 countries. “Our programmers were tortured,” Grove says. “From that [many submissions], how could they pick the 85 shorts, 107 features and documentaries, the VR projects, the music videos, and the web series pilots? In the early [days] of Raindance, all those years ago, when John Major was still [the U.K.’s] prime minister, we showed absolutely everything, and now we show practically nothing of what is submitted.
“I guess the other hallmark of Raindance over the last three or four years is that we do not show any of the local distributors’ films, so our films, including opening and closing night, come from the submissions that we get,” Grove says. “Inexperienced members of the team say, ‘Oh we should call up so-and-so and get a big film,’ but the older programmers say, ‘The opening film will find us’ — as it has this year.”
This year’s opener on Sept. 21, “Problemski Hotel” reflects the festival’s international outlook, being a Belgian film shot in English, Russian, and Arabic.
Says Grove: “It’s a very gritty look at the problems that an immigrant or a refugee from the deep south or the deep east is facing in trying to get themselves to Britain and safer soil. It’s very fitting, with all the Brexit stuff and the immigrant crisis going on, and to do that in a non-linear narrative style, with occasional touches of laugh-out-loud humor, is the reason it was selected.”
It’s an unusual choice, and Grove accepts that there is little rhyme or reason to what constitutes an opening night film for the festival. “Raindance isn’t so much about precedent,” he says. “We’re more about innovation and responding to stuff we see. I know that sounds extremely pompous, but, historically, that has been the goal of the film festival — our remit, from day one, has been all about discovering new talent, the kind of stuff without stars. Which is a great thing, but it’s also a marketing nightmare.”
Nevertheless, Grove believes his festival does have a unique formula. “[The films] have an extreme topic, one that’s timely and makes audiences uncomfortable. Another thing we’re looking for is extreme filmmaking technique: how did they put it together? It could be made in a war zone, or with no money, or using different kinds of cameras. And the third thing, and the biggest thing, is that it needs to sell the story and be extremely entertaining. These things do not fit into the so-called Hollywood mold, and most of our filmmakers have had their films turned down by [the major production companies].”
Having courted web series in the past, Raindance now, similar to festivals as diverse as Sundance, IDFA, and more recently Venice, has expanded to include Virtual Reality, an innovation that intrigues rather than daunts Grove. “The whole industry has really shifted in the quarter century that I’ve been doing this,” he says. “No longer do you get a million dollars, get a camera, shoot a film, be assured of a VHS or DVD release, and then pay your investors back. Those days are long gone.
“So how do you use the tool of the internet, how do you use virtual reality or AR? Nobody really understands what’s going on, which makes Raindance all the more exciting, simply because the vibrancy and freshness of the work that’s submitted.
“The innovation that these filmmakers use to get these projects out of their head and onto the screen is simply staggering.”