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British Independent Film Awards Spotlight Socially Engaged Films

Itself a spinoff from the annual Raindance Film Festival, the British Independent Film Awards, founded in 1988 as an upstart alternative to the straitlaced BAFTA, recently launched its own ancillary event. Titled BIFA Meets, it offers a chance for cineastes to spend an hour with some of the biggest names in independent film.

On Nov. 17, it was the turn of two-time BIFA winner Brendan Gleeson to take the stage at a curious moment in world history, in the eerie doldrums between Donald Trump moving into the White House and the U.K. leaving — or not — the European Union. What Gleeson said that night struck a chord with Deena Wallace, together with Amy Gustin one of the BIFA’s joint co-directors.

“Brendan said that the purpose of film — and the arts generally — is to make us feel less alone,” Wallace recalls. “He said that film has the power to create real empathy and shared human experience, and I believe many of the BIFA-nominated films do this very powerfully.”

Wallace could easily be talking about this year’s BIFA field-leader, “I, Daniel Blake,” which garnered seven BIFA nominations for its director, coincidentally also the subject of documentary contender “Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach.”

The story of an unfit-for-work carpenter who falls fouls of a bureaucratic welfare system, “I, Daniel Blake,” was a surprise Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and has so far taken a huge £2.85 million ($3.56 million) in the U.K.

“That [sentiment] applies utterly to ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ ” says Loach’s longtime ally and producer Rebecca O’Brien. “It’s exactly what has happened with that film, it’s brought people together. It sounds strange to make such a claim about a film, but it genuinely has had a community effect. People have been really affected by it. There are endless stories of audiences being in tears or spontaneously clapping at the end, even just at screenings in their local cinemas. It’s had that impact. So many people identify with the story that it’s almost got a life of its own now. People are finding their voice through it — they’ve been silenced by the system, but the film has given them a voice, and identity.”

“I, Daniel Blake” represents a more traditional entry in this year’s BIFA race, which is particularly eclectic this year, pitting festival favorites “American Honey,” “Notes on Blindness,” and “Under the Shadow” against the lesser-known “Couple in a Hole” for best British independent film.

“They are mostly towards the more indie end of the spectrum, exactly the films that BIFA was set up to champion,” Gustin says. “Which should also make for a really good atmosphere on the night — films and filmmakers that aren’t necessarily getting recognized elsewhere are, rightly, given the opportunity to celebrate their achievements, too. There’s also a bit more genre stuff in there than usual, which is great, too, as it showcases the variety and range of British film.”

In only their second year running the show, both Gustin and Wallace admit that that it has been a steep learning curve. Nevertheless, they promise a pacey two-hour show, with Taittinger literally supplying the fizz and this year presented by “Absolutely Fabulous” creator Jennifer Saunders.

“We’re very excited about Jennifer hosting,” Wallace says. “She is incredibly funny and intelligent, with just the right mix of acerbic wit and genuine warmth.”

The pair have made some policy changes, too, opening up the voting process, allowing all registered voters to vote for best British independent film, and adding more talent categories. Having said that, the pair concede that the BIFAs have their own identity, and as they get closer to the awards 20th anniversary edition, that national treasure status has to be preserved.

“There’s a lot that people love about BIFA and don’t want to change,” Wallace says. “There’s a reason people come back year after year, and we hope we have managed not to take away what people love whilst also trying to make it feel a bit different and fresh. We hope that this means we’re doing more of what the industry wants us to: highlighting new talent and reflecting their view of what the best films of the year are.”

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