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Clare Stewart on the London Fest as Awards Launch Pad, and Films on Social Issues

Festival director says this year's films will shine a light on social division, immigration

Clare Stewart is the Australian who has breathed new life into the BFI London Film Festival. Her tenure as festival director has seen the scope of the event broadened beyond Central London theaters to neighborhoods throughout the capital and across the rest of Britain. The festival’s spot on the calendar has also recently turned it into a prime platform for launching Oscar campaigns, as with “Moonlight,” which was in competition in London last year.

The 61st edition of the festival opens Wednesday evening with Andrew Garfield-starrer “Breathe” (pictured). Variety spoke to Stewart about what to expect this year and how LFF has evolved.

Q: How does LFF fit into the calendar of events, how important is its place as a launchpad for a run at the Oscars?

London is home to a lot of voting Academy members and the BAFTAs. In very real terms we have articulated the benefit of screening at the festival and positioning the films for the awards-season campaign. The headline galas now are attracting the annual [Oscar] contenders each year, and that feels like a strategy that has worked to elevate the festival overall.

We have also formally bedded in a relationship with AMPAS where we are inviting their voting members to press and industry screenings for the headline galas. That’s in its fourth year that they have hosted the European-new-members welcome event during the festival. We do an event with them discussing different aspects of the Academy Awards. This year we are looking at VFX.

Q: How do you think LFF is now perceived internationally?

I think there has been a really palpable and positive shift in terms of the impact of the…festival, in its playing strongly into the window, its calendar moment. I’m also very proud that filmmakers love the experience of coming and screening in London, and that’s a combination of the audience response here and the kind of questions engagement that happen and filmmakers value that.

Not only are we attracting more filmmakers, but more and more of the industry that surrounds them. This is becoming a very vibrant informal business hub as well as well as having the terrific screening program.

Q: What themes come through in this year’s program?

You have to be sensitive to the year in film, and something has emerged this year is films around social division and immigration…whether that be ambitious, super-inventive large-scale projects like Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” or a documentary in competition called “Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time,” in which one of the co-directors [Iranian-born journalist Behrouz Boochani] is a detainee and filmed surreptitiously on a mobile phone, giving this very real urgency to the refugee experience.

There is also “A Season in France,” which is a subtle, moving drama about a man and his two children who are refugees in France, and you see them starting their lives afresh and becoming increasingly invisible as their lives go on.

Q: Tells us about the projects tackling social division.

It’s something everyone is highly attuned to. That can be something as something as background-palpable as it is in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” which is our closing night film. It’s set very much in the context of small-town America and the limitations and divisions that are palpable, whether they are racial or to do with class.

Then there are films that deal with that very upfront, like Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which is set post-World War but incredibly resonant in terms of current racial politics and people’s experiences in the U.S., through to Roland Joffe’s “The Forgiven,” with Forest Whitaker playing Desmond Tutu at the time of reconciliation trials in South Africa, pitted against Eric Bana playing a truly racist and horrific Afrikaner.

Q: Why was “Breathe” selected as the opening-night gala film?

For me it’s very important to choose a film that highlights British talent and puts that front and center in our opening-night position. Having Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, with terrific performances from Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, is a celebration of British talent. It’s also a powerful story and a film that has both love story elements and social impact.

Q: What responsibility do you have to support British filmmakers?

We are the U.K.’s festival, the leading platform for introducing new film to audiences, and that comes with a very strong responsibility. There are 39 feature films screening that are British, which demonstrates a real commitment to British cinema. What excites me about that is it’s across the range, breadth and depth of the program.

Q: You have explored the role of women in film, and black filmmakers and performers. What issues will you address this year?

We are looking disability and access, which is a real consideration for industry in terms of representation and actual access to films and cinemas. The film industry has a lot further to go in terms of creating more opportunities for actors and performers with disabilities as well as people behind the camera, and in terms of how you create access [for the audience]. The festival being such a hub, you can create significant points of debate that will, you hope, lead to an industry response.

Q: What are you doing in terms of continuing to support women in the industry?

This year, 25% of our program is directed by women – more than 60 features. It’s better than most international festivals and better than the theatrical market place in the U.K., which is 13.8%. From a programming point of view we do have a commitment to looking out for films directed by women and how we position them. We are gatekeepers, we have responsibilities and one of those is being proactive in the kind of world we want to live in.