Saturday 20th October

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24th Raindance Film Festival, 21st September – 2nd October 2016

| Cinema, Festivals | 20/09/2016

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Tomorrow sees the start of the annual Raindance Film Festival in London’s West End – now Europe’s largest independent film festival.  Across 12 days, audiences will get the chance to see 90 feature films, 85 short films, an incredible Virtual Reality Arcade, and dozens of talks by the film industry’s great and good.  

Despite modest beginnings, Raindance has become a very big deal, helping launch the careers of Edgar Wright and Christopher Nolan, and providing a launchpad for films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Memento to achieve critical acclaim and commercial success.  

Ian Cater spoke to Raindance’s founder, Elliot Grove, about the inspiration behind it and what London film fans can expect to see at this year’s festival.

Elliot Grove, the brains behind Raindance, is getting used to patting himself on the back.  “I nearly dislocated my arm yesterday,” he chuckles knowingly, but with good reason.  His tireless team has processed a record number of entries this year (6,250 submissions from 98 countries); he’s put together the strongest judging panel yet, featuring Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry and Anna Friel; and his production arm has several advanced projects hoping to emulate the critically acclaimed and darkly powerful Deadly Virtues: Love. Honour. Obey.

But Grove – all languid style and cool sunglasses – hasn’t let the success go to his head and remains crystal clear about the challenge he faces.  “Our mandate is to show the very best of independent cinema from around the world, so the movies we show are generally nothing like Hollywood,” he explains.

“Because we have no stars in them, we rely on people like your readers to take a chance and come to see some extremely entertaining and informative films.  If they’re independent thinkers, which I think the best people are, I’m confident they’ll enjoy what they see and need more.”

Love film

Commission Mcc0045489Business Club:If Grove sounds evangelical about films, that’s no surprise.  “I grew up on what was essentially an Amish farm, north of Toronto,” he says.  “We had no television and I was taught: ‘never go to a movie theatre, because the devil lives there’.

“But when I was 16, I wanted to see what the devil looked like, so I went to see Lassie Come Home.”  Grove chuckles at his mainstream choice.  “I had no idea even what a movie was and it totally blew my mind: the colours, emotions, music.  And I’ve been in love with movies ever since.”

That love lead to an early career as a scenic artist on Canadian feature films and commercials, before Grove moved his family to London in the late 1980s.  He did a number of jobs to make ends meet, before returning to his roots and setting up the Raindance Film School in 1992 – a wordplay on Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute across the drier side of the pond.

“I decided to bring people across from America to talk about subjects of interest to me,” he says.  “Fortunately, others were interested too.  Edgar Wright was my first intern.  He was the poor guy tasked with carrying my boxes up and down the stairs.”

Wright clearly learnt more than just heavy lifting under Grove’s tutelage, making his first film at Raindance before going on to write and direct Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  Another to progress through the ranks was Christopher Nolan, who used Grove’s offices as a production base for Memento.  Nolan’s now a serious Hollywood player, using his independent cinematic success to launch a move into more mainstream – but equally idiosyncratic – movies such as The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception.

Moving pictures

Although Grove loves helping filmmakers find their way, he’s knows it’s not enough to make good films: you’ve got to get people to see them.  This is what led to him organising the first Raindance Film Festival in 1993.  “Back then, the set-up was pretty basic,” he admits.  “I got hold of the Cannes product guide and circled movies I liked.  Then I started faxing distributors until I ran out of money.  Miraculously, they pretty much all showed up.  It was very low rent but it succeeded.”

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What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

That success was partly due to its first ever public screening of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?  The moving, small-town drama gained plaudits for the mature performances of Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis, while a 14-year-old Leonardo diCaprio received an Oscar nomination for playing Depp’s mentally challenged younger brother.

Grove can clearly spot a winner, showing Memento, The Blair Witch Project and Oldboy before other festivals would touch them.  I ask him what he saw in those films that marked them out for success.

“Success is a funny word,” he smiles.  “There are many excellent films that are yet to see the acclaim or financial riches they deserve.  The films you mention have done that, but other great movies come from the same place: directors who share genuine – often extreme – passion and can tell an entertaining story.

“Three years ago, we showed a Brooklyn musical called How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song.  It was absolutely brilliant but no-one’s heard of it.  And about eight years ago, we screened One Day Removals – a hilarious, tragic, black Scottish comedy.  It got a standing ovation, but didn’t get picked up.  That one’s now on YouTube and I’d urge your readers to check it out.”

Raindance’s success continues to rely on sifting the excellent from the average.  “Now all our movies are submitted to us and we pick the very best of those.  My team has to cull over 6,000 down to 200.  We’re looking for something extreme, something not usually taken on by Hollywood.  It may be about conflict, poverty, plastics in the ocean … but, above all, we ask: is it a story that people want to watch?  In the early days we showed pretty much anything, but now it’s very hard to get into Raindance.”

The 2016 vintage

Between Us Still

Between Us

This year’s selection seems particularly strong, with voyeuristic Japanese film A Double Life and US romance Between Us among the front-runners to win Best Feature Film.

Grove also has high praise for tomorrow night’s opening feature, Problemski Hotel: “It comes from Belgium – a nation not normally associated with filmmaking or humour – and deals with people-smuggling and immigration.  Those are obviously very topical issues, but the film’s been chosen mainly because it’s really entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny.”

The festival’s being held at Vue Piccadilly Circus and nearby Century Club, where the jury has the tough task of deciding over a dozen awards.  “They’re all so strong,” Grove gushes.  “The beauty of Raindance is that someone can walk into any screening, knowing nothing about Armenian art house thrillers, but still enjoy the story.  And the judges love being part of it.  Who doesn’t want to be around fresh, new talent?”

Raindance also pays tribute to those who’ve contributed to independent cinema.  This year sees particular focus on the work of Women In Film and the LGBT+ community.  And, on 27th September, Grove will present Ken Loach – fresh from winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake – with the first-ever Raindance Auteur Award during an intriguing Q&A session.

Grove doesn’t want to focus too much on the past, eager to tell me about the developments in Virtual Reality being showcased at The Hospital Club near Covent Garden.  “We’ve got 14 VR experiences which are second to none.  Come down to the arcade and look around The Jungle in Calais, or take a space walk on a US shuttle.  Each of these are extremely memorable.”

Armenian art house, Belgian comedy, immersive sci-fi … it seems that Grove and Raindance truly have something for everyone.

The Raindance Film Festival 2016 takes place between 21 September and 2 October in the West End.  For full listings, and more information about the festival and organisation, go to Raindance’s official website.  

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