Q&A with Susanne Notman
Published on March 26th, 2012 | by Carlos J. Segura0
During the opening night of the Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF), which ran from March 16 to March 22, one couldn’t help but notice that there was something different and enjoyable about this festival experience. It was no one thing. The combination of unusually (I can’t emphasize this enough) friendly theatergoers, a small but absolutely beautiful, charming screening venue, plus the local views, colorful architecture, an equally friendly staff; all of it, if it’s anything to go by, augers promise that this may end up being one of my most positive and memorable film festival experiences.
BIFF is certainly the anti-Cannes in the sense that the agenda―or at least it seems so just in the way people carry on―of all those in attendance is of a more relaxed nature, namely to enjoy films in an unbelievably beautiful location, while taking the art of filmmaking and film-going just as seriously as any international film festival. To give a bit of insight into this festival we have Susanne Notman, Chair of the Board of Trustees, who was kind enough to give us a bit of the history and present of this delightful film festival.
Before your film festival came about, what were the options for cinephiles or aspiring filmmakers in Bermuda?
Very little. Kung fu movies, action thrillers (laughs), whatever. There was no independent film whatsoever. We have another festival, which is still running, the Bermuda Festival of Performing Arts, and the chairman of that festival and the treasurer, they had started showing independent films at this performing arts festival. These two, Stanley Ratteray and Stanley Chetkowski, in particular, went to a group of really keen film buffs to start it up, and the first festival was in May of 1997. It was amazing how it was put together. A whole group of people from different walks of life, but who have a terrific interest in film.
I came onto BIFF initially to look after Jane Alexander, who was our first jury member. She was at the time Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, as well as being a fabulous actress. So it was wonderful, I just looked after her from morning till night, and that’s how I got involved with BIFF. And she loved the festival. She said, “I like the buzz of this festival.” And here we are fifteen years later and we’re trying to create that same buzz.
But going back to your question, it was because there was such a dearth of independent film that it was such a success. It brought out people that I didn’t even know lived in Bermuda. And they were just so excited at seeing so many of these great films, and so many of our patrons have remained loyal to us. Mind you, we have a little bit of a flux in the population with the business world coming and going, so we have new patrons, as well. In the glory days, we did have help from tourism. Unfortunately, governments are suffering everywhere, so we’ve had to pull back a little on funding. But we’ve come a long way from no film to where we are now.
How would you characterize Bermudian filmmaking in terms of themes, stylistic approaches, stories, etc?
It’s actually quite eclectic. You’ve got one filmmaker, Joy Ming, who loves to film underwater; she made a short film about sharks. We’ve got Andrew Stoneham, who did one about whales, which has gone on to win awards at San Diego. I suppose you could say our most accomplished Bermudan filmmaker, commercially, is Lucinda Sperling. She started off doing a little documentary about the people of the island of St. David’s, which is a part of Bermuda. It’s a unique community, and she went around and interviewed all those people telling their story. And then she went on to produce this fabulous documentary about the Cahow bird, which was considered extinct. And then she did a historical film called “The Lion and the Mouse,” which was about the relationship between Bermuda and the United States. Her latest documentary, “Poverty in Paradise,” is about the price we pay to live on this beautiful island, which has people falling through the cracks. We screened a short film last year by a young filmmaker about the difficulties of being a single mother and not having a father present in her young boy’s life. It is a cultural problem in Bermuda, but it was very sensitively filmed. Certainly the filmmakers are concerned with our ecology. I would say no one’s doing films about the Bermuda Triangle, let’s put it that way. It’s much more serious things that Bermudian filmmakers are interested in. As a matter of fact, one of our shorts this year is called “Rain,” and it was shot by an American, Kristen Alexander. But she has been to Bermuda a lot, and she was interested in how Bermuda conserves water. We’ve always had to conserve water very carefully because our only source of water is from the heavens. But we are much more concerned with solar power and energy, organic farming, and so on. I think Bermudians are going back to their roots, and I think more and more films by local filmmakers will be touching on that area as well.
How have you been able to get past the economic challenges facing the festival?
We’ve always been determined to put on a festival. Take American Airlines, for instance. We had their sponsorship and were able to bring in more people from L.A. because American Airlines gave us a great deal on tickets. After 9/11 that sponsorship stopped, so it’s been a little more of a challenge. Our focus has always been to bring filmmakers to the island for Q&As. We’ve pulled back a little bit on that. Our sponsors and our patrons have been fabulous but everybody’s feeling the crunch. We have the support of our sponsors and patrons, completely, but costs go up. So we decided this year instead of using three or four theaters, which we usually do, we’ve limited the program to one theater. We’ve adapted to change. We’ve got a super film program. Some years in the past we’ve been able to throw more lavish parties, but this year you won’t see so many lavish parties. But I think our sponsors and patrons appreciate that and that they’re coming to enjoy film. The only change is using one theater for screenings, cutting down our film program a little and not being able to pay for filmmakers to come, but we’ve managed to get filmmakers to come, much to our joy. We’re just so delighted. One of the biggest enjoyments of our audience is to do a question and answer session with the filmmakers. Many of our filmmakers are impressed with how engaged our audience is. Two filmmakers eventually met people here on the island who helped them finance their future film. That’s something to be proud of.