As our only national environmental film fest, The UK Green Film Festival is in its third year and will span sixteen cities. Broadway will be part of the festival, showing films that focus on local and global environmental issues. We spoke to the festival’s co-founder, and Nottingham resident, John Long, about the festival’s ethos and rapid growth…
You’re the UK Green Film Festival founder and a property developer – how do they work together?
Property development doesn’t generally get the best press environmentally. However, the company I work for as a development director, Igloo, specialises in urban regeneration, eco-builds and design, and sustainable developments. We are checked by Sir Jonathan Porritt, an influential figure in the early days of both the Green Party and Friends of the Earth. We work closely with the community on our projects, that’s how the UKGFF first started: we were building a site in Bermondsey, London, and a guy stood up in a meeting and said that what the area lacked was a cinema – an independent, affordable cinema, not a big multiplex. So we set him a challenge to put together a credible business plan and said we’d build him one to run.
Did he rise to the challenge?
He did. The cinema was built and we ran it on a ‘turnover rent’ – meaning he only paid us when he made money. It has been a great success and is now a lovely arthouse cinema called Shortwave.
How did that spark the beginnings of the UKGFF?
It wasn’t until we’d built another development with a cinema - Phoenix Square in Leicester - that it occurred to us that it would be a nice to invite business contacts to a cinema screening in each city and play an environmental film. We realised that if we could it in two cities, why not do it in more. In fact, why not do it over a whole weekend. The penny dropped. Chris Brown, my colleague and fellow co-founder, and I did some research and we discovered that there wasn’t an environmental film festival in the UK. It was a hole waiting to be filled. I have always loved film and I feel strongly about the environment – it was an ideal way of combining those two passions.
How did you go about setting it up?
We had no funding to offer cinemas, just an idea. We weren’t asking for any of their proceeds either. We decided to try and find three more cinemas, along with Shortwave and Phoenix Square, willing to donate a weekend. I had to figure out which other cities might make a good spread around the country and made some cold calls. The plan was to set it all up, create the brand, find and select the films, promote it nationally and the cinemas would get the takings. All we asked was that the cinemas screened the films on the same weekend, that they showed at least three films and ran other events alongside the screenings.
Was it easy to find willing participants?
It was only when I went to Cardiff that I realised we needed to better define our terms. The lady I spoke to at Chapter Arts asked how much money we would contribute to running the festival – it’s not unusual for a festival to cover costs. We had no money to offer and I had just been expecting people to be as passionate about screening these environmental films as me. She was as passionate about it as I was and signed up anyway. When I went to the other cinemas I then had a better idea of what I was asking of them and the type of person and venue we would need to work with.
We ended up with five cinemas involved – London, Leicester, Cardiff, Leeds and Glasgow. We asked them to involve local community groups and businesses or to come up with ideas that would raise awareness about the environment and the issues covered in the films. We had book and CD swaps, ‘vegetable growing for your balcony’ workshops, second-hand clothes sales and a load of post show discussions and Q&As with experts in green issues. It is events like these which help make the environmental aspect of the festival greater than just the films on show.
How do you go about finding the films to screen?
That first year was built purely from passion, connections and generosity – and me being extremely cheeky. The Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC is the mother of all environmental film festivals, it’s been going for over twenty years and screens to tens of thousands of people. I emailed them and, with the support of Igloo, I went to DC and was able to meet the organisers and filmmakers involved. It was an incredibly helpful trip and I managed to get some films for the first year.
Surely some kind of funding was necessary to make it work?
We needed sponsorship to make it work. Fortunately, Wendy at The Hyde Park Picturehouse in Leeds had a contact at Friends of The Earth and we - somehow – managed to get them on board. They took a leap of faith and have continued to be the major sponsor behind the festival. The rest of the sponsorship came from my phoning other businesses who wished to be seen as doing their bit as ‘green’ companies – generally a bit of arm twisting and being cheeky. The sums of money we needed were not huge, and they got their logo on all the festival material in exchange for their sponsorship.
It must have been a great boost to get the support of Friends of the Earth?
It has definitely helped the festival to grow. They agreed to sponsor us for a second year on the condition that we doubled the venues. In the end we screened films at thirteen venues across the UK - including Broadway in Nottingham - and it was picked up by The Guardian. They wanted to see it grow again this year and we have again added more venues to the list, including Brighton and Bristol.
What is the aim of UKGFF?
Giving the audience the opportunity to challenge and explore the issues raised by the films is something that is at the heart of the festival. The festival provides a platform for films that deal with both local and global environmental issues. It’s about learning about and sharing knowledge about the environment and the issues we are facing, knowing that there is a response to what they’ve seen. The films we show have to demonstrate what you can do to effect a change: environmental films can leave the audience feeling overawed, depressed even, so we try to show those films that recognise a solution as well as an issue. Alongside the films we run talks, discussions and Q&As, we want to raise awareness but we also to provoke discussion and action for change. The film festival is only for a few days but that is why the Facebook site and website are great because we can continue talking about environmental issues throughout the year.
You’ve taken more of a back seat for this year’s festival…
When Friends of The Earth agreed to sponsor us for a third year, it was great but I knew that I couldn’t personally run UKGFF as a bigger event - it was too much to handle in my spare time. The festival had outgrown me and I needed to let it go so that I wouldn’t hold it back. Friends of The Earth had a new part-time employee, Daniel Beck, who knew a lot more about film festivals than me. He had some great ideas and carefully pointed out what I should have been doing differently with the festival. That’s not always easy to hear but I instinctively trusted him and asked if he wanted to take over as the director. Although I am still involved, it is Dan and his partner, Sandra, who run it.
Why do you think has made the festival such a success?
We’ve been lucky to work with some very generous and passionate people. We have also tried to screen films in as many cities as we can to reach as wide an audience as possible – it’s important to get past the specialist environmental groups. While I think we have managed to select films that cover important issues it also takes the local support to make it a success; it is ultimately what the venue makes of it.
What can we expect to see this year?
We have seven feature films selected for the festival this year, three of which are UK premieres. Broadway will be showing Trashed, Peak and More Than Honey. I would say that Trashed is one of the best this year, definitely a film you should go and see. For the first time we also have a number of shorts running alongside the feature films, which provides a chance for filmmakers to get their work out there and show another viewpoint on an environmental issue.
Do you really think that environmental films have the power to alter people’s perceptions?
We want to help people understand our impact on the environment, and what we can all do to reduce it. Film has the power to do that: to entertain, to provoke thought, to inspire. Even if an action is small, it only needs a big number of people doing that action to make a change. However, we have to be careful not to let the minute actions get in the way of addressing the bigger issues. We need to look at and face the big issues and be honest about communicating the problems that matter.
The UK Green Film Festival will be running at independent cinemas nationwide from Saturday 1 –Saturday 8 June. Broadway Cinema will be screening films from Tuesday 4 – Thursday 6 June.
If you are interested in submitting a short film for consideration in next year’s festival, visit the UKGFF website.