Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival director Grainne Humphreys shares her view of European women in film

Grainne Humphreys has been the director of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (VMDIFF) since 2007. Under her direction, the prestigious Irish film event has significantly expanded its scope. We had the chance to interview Grainne and talk though the programme of this year’s edition, the topics of diversity and gender equality, the work of women directors and other interesting perspectives on the Irish and European film scenes. 

DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: So, how did you kick off your career in the festival industry? What did you do before leading VMDIFF? 

GRAINNE HUMPHREYS: I started my programming career when I was attending University College Dublin. I was programming the Film Society and then I went on to get a Masters in Film Studies. Having volunteered at many festivals, I started my career working with young audiences with the Junior Dublin Film Festival in 1994, an organization with a single employee. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn all aspects of my work such as programming, fundraising, sponsorship, marketing, publicity and audience development.

I also started a side-line in rights clearance working on a number of documentaries, which gave me a wonderful grounding on researching and finding films. In 1995, I joined the Irish Film Institute as Education Officer. That role included developing the curriculum for secondary schools across Ireland and developing new teaching materials for both students and teachers. An interest in programming adult education led to expanding my role and include special seasons and focuses on the work of figures such as Andy Warhol, Agnes Varda and Harold Pinter.

I wanted to engage with contemporary cinema and showcase the work of new directors in Dublin, thus I founded and programmed both the Stranger than Fiction Documentary Festival and the Dublin French Film Festival from 2002 to 2007. Among other projects, I co-edited Ireland into Film, a series of publications on a number of key Irish films. I travel extensively and visit approximately 16-18 festivals a year, which allows me to keep track of international cinema. Moreover, I have served as a jury member on a number of film festivals including Sydney, Vilnius and Les Arcs and have coordinated a number of Irish film seasons at international events. 

ABBATESCIANNI: How would you describe the festival and its mission to our American readers?

HUMPHREYS: DIFF is a ‘best of fest’ audience event. We want to bring the best of world cinema to Dublin. It was set up in 2003 and was relaunched from an event which had been around since the late 1980s and organized by a film critic who loved both arthouse and popular cinema. The festival has continued to keep a very broad remit from both independent cinema to studio productions. We have fantastic audiences of 20,000-22,000 each year, curious and engaged, and who are very knowledgeable about world cinema. We screen approximately 110 films, in four city centre venues and six other venues around the country, with an emphasis on contemporary world cinema.

The programme includes new work from both established and emerging auteurs. The main showcase is amplified by small strands on silent cinema, young people, retrospective titles and shorts. We invite approximately 60 guests from around the world; many are filmmakers but we also invite journalists, programmers and distributors. Usually, the event takes place at the start of the year and 20% of its programme platforms new Irish work. Irish cinema exhibition is very conservative and there has been a marked drop in foreign language titles and independent cinema in recent years, which is why the festival tries to address this absence.

We have a small industry strand but we try to present world class masterclasses like those with Pawel Pawiliowski and Charlie Kaufman this year. We have had a wonderful line-up of guests including Al Pacino, Julie Andrews, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mike Leigh, Martin Sheen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Quentin Tarantino, Mark Wahlberg, Tilda Swinton and Glenn Close. We have also expanded our programme to try and bring younger audiences to the cinema and our Documentary Competition which leads a number of new competitions which has injected a level of engagement for Irish filmmakers. As an industry, there is incredible momentum and some really superb world class talents whose work is recognized globally. There is a really strong generation of producers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, editors, composers and actors.

ABBATESCIANNI: You started working for VMDIFF back in 2007. How has the festival changed over the last 13 years? Is there anything you miss?

HUMPHREYS: Since 2007 the festival has grown in scale and scope. We have increased the industry strand and added workshops and masterclasses, an awards structure, competitions, a young people’s section, the silent cinema element, a much more structured submissions policy and an international outreach partnership. I work with two full-time staff members; this small team allows great flexibility and a real engagement with Irish cinema. In terms of what I miss – I miss 35mm – I miss the old fashioned projectionists and the stability of screening on film rather than downloads… but such is progress. 

ABBATESCIANNI: How do you think is the Irish industry – and, more generally, the European one – performing in terms of gender equality and representation of diversity?

HUMPHREYS: I think that on both a local and a European level, there have been significant advances. As a festival who has struggled to see and include a more diverse range of work, it has been far easier. From the range of work on show at festivals, the promotion of sales agents and the films officially submitted to DIFF, it has been easier. The next body of work, though, is with audience development and education. Screen Ireland has led the promotion of a more diverse cinema in the country but this policy needs to be backed up by the education system and the national film bodies. Another area which needs increased support is film, media and general arts press. There is a widening gap between the press coverage for mainstream and non-mainstream cinema and there is a limited and conservative window for foreign language filmmakers within our media landscape. Ireland is still very dominated by English language culture and this is a battle which is still fiercely fought. 

ABBATESCIANNI: I totally agree, especially with your thoughts about arts press. Besides, how do you think is performing the festival scene?

HUMPHREYS: The festival scene in Ireland is scattershot and somewhat unbalanced, the three main festivals (Dublin, Galway and Cork) have strong independent programming and clear separate identities, but there is also a need to build networks for exhibition of independent and smaller films. Festivals are increasingly important as launchpads for new work which do struggle to find venues outside of a couple of sites. A number of smaller genre or niche festivals exist – for example, GAZE, Horrothon and the Dublin Feminist Film Festival – but they all struggle on small budgets and have limited resources. Many of these festivals, including the French Film Festival, are run by larger organisations such as the IFI.

Last year, the BBC launched a poll listing the top 100 films directed by woman filmmakers. What about your picks? You can mention just a few, of course! 

HUMPHREYS: I have a list of films – which is the list of films I would pick today… but will probably be different tomorrow! “Vagabond” by Agnes Varda, “Grace of My Heart” by Allison Anders, “Orlando” by Sally Potter, “Blue Steel” by Kathryn Bigelow, “The Love Witch” by Anne Biller, “Nora” by Pat Murphy and “The Piano” by Jane Campion. I was lucky enough to get to know Agnes Varda when I programmed a season of her work in Dublin in 2002 and we stayed friends. I was struck by her passion and curiosity and how she kept working – shorts, features, tributes, writing, talking – filming was like breathing for her and she always had time to talk to younger filmmakers – quite an inspiration!

ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers’ work is worth watching today?

HUMPHREYS: Alice Winocour, Sally Potter, Alice Rohrwacher, Joanna Hogg, Lulu Wang, Mati Diop, Emma Tammi, Olivia Wilde, Emerald Fennell, Neasa Hardiman, Claire Oakley, Rose Glass, Christine Molloy… These are just some of the people whose films excite me. 

ABBATESCIANNI: From your experience, what good practices would you suggest for a festival or a film event aiming at becoming more inclusive? 

HUMPHREYS: I would look at four key groups who need to be involved. First, looking at your team – broadening the range of inputs by full-time or part-time or consultant programmers. Secondly, I would look at the filmmakers whose work you screen and check your submissions policies, your festival schedules and your contacts lists. Thirdly, I would challenge your audience and try to develop them through round year activities and look at ways of expanding the reach of your programme. Finally, I would see how you might help your film critics and general media to create greater access and understanding of the more niche aspects of the film line-up. 

ABBATESCIANNI: Amidst the ongoing climate change, how is VMDIFF dealing with its environmental impact? Did you put any specific plans into action?

HUMPHREYS: We do have a number of initiatives for both the organization and the festival. We have tried to increase our recycling and move towards paperless with regard to both tickets and reducing our publications. One area which is of concern is traveling to international festivals. Ireland is an island and so I fly every time I leave the country. I also believe that you should see films on screen as opposed to links so it really is a conflicted situation for me. 

ABBATESCIANNI: Finally, one more question. How do you see the future of VMDIFF? What are your long-term goals?

HUMPHREYS: I would like to keep the breadth of the programme in place – from new experimental work to studio films, but I think it’s a tricky balance to maintain… However, my most fervent wish would be to continue providing ways of championing cinema in all its weird and wonderful incarnations. Ireland has quite limited cinema distribution and non-existent foreign language films on television, so we are a vital intervention. We would love to develop satellite screenings, a focus on VR, the feature film competition, and expand our young people’s programme. I love the programme of Lyon’s Lumiere Festival and I think we also need to remember the cinema and filmmakers of the past, which is why our retrospective strands are so important.

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