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Encounters Film Festival and Bristol Ideas Liz Harkman and Rich Warren

Written by Liz Harkman and Rich Warren

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2019 Encounters Awards Ceremony at Bristol Beacon (Matt Whiteley)

Bristol Ideas was committed from the start to seeing a new film festival in the city to complement the film and television festival Wildscreen. Many places have film festivals, but few are rooted in the work of the city – in Bristol’s case, short film and animation as well as natural history for Wildscreen. As Bristol Ideas worked with the assets of the city, this was an easy festival to develop, especially with the support and involvement of Aardman, BBC Bristol, Watershed Media Centre and many others. Encounters has grown over the past 30 years and presents a different programme to that of 1995. Other film festivals, also building on Bristol’s strengths and assets have followed. Liz Harkman and Rich Warren have been involved with Encounters, formerly Brief Encounters, for many years. They look back on three decades of work here.

Encounters Film Festival began life in 1994 as an initiative of Bristol Ideas and was led by Andrew Kelly who continued to serve as festival director until stepping back in 2001, shortly after Encounters became a stand-alone company. Bristol Ideas continued to work with Encounters on projects after this and has remained a continued source of support, advice and inspiration.

In the Encounters retrospective publication produced to mark the 20th anniversary of the festival in 2014, three interpretations of the reasoning for the establishment of the festival are offered by some of the key individuals involved in its origins. David Sproxton, Aardman’s co-founder and former Encounters trustee, recalled how he was keen to be involved in developing Encounters as an attempt to ‘woo the international animation festival back to Bristol from Cardiff’. Mark Cosgrove, curator of the festival from 1994-2010, pointed out that one of the driving factors was the need for Bristol to be represented in the British Film Institute’s (BFI) national campaign to mark the centenary of the birth of cinema. Andrew Kelly, festival director from 1994-2001, described the need for the newly formed Bristol Cultural Development Partnership to invest in and deliver a project that showcased the ability of the creative industries in Bristol.

This perfect storm of priorities led to a series of screenings that were widely considered a success and, due to the popular reception and collaboration with Watershed, what was intended as a stand-alone event became annual.

After the success of the formative years of ‘Brief Encounters’, the festival began receiving and seeking out contemporary short film and animation to form its central showcase, and in 1996 a competitive programme was introduced to contextualise the work. As a direct result of these competitive showcases, advertising executives, commissioners, festival programmers and other members of the UK film and television industry started to attend the festival and engage with the talent exhibiting their work. It was at this point that the festival realised that this was not a local phenomenon, and that Encounters could play a much larger role as part of a wider international network.

During this period in Encounters’ history, as the festival strove to gain recognition and a place within this network, its growing international reputation was acknowledged through the continued local funding by Bristol City Council and its wish to attract the industry and creatives to the city, through national support, through sponsorship and later through funding from the UK Film Council/BFI and, in 2012, European support through Creative Europe MEDIA funding. Alongside this financial support, Encounters’ reputation was bolstered by becoming accredited by the BAFTAs in 2008 and the Academy Awards in 2010, and by becoming the European Film Academy’s UK-nominating festival for their Short Film Award in 2012.

Encounters’ inclusion in these networks generated new collaboration opportunities. The best examples of this are the country focusses, held in partnership with national organisations including Swiss Films and the Finnish Film Foundation.

The Finnish activity was curated in collaboration with Tampere Film Festival. We identified multiple synergies on a city-wide scale, included a popup cine-sauna in an unoccupied shop at the bottom of Park Street, an animation retrospective of the Moomins and a special screening of Aelita: Queen of Mars in a temporarily erected big top behind Temple Meads, with a live score performed on reconstructed kitchen utensils from the cross-dressing futuristic punk band The Cleaning Women.

Audiences at 2019 Award Winners screening at Watershed. (Matt Whiteley)

As the festival grew there was less archival content on show and what was screened was chosen for its value for new and emerging talent; for instance, retrospectives on existing animation studios to highlight their progression path. The emphasis was on curating contemporary work, with a desire to create a hotbed of new talent within Bristol and become an international marketplace for the industry.

The annual call for submissions has seen huge growth since the introduction of the competitive programme. The festival now attracts more than 5,000 submissions each year from all over the world. From these submissions, the festival has had the opportunity to screen early work from – and play a role in the career development of – names such as Andrea Arnold (Dog, 2002), Taika Waititi (2 Cars, 1 Night, 2003) and Ruben Ostlund (Incident by a Bank, 2010).

In recent years, Encounters has continued to play a role in the development of the next generation of storytellers, including Charlotte Wells (Tuesday, 2016), Aneil Karia (Work, 2017) and Molly Manning Walker (Good Thanks, You?, 2020). A clear distinction between the curation of the industry-facing activity and audience-facing events became evident, with both being presented as separate strands of the festival. The industry activity was headlined by the competitive programme, but greater emphasis has been placed on networking opportunities and panel discussions with a view to connecting filmmakers with the industry in attendance.

From an audience development perspective, greater attention was placed on the introduction of feature films in the programme (the ‘Shorts 2 Features’ strand) and headline activity featuring well-known personalities from the industry. The competition programmes were curated around genre rather than theme. New outreach activity – such as the Solar Cinema tour around parks in Bristol and a pop-up cinema at the bottom of Park Street – took place during the festival weeks from 2011-2013. This activity has resulted in the festival attracting an audience of between 10,000-15,000 people each year.

Collaborations with Bristol Ideas have ensured that the festival remains relevant to local talent, partners and audiences. Highlights of these collaborations over the years include Desert Island Flicks events with high-profile guests like the political commentator Paul Mason and the production of three short films by local emerging artists to celebrate the city’s UNESCO Creative City of Film status.

2024 sees the festival celebrate 30 years, along with a new team and a new set of challenges: Brexit, the Covid 19 impact and a cost-of-living crisis all affecting how audiences engage with cultural activities. However, the original ambition remains. While many of the initial inspirations for starting the festival have lost their significance in the last 29 years, Bristol Ideas’ motivation for the city to be recognised for its creativity still rings true as Encounters continues to grow its industry reputation and subsequently ensure that Bristol, and its creative community, are acknowledged on an international platform.

Liz Harkman is a past director of Encounters and Bristol Festivals and is currently managing director for Live Cinema, the country’s only organisation focused on bringing artists, exhibitors, distributors and producers closer together to create experiential cinema events.

Rich Warren is lecturer in film and creative media at Bath Spa University. He was CEO Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival 2014-2023.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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