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BFI London Film Festival’s Kristy Matheson: ‘The scope and the scale of the LFF is a thrilling challenge’

 (Getty Images for BFI)
(Getty Images for BFI)

“To be honest I’m always astounded anyone gets a film made,” says Kristy Matheson, the tiny but zealous 40-something Australian who is the new director of the BFI London Film Festival, which celebrates its 67th edition in October.

“You need so many people all pulling in the same direction, all the money to line up at the right time… Most film makers will have been focused on a project for five or 10 years and I don’t think you can conceive of those time frames if you are not an artist. Whenever I’m watching a film I always think, ‘How did you do that?’ because I see all the things that could go wrong. It’s like a magic trick.”

Previously director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival for a year, having worked in various roles in Australia before that, Matheson only took over the LFF in March. She inherited from her predecessor Tricia Tuttle a programming team and the last phase of a five-year strategy which saw the LFF divided up into thematic strands, plus segments devoted to Extended Reality and ‘experimenta’ among others, and a series of free events.

She’s taken on the job while the film industry is still suffering from the effects of Covid, a worldwide economic downturn and (in the UK) Brexit, where blockbusters (other than Barbie and Oppenheimer) underperformed this year, and with a content crisis looming due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes in the US.

Yet films still, incredibly, get made. This year’s LFF features 252 titles from 92 countries, including new movies from Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Yorgos Lanthimos, as well as the Chicken Run sequel from Aardman Animations, Emerald Fennel’s second feature Saltburn, and The Kitchen, the first feature co-directed and co-written by actor Daniel Kaluuya.

“We have some great thrillers, terrific comedies and some really exciting documentaries in the mix this year, and a lot of films digging into issues in quite interesting ways,” says Matheson. “And of course we have films that are just about to head into the big awards race.”

The Chicken Run sequel will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival (Aardman / Netflix)
The Chicken Run sequel will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival (Aardman / Netflix)

Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Bradley Cooper’s second feature Maestro (which seems to have outrun the controversy over Cooper wearing a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein) and Jonathan Glazer’s formally-inventive Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest are among the gala films that will be seeking Oscar nominations down the line.

“The Golden Lion winner at Venice, Poor Things [by Lanthimos] is a film we are very excited about,” Matheson says. “But we also have things like the world premiere of Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget. And a lot of complete unknowns that people get to experience. Our job is connecting the film and the film maker to the audience. We are just the glue in the middle.”

This year 99 works, or 39 per cent of the festival entries, are by female or non-binary creators. “We want to rebalance the scales a little bit but we don’t have a quota system in place for any parts of the programme,” Matheson says briskly. “We are trying to look very hard for lots of different voices, not just female or non-binary.”

She is, however, particularly proud of featuring UK film makers, and insists there is a wealth of talent out there, and audiences eager to engage with it. Last year’s LFF saw ticket sales back to pre-pandemic levels: many screenings in this year’s programme sold out shortly after they went on sale.

Has she seen themes or preoccupations crystallise across the whole programme? Grief? Deprivation? Cost of living crisis?

“A lot of films are really embracing joy,” she says. “There’s a great UK film called Bonus Track, a really sweet teenage love story about two queer boys. Of course there’s conflict in it – because it’s teenagers! – but the tone is really joyful and celebratory. Chicken Run deals with hard stuff – how do you grow up, how do you leave the nest? – but does it in this really joyful frame. And we have a terrific show in the Series strand called Expats by Lulu Wang, which talks about the politics of place through the lens of a group of really wealthy expats.”

Many of the documentaries screening this year take on big issues through “a very personal lens” she adds, citing Bye Bye Tiberias, in which Lina Soualem examines the situation in Palestine through her relationship with her mother, actress Hiam Abbas. Another documentary, A Common Sequence, tackles environmental issues by talking about axolotls.

Killers of the Flower Moon (handout)
Killers of the Flower Moon (handout)

The LFF is part cinephile jamboree and part industry get-together. It’s uniquely placed in the year to hoover up the best films from Berlin, Cannes, Rotterdam and Sundance and also showcase Oscar contenders: its size means it can also programme things that are quirky and “brand-brand-brand new”.

This year its centre of gravity has shifted back to the South Bank from the West End. Galas and special presentations will be held at BFI Southbank or at the Royal Festival Hall, with the XR programme housed in the nearby Bargehouse behind the Oxo Tower, and delegates housed at the Sea Containers house hotel (there will still be some central London screenings, and events in cinemas around the country).

Matheson, who was born in Brisbane and was based in Melbourne until her move to Edinburgh, says she wanted to emphasise the walkability of London, and maximise the possibility of chance encounters and networking. “And the Royal Festival Hall is a grand space where you can take in a film with 2,000 other people, which is increasingly a rarity.”

Matheson is cheerful and enthusiastic company. But she is also somewhat guarded, particularly when asked existential questions about the film world. This is perhaps not surprising: she took on the LFF directorship halfway through the annual planning cycle and four years into a five-year plan. Next year she will launch her own five-year strategy but says she can’t even think about that until this year’s festival is done and dusted.

Asked about the state of the blockbuster end of the industry she says that whenever she goes to cinemas “as a punter” the auditorium seem full, and that the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon reminded people how much fun it is to go to the movies. When I ask what single thing a current or future government could do to help British film flourish, she says that artists need “space and time” but that those involved in film production would be better placed to give specifics.

The writers’ and actors’ strikes which have already shut down some movie projects will “definitely have an impact on 2024 but we can’t really say what that is at the moment: it feels similar to Covid, when productions had to shut down and nobody really knew what was going to happen. I support people’s right to be in a union and take industrial action, whether you are a train driver, a nurse or an actor: that is every worker’s right”.

 (Getty Images for BFI)
(Getty Images for BFI)

Is she concerned about artificial intelligence replacing scriptwriters and avatars supplanting actors? “I don’t feel I’m qualified to speak on the actual nitty-gritty of that: I feel I don’t understand AI enough,” she deflects.

“I don’t use Siri on my phone or Alexa at home. I do remember the world without the internet, and if someone had told me 25 years ago that you’d have a computer in your pocket that’s a library, a shop, your bank, I wouldn’t have believed it. If anything, the smartphone has shown us we don’t actually know what’s coming [in terms of technological change].

“I must admit I was a little unnerved with the Carrie Fisher bits [in Rogue One, where the late actress’s younger image was recreated through CGI]. I don’t know how I feel about people being resurrected from the dead.”

Returning to safer ground, I ask Matheson what lured her to the LFF job after only one – by all accounts successful – year in Edinburgh. “The scope and the scale of the festival is a thrilling challenge,” she says.

“It’s held in such high regard and has a real history. This year we have Jeff Nichols here with The Bikeriders: his first films played here in London. It has great audiences who are curious and take chances.”

Then there’s London itself of course. “The whole world is here, it’s a truly global city, but each borough feels different. It’s a beautiful city to walk around and explore. Though obviously I miss friends and family, and – I won’t lie – I truly miss Australian supermarkets.”

But you will give this job longer than a year, won’t you, I say. “Yes. Yup. Definitely. There’s lots to do so I need plenty of time.”

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 4 to 15, bfi.org.uk/lff