After spending the better part of the late 90s and 00s nurturing his small time film club, Halloween Society, into what we now know as the London Short Film Festival, co-founder and director Philip Ilson is essentially living the creative dream of having turned a hobby into a job.
We chat to Ilson in light of the festival’s 14th year about constructing film programmes and why he decided to curate an event dedicated solely to the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s and what it has to do with Britney Spear’s Crossroads film.
Kaya Strehler: It must pretty exciting having grown LSFF from Halloween Society.
Philip Ilson: It started as a hobby really, just running a film club in the late 90s. There was a bit of a scene back then and as we got into the 00s I kind of stopped, then it just seemed the right time to start a film festival. There wasn’t a short film festival at the time, and when we started we kept the name Halloween Society. We were really tiny and to call yourself the London Short Film Festival, would sound quite grand for a small festival over four days in a tiny venue.
Kaya: So your hobby turned into a job.
Phillip: Yeah. I mean financially it’s always tough, but I work freelance for a couple of other festivals as well. This one has gotten bigger and is growing, so the plan is to push that. We’ve just started taking international submissions.
Kaya: And what’s your basic process on sifting through all the submissions. I’m sure you get a ton.
Phillip: About 2000. The festival is broken up in three bits really; there’s the submissions, which is obviously the core reason that the festival exists, those films will get viewed by me and a team and a selection will be put together to programme across the whole festival. Then we have an industry programme which is shown with panels about various aspects about the film industry. Then we have a whole section of special events that get curated by us through the year, which are the sort of things that we think are interesting or good to focus on, whether that’s retrospectives of film makers who’s work we like, or some partner programmes with an organisation.
“I remember going to see some of those bands of the time, like Bikini Kill, and also when we were doing the Halloween Society in the 90s there were a few films that we screened that I remember that focused on that sort of Riot Grrrl scene.”
Kaya: One event in particular that caught our eye this year was the riot Grrrl evening you curated.
Phillip: So that came about through discussion really. Basically we don’t have an overriding theme ever year, but this Riot Grrrl idea was something that interested me. I know there has been a bit of a resurgence in music recently from that era. I remember going to see some of those bands of the time, like Bikini Kill, and also when we were doing the Halloween Society in the 90s there were a few films that we screened that I remember that focused on that sort of Riot Grrrl scene. So the programme came about from us looking at what we had shown back then and seeing what else was around from that era. It’s been quite funny actually, getting back in touch with those film makers and calling them up saying we want to show their film from 1997. And they may have made that as a student film and not really done anything since, so its been quite exciting to get those films back and in front of an audience.
Kaya: They’re not all student films though, there were quite some big names on the bill….
Phillip: Some of them are bigger names. Tamra Davis gone on to make many feature films including the Britney Spears films, Crossroads, which we’re also screening.
Kaya: Amazing. But surely they couldn’t have been that surprised given the resurgence…
Phillip: Yeah. I think there were two sort of sparks for me in doing this programme and one of the main ones was probably Jennifer Reeder. Out of the blue last year, she sent me her really early film, White Trash Girl, that she had made back when she was a student in the 90s, and I thought it was amazing. Really visual. Really lo-fi. The other one that’s on there is In Search of Margo-Go by Jill Reiter, it stars Kathleen Hanna who I think was between Bikini Kill and Le Tigre at the time, and once we had those two films in place it was then a case of looking to see what else was out there.
Kaya: Do you just have a huge memory bank of films filed away in your head?
Phillip: I suppose with the ones I chose for this section, I do actually have a bit of an archive of flyers and stuff from the 90s when the Halloween Society was going. You know I’ve seen every single film that I’ve put in every single programme. There will be many that I just wouldn’t remember, but then get a little reminder when I look at the synopses, it’s like “Oh yeah, it’s that one.”
Kaya: So you mentioned before that there usually isn’t an overriding theme for the festival but sometimes some accidentally happen…
Phillip: The sort of themes for the festival has only really happened over the past two or three years. Last year I thought about Harmony Korine and Gummo and about how it’s never shown and that we should show it and then put together a programme of Harmony Korine shorts and then the festival kind of took on a Gummo inspired poster and brochure and a quote from the film. So this year a similar thing happened. In terms of youth culture programme that we’ve put together, I wanted to do this idea of doing a youth film from every decade from the 50s to now. Although the festival is about new films and new submissions, from the beginning that’s been the core of the festival, new younger film makers.
Kaya: Giving a platform for them.
Phillip: Yeah, but it’s important to me to have all the older stuff on it as well so that people can see whats happened in the past.
“For me a short film short film should be about a slice of life… Keep it simple with a simple story.”
Kaya: So another question which I’m sure you get asked a lot. How have you found that technology has affected the whole culture around short films?
Phillip: The first Halloween Society was 95, and it was sort of a little bit Year Zero in terms of technology changing. All of a sudden we could just get a video player and video projector and stick it in a room and show films. Before then, you’d have to have a lot of equipment. Now you can literally pick up your phone, make something and show it in an hours time in a big cinema and the quality will be fantastic. In that sense, things are becoming a lot cheaper.
Kaya: And available.
Phillip: Availability, yeah. Even when we were doing it back then, we would get people to send us VHS tapes but then I’m thinking “What did you do before that?” Because before VHS you would have had to have film print, and they’re so expensive! That’s even easier now with online platforms. It’s crazy how it’s so easy now.
Kaya: Alright, and now closing statement regarding your ideal short film?
Phillip: For me a short film short film should be about a slice of life rather than a big plot heavy kind of drama that kind of ends up being like an episode of Eastenders or a soap opera. Keep it simple with a simple story.