A typical assumption about film festivals is that they all take place in major cities or picturesque European provinces, where yachts, schmoosing and canapés feature prominently. For some this may symbolise the end product of a year’s hard work and financial strife, an opportunity to get a foot on the career ladder, or just a place to boost your ego while sipping champagne with a budding French actress, who’s just been promised a role in the next FranÃÂ§ois Ozon picture. This world couldn’t be further from the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, which this April sees the start of the fifth annual End of the Pier Festival.
Headed by Bryan Gartside, who has resided in the town since 2001, the festival has seen a dramatic rise in popularity since its creation. Last year saw screenings of 170 shorts and 6 features from as far afield as New York. Gartside has been a film fanatic since his youth, when Saturday mornings were filled with the likes of The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon. He firmly believes that the coastal town has much to offer in the way of filmmaking. ‘You can definitely get more here than just great fish & chips’, he muses. ‘It might not be obvious but Bognor has a really interesting film history’. He may have a point. Not only was it the birthplace of cinematic pioneer Cecil Hepworth, the town was also the setting for the cult classic The Punch and Judy Man.
The key ethos of the End of the Pier Festival is to demystify the common assumption of what a film festival is, demonstrating to filmmakers that they don’t need to spend money they don’t have flocking to European festivals to get their work exhibited. ‘For most young filmmakers in the UK, the thought of getting over to Cannes or Berlin to promote their film is just a pipe dream’, Gartside explains. ‘It’s important that projects made in the area and the UK in general have a place to be seen’. He also talks of his excitement to exhibit films from all over the world: ‘There’s so much you can learn from a culture from viewing their films’.
The biggest problem facing the festival, it would seem, is getting local residents to the screenings. ‘The one unfortunate factor is that in Bognor the word ‘culture’ seems to be regarded as an expletive. We can attract international audiences but for some screenings there will only be a handful of locals. This is really disappointing’. Gartside aims to tackle the issue this year with special screenings of films set in Bognor Regis that reflect the local traditions, and by commissioning new films to be shot around the area. ‘It’s really a dream to bring the town together for events like this’.
I ask him where he sees the festival in another five years’ time and he has clear ideas about the direction to take: ‘Obviously we want to continue to grow and to screen more films, particularly those made by young filmmakers. I really want to enhance the End of the Pier as a brand in the hope that we can branch out and operate projects around the country. But most of all I really want to establish links with other international film festivals so we can share our discoveries with the rest of the world and learn from other institutions’.