The Compass Film Festival is not the average week-long-vaguely-film-related-piss-up audiences have come to expect from indie film festivals. On the contrary, it is a considered, annual event embracing the arts scene of Bristol in addition to screening films from the four compass points of the world, which each year are represented by four different countries. This year the festival looks at Poland as North, Somalia as South, Argentina as West, and Pakistan as East. Since 2006, the Compass Film Festival has shifted both thematically (Horror in 06, Resistance in 07 and Mystery this year) and physically, from Bristol art cinemas in 2006-07 to the Mivart St Studios, a former Victorian factory that houses over 40 resident artists and which organiser Sam King describes as ‘the perfect choice for the theme of mystery as an unknown and as yet undefined venue’.
It’s all a big nod to the richness of the Bristol arts scene: Bristol, it seems, is the Berlin of the UK right now. The festival programme aims to balance international films with those that are locally produced. Unusually, the festival is only open for submissions in one category, the ‘Five Minutes of Mystery’ short film competition: the remainder of the programme is selected by the organisers to fit the festival’s aims and theme. This year, the three-week event will also involve VJing master classes, a theatrical performance by a Bristol-based collective, an art project by local schools, exhibitions by local artists, a live poetry event and potentially some involvement from the Bristol Society of Magic!
So what motivated the choice of theme this year? ‘Mystery appealed to us as a concept that would be accessible and imaginative, but that would also allow for a broad range of creative interpretations’, says King. ‘The occult is just one element of mystery that we would like to explore through the film programme. We are also looking at representations of mythology and mysticism, science fiction and alternative realities in film. The range is very varied – from a session on film noir, through science fiction to thinking about mystery in terms of representing unknown or emerging filmmakers, and promoting the cultural production of lesser known areas in Bristol.’
It is a timely choice, and it fits well with the interest in the mystery and the occult that is currently found in mainstream filmmaking. Paradoxically for King, mystery is often a way of clarifying complex issues: ‘The increase of a mysterious element in film may come from a public demand for answers, and the sense of blindness about influences and factors that contribute directly to political decisions. Fantasy often offers a means of making sense of political conflict and war. I think the popularity of fantasy and mystery is not simply about escapism, but about dealing with social and political issues through an imaginative lens’.
Coming largely from an academic publishing background, King and the rest of the organisers are interested in bridging mainstream and scholarly film interests. They have set themselves quite a task. The rest of us can sit back and benefit from a unique and informed festival that’s all about generating a positive community spirit and encouraging new directions in the arts.