I’ve spent the last seven days at the 31st Cambridge Film Festival, the one time in the year when it feels like film really matters close to home. Thanks to festival director Tony Jones and his dedicated and seemingly tireless team, we in the Cambridge area get to (briefly) feel like the centre of the cinema world; all sorts of anticipated releases and undiscovered nuggets get shown to crowds both large and small. There’s also a steady stream of guests (usually directors or cast) who take part in post-film Q&As and interviews, and screenings of films in unusual venues, like university colleges or outdoor locations around the region.
This year I volunteered my services as a general helper-outer to see how a festival operates from the inside. So far it’s been an utter pleasure. For the first time in my life I’ve been an actual usher in an actual cinema, actually taking people’s tickets and directing them to the correct screen (hopefully). I imagine the novelty wears off pretty quickly but it’s still one thing ticked off my bucket list. I’ve helped to tidy up screens (the Cambridge crowd aren’t a particularly messy lot), do some washing up and hand out leaflets on the street. Yet it never feels like a chore; everyone really is there because they want to be. For us volunteers the only tangible reward is the occasional free coffee (as well as taking in the odd film or two, of course).
Being among a group of fellow enthusiasts in the lively bubble of a festival where schedules sometimes change at the last minute makes for an expectedly buzzing atmosphere, perceptible throughout the festival’s main venue, the Arts Picturehouse. Yet if panic ever does take hold, it never reveals itself. It was almost a disappointment to discover that the festival operation was as smoothly-running on the inside as it appeared from the out (some core staff may wish to dispute that statement, but I maintain that I have yet to witness anything that even remotely approaches the wild-eyed terror one might expect upon hearing news of eleventh hour ‘problems’).
As for the films themselves, you certainly get to see a nice old mixture. The opening night gala screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), with guests Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson, was a packed affair and enthusiastically received. The following day I caught the French film Tomboy (2011), a low-key drama that expertly captures the anguish of growing up, and a screening of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which I had not seen before and absolutely loved.
Since then I’ve also seen the first half of Red State (2011), which I would like to finish at some point; Drive (2011), a pleasingly mean and moody neo-noir; and Gibraltar (2011), a fascinating documentary about the rock’s recent history about which I knew precisely nothing.
Now there’s only four days left until I have to go back to the day job. There’s still the UK premiere of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) to come, as well as the traditional Surprise Movie on Sunday (only Jones knows what it is and it really could be anything). I will certainly miss the atmosphere, meeting other film addicts like myself and rubbing shoulders with the well-known and the dogged unknowns. But then perhaps it’s best to leave before the novelty of clearing up after customers really does wear off.