What is the image your mind draws up when you think of the words film festival? For us it’s networking events where we stand in a silent corner, surrounded by our empties from the open bar. Maybe we're sitting through a screening of an unbearably high-concept short, missing the substance it so rightly needed. Or perhaps we're on the edge of our seat in front of a short you wouldn't expect to have an impact. We’d recently attended two short film festivals in London, and the atmosphere had resonated as slick, cold, artsy, and more than a little superior.
We can’t say superiority was much on our mind as we half-climbed (half-fell) over a fence in South Wales, on our way to the Wales International Documentary Festival (WIDF). With the rolling hills of the Welsh Valleys all around, we were struggling to find the festival’s host town – Blackwood – which has no train station. After a worrying ripping noise from the back of our jeans, we stopped trying to climb fences through fields and found a road so we could hitch a ride into town. Our saviour, a balding man in a red Renaut Cleo, was keen to tell us the jewels of Blackwood’s crown: The Manic Street Preachers; Margaret Price, an opera singer, and most recently a runner up on The Voice.
We looked out at the hills and said, “it’s a beautiful place.” He looked out at the suburban prefabs, and glanced back at us with an air of mistrust: “Well, it’s a beautiful day.”
He dropped us off at the town’s only cinema, where all the screenings were to take place. A little early, we lingered sheepishly in the foyer and pretended to reread the festival program. After a few minutes a man approached us to talk. He welcomed us and told us that this was the sophomore year for the festival, and that he was the festival’s artistic director, Dave. In case you were wondering, by the way, the first person to talk to us at those London film festivals was most definitely not their artistic directors. More likely, we’d leave without talking to anyone at all. This was Blackwood’s first offering of hospitality, and we accepted it gratefully.
Blackwood is an old miners' town, known for leading the last armed rebellion against the British government back in the 1830s. It’s no surprise then, that so many of the shorts and features were proudly rooted in Welsh identity. There was Ernest, the portrait of an isolated Welsh farmer fearing for the longevity of the Welsh tongue, and Côr Y Gors, the study of a peat bog a couple hours’ drive from Blackwood. These homespun shorts were micro-budget, and while they had an unmistakable beginner’s touch to them, they cared about their community, they were earnest, and they really grew on us.
While there was a fair helping of international shorts and features vindicating the I in WIDF, it was these local flicks that seemed to resonate with the audience. We got this sense when we overheard an old woman interrupt one of the feature-length directors saying in a thick accent, “you should really be doing a documentary about Port Talbot. The things I could tell you.”
This local enthusiasm was most pronounced during the festival-favourite The King & Dai, screening at the Cube cinema in Bristol in June 2017. It's a sharp and witty documentary about the melodramas of an Elvis Presley festival in Porthcawl (under an hour’s drive from Blackwood). We call it a festival favourite because our new friend Dave, the artistic director, went up to answer questions with the film’s director David Barnes for the Q & A. It was without a shred of irony that Dave closed the Q & A: “That’s the last of our films for today. We’d be most pleased if you’ll join us for a karaoke down the pub.”
As we watched a woman a few years shy of 80 warble her way through When I’m 64, we tried to put our finger on what it was we liked so much about this festival. There had been some cancellations, mis-showings, and technical difficulties. Some of the mini mishaps would have raised eyebrows in London, but here they were downright charming.
These are all hallmarks of a teething festival, still figuring out the kinks to find its feet. But it was also a festival that screened shorts from the local high school, that had one-to-one sessions between aspiring filmmakers and industry experts, and that brought international talent to a town with no train station. A significant achievement to say the least.
For the Manic Street Preachers, the glory it brought its home town was exchanged for a ticket to broader horizons. WIDF is opening the doorway to international film in a beautiful part of Wales, bringing the charm, the hospitality, the community and the talent. The beginning is the birth of something wonderful. Who needs horizons when you have the globe.