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Interview: Five Minutes With… Susan Jane Picken – Head of Queens Film Theatre
19 Oct 2012 : By Steve Cummins
Susan Jane Picken at the OFT cinema in Belfast
From humble origins in 1961, the Belfast Festival marks its 50th festival today with a host of events getting underway until November 4.

Joining in on the celebrations is the renowned Queens Film Theatre, which is marking the festival with a season of Irish films under the banner of ‘Green Screen: Irish Film Distilled’. With guests including Stephen Frears, Susan Lynch, Aidan Gillen and John Boorman, and a selection of films as diverse as ‘Grabbers’, ‘Budawanny’ and ‘Pilgrim Hill’, the week-long event promises something for everyone.

Ahead of tonight’s opening film ‘The Snapper’ and just back from a hectic week of screenings at the BFI London Film Festival, Susan Picken - head of QFT – talks to IFTN about her programming criteria, the Green Screen season and why she believes it’s important to get Irish films to a wider audience.

So Susan, you must be pretty excited about tonight and the opening of the Green Screen season?
Yeah, I'm really excited. We've been planning it for quite some time now. Obviously, because it's linked in with the 50th Belfast Festival at Queens it's very exciting really.

What were your considerations when programming Green Screen?
Well, I've wanted to do it for a few years now. As our principal sponsor is Jameson Irish Whiskey, when they came on board, I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some kind of a focus on Irish cinema. I've been on a few panels over the years - for the Irish Film & Television Awards - and so I see a lot of really great Irish films that don't often get to see the light of day. They maybe get a couple of festival screenings that the general public doesn’t really have that much access too, or else they don’t get a release in the North or that. So I just thought it was a really nice opportunity to show some films that people might not otherwise get a chance to see and to celebrate the fact that there's a really healthy industry in both the North and the South.

Pull
I've been on a few panels over the years - for the Irish Film & Television Awards - and so I see a lot of really great Irish films that don't often get to see the light of day... I think Irish film is definitely having a moment, and it's a good opportunity to celebrate that "

So part of the aim is to celebrate that, but to also inspire people. You don’t have to go to London or Hollywood to have a career in film. You can do it on your own doorstep. So part of it is very much about encouraging aspiring filmmakers to get a foot on the ladder and to open their eyes to the kind of industry that we have here on the island. It was interesting being in London actually because there were quite a lot of Irish films in the programme. I think Irish film is definitely having a moment, and it's a good opportunity to celebrate that.

Is there anything on the programme that you're particularly excited about?
Well, there's a film that I helped produce called 'The Good Man'. I'm very excited about the fact that that film is actually getting a home screening. The other one I'm excited about, which blew me away in Galway, is 'Pilgrim Hill', which I really loved. It's such an achievement given it was made for around €4,000 or something. It does so much with so little, so that's really exciting. I'm also completely excited that John Boorman and his daughter Katrine are going to be here to talk about her film on Tuesday.

In all, however, the fact that we have this chance to do something substantial about Irish cinema and welcome some great guests along is fantastic. We've got everything in here from films with large-scale special effects such as 'Grabbers', to works where someone has literally just picked up a camera and went for it themselves.

What do you see as QFT's place in Northern Irish cinema? What are your aims and goals?
Well, I'd see us very much as a champion of film culture in Northern Ireland. I don't want to sound too elitist or snobby, but just to open people's eyes us to the wide range and diversity of film that there is and that they can experience - everything from documentaries through to world cinema and classic cinema. I think one of the things that I was very aware of when I came to QFT is the fact that we are the only cinema in the North that actually shows anything that isn't really a multiplex film. You get the occasional crossover in the multiplex but, by and large, if you want to see something that is a bit more challenging or a bit quirky or different, QFT is really the only place to see it in the North. I think it’s a really important function that we serve.

Pull
Part of what people love about going to the cinema is the experience "

Is must be challenging, however, getting people into cinemas given the rise of online piracy, downloading and streaming services?
There's a lot of debate in the film industry in general about that at the moment. There's all this talk about only having limited theatrical windows and simultaneous releases on pay-per-view and in cinemas. Being honest, and this is only observational, I don't really think that it makes that much of a difference because I think that what's important for people is that, yes you can watch a film at home, but it's not the same experience as going to the cinema.

Part of what people love about going to the cinema is the experience of properly getting immersed in something. It's just not the same watching it at home. We've had films - especially documentaries that might get shown on pay-per-view at the same time as their release - but, for us, it hasn't really impacted on sales at all. People just like the experience.

In programming for QFT, do you have to offset the more challenging films by programming the odd mainstream title?
Yes, you always have to. If we put on something really challenging for a week or so, I will probably have to put in something a little bit more mainstream, not even just to bring in different audiences, but the fact is that you are nearly kind of subsidising one with the other.

Pull
If it's a film that people aren't going to really get an opportunity to see anywhere else, and it is a good film, then we'll do our utmost to try and fit it in "

I think, however, every cinema you speak to, certainly every cultural cinema, would probably say that they do the same thing. My criteria really is that, if it's a film that people aren't going to really get an opportunity to see anywhere else, and it is a good film, then we'll do our utmost to try and fit it in, if only for a couple of nights. The other thing that's really important for me is growing audiences. If you get somebody coming along one night to see a fairly accessible film, then they may come back and take a chance on something else.

Do you have a favourite filmmaker yourself?
You know, that so depends on the mood that I'm in. I like everything from Hitchcock through to David Lynch and I'm very fond of Wes Anderson. I love his work a lot.

You get a lot of great guests at QFT for post-show discussions, has anyone really stood out?
Well I suppose the one person that was great to have over was Ken Russell, a few years ago. He was great. I'm really pleased that he came over and spoke to the QFT audience before we lost him.

Is there anybody on the wish list to have over?
Well take your pick (laughs). From an Irish perspective, I'd love to have Kenneth Branagh over because just from moving in to TV to theatre to acting and directing, he's a really interesting guy and obviously has such a strong local connection.

What are the key titles, in your view, for cinemagoers to look out for at QFT over the coming weeks?
Well one film that just screened at the London Film Festival, and which blew me away in Cannes, was a film called 'Rust and Bone', which stars Marion Cotillard and is by Jacques Audiard, who directed 'A Prophet'. It's a very intense, emotional drama and it's just amazing. The other main one that people should look out for is 'The Master' by Paul Thomas Anderson, which I think people are going to be really dying to see. There's a lot of really good films coming out between now and Christmas.

‘Green Screen: Irish Film Distilled’ gets underway tonight (October 19) at QFT in Belfast with ‘The Snapper’ and ‘Grabbers’. The season runs until October 26. Full details can be viewed on the QFT website - http://www.queensfilmtheatre.com


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