Curating SMHAFF

Richard Warden on selecting films to educate and entertain.

by Jennie Kermode

Richard Warden
Richard Warden

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival has grown from small beginnings to become one of the UK’s most important social justice festivals, with events taking place right across Scotland, bringing both popular hits and independent films to locations where there isn’t always much choice at the cinema. Canadian Richard Warden, whose day job is with Middlefish Films, has been with the festival for four years. He started out working with the East Renfrewshire team and in this, his second year with the national team, he’s taken on the role of film curator. We were grateful to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to tell us something about what that involved. Where does one start with putting together a film programme like this?

“It’s interesting,” he says. “I try to combine looking at what excites the audience and also anti-stigma films and events. We want to engage the audience so they’re willing to listen but they’re also entertained. We try to stay on message but it’s not like we won’t take risks. We just have to try to find the right balance.”

One of his aims, he says, is to bring films to Scotland that might not otherwise be seen here on the big screen, especially if he thinks they have the potential to make a difference to people’s lives. He recently screened Venezuelan documentary The Silence Of The Flies in Edinburgh and says the reaction to it was fantastic, exciting and engaging. But how does he get an audience in to see little-known films like this?

“It takes some work,” he admits. “These are not titles where you can sit back and be confident that people will go. There’s no star in there and there hasn’t been a huge marketing campaign. There are audiences for these films but they can be hard to reach. Part of reward is that we feel we really earned the audience.”

It must be easier with some of the bigger name films in the festival programme, I suggest.

The Silence Of The Flies
The Silence Of The Flies

“To be honest I’m so focused on what’s being curated from the national office that I end up allowing the regional teams to basically do what they want,” he says. “That’s what’s happened with titles like Still Alice. Actually after they’ve had their first theatrical run it’s not too difficult to grab them for another time around. For us it’s about recontextualising them.”

Part of that process of putting the films in a mental health context involves holding discussions and similar events afterwards. This isn’t always possible, Richard says, as he doesn’t have a big team and many of the people in it are volunteers, but they do their best. “We try to get people to think about the issues raised in the film and not just go off into the night – or day – but have a conversation and maybe learn a bit from each other and from our panellists.”

Another issue the festival faces is acquiring a selection of films that reflect a range of different mental health issues. I note that Hollywood has a tendency to choose one hot button issue (lately it’s been dementia) and make a lot of films about it at once. This is less of a worry for Richard, though, given the festival’s tendency to focus on independent productions.

“To some extent it depends on what we hear about and what we receive through our international film competitions which we were programming a lot from this year,” he says, assuring me that there’s no checklist. “We’re being a bit more subtle about it this year, so people might watch something and then say oh, that’s a mental health film, but also we’re trying to find titles that bring an interesting angle to the subject.”

It’s also, he says, about finding films that his team feel will prompt good conversations.

Still Alice
Still Alice

“We try to reach out to people who are already inclined to want to support a film – both people with mental health issues and professionals who work in the field - but we don’t just want to preach to the converted, we want to reach a mainstream audience. The great thing is that a lot of people just hear about a film and think it sounds interesting so they come along but they don’t know they’re going to get a discussion as well. I like to think that the ones we have are really moving and challenging.”

Does he have any personal favourites from the programme?

“There are definitely films that jump out to me,” he says, though there’s an element of hesitation in his voice, as if he’s a father who has just been asked to choose his favourite child. “One of them is Dead When I Got Here, for a number of reasons. Partly because it’s the European première and partly because of where we’re showing it, which is in a mental health clubhouse. It’s a really engaging documentary which is shot in an adventurous way. The story is told in a brave way but it’s not...” he struggles to find the right word – “inaccessible. It feels like a real discovery. It came through our international competition and I’m really pleased to have it in the festival. Similarly, The Silence Of The Flies, because it’s a film that tries to take a different approach to its subject matter. I’d venture to say that although it’s a film about suicide it’s different from anything that most people will have ever have seen before. I can’t help but be excited when films try something different but we manage to get people to engage.

“With the international film competition it’s been absolutely thrilling. We’ve been amazed to be receiving through the competition as many wonderful films as we do. I can’t help but feel that the word is getting out that we have a festival that’s really worth being part of. It’s great in a way that the film programming and the competition have dovetailed now.”

He pauses, but the strain of choosing just one or two favourites is clearly too much.

The Closer We Get
The Closer We Get

“There’s also The Closer We Get,” he adds. “I always like to see material that has a Scottish connection so that was great, as well as to have a filmmaker from Scotland having made a film which largely takes place in Scotland, and a moving and important documentary as well. To me it’s important to have local flavour as well, and not just be reaching out to the world and forgetting what’s around us. It has Malcolm Middleton of Arab Strap as its composer, too. It’s amazing that we have so much local talent. It’s like coming home.”

Shortly after we’ve concluded the interview, Richard phones me. “Just one more thing...” he says, sounding like Columbo. He’s thought of another favourite.

“It just hit me that with Dancing With Maria is also amazing and really important. It is, I think, important to have films that are crowd pleasing, positive stories about mental health. We don't want to give the impression that the festival is all about challenges and difficulties. This is a joyous film about positivity which shows there's so much more to life.”

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