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Rex, camera, Durlston! – Purbeck Film Festival

Nick Churchill previews the eclectic, unique Purbeck Film Festival

A still of David Hemming with model-actress Veruschka in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up by Arthur Evans

Now in its 17th year, Purbeck Film Festival confidently lays claim to being Britain’s longest running rural film festival. It’s also one of the largest with more than 30 venues showing around 70 films to some 4,000 people during its two-week run last year.
The Purbeck Shorts competition attracted more than 70 short films, while some 5000 visitors saw an exhibition at Durlston’s Fine Foundation Gallery of artefacts and excerpts from the earliest days
of cinema.
‘That was remarkable as many of those were walkers or people that might very well not have encountered the Film Festival otherwise,’ says Festival chair Andrea Etherington during a break from completing an application for funding from the British Film Institute (BFI) towards the cost of this year’s event.
‘It’s not enough to just decide to put on a festival and show films to your friends. As soon as you decide to apply for public funding – and you arrive at that point very soon after deciding to stage a festival in the first place – you’re in the business of showing you meet a range of criteria.
‘You have to demonstrate you can reach out to communities that are isolated, either by geography or socio-economics, that you are somehow contributing to the advancement of cine-literacy. Without that funding there wouldn’t be a festival and although we reach decisions together, if you asked individual members of the committee how that should be spent you would get many different answers.’
Purbeck Film Festival’s annual budget – in the region of £24,000-£28,000 – sounds substantial, but if it were possible to put a price on the hours its unpaid committee and volunteers put in it would be considerably more. Passion and enthusiasm are the twin fuels of the Festival and always have been.

Anwar Brett, author of Dorset In Film, with Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Notting Hill

‘One of the real pleasures of the Festival for me is the silent film strand,’ says Neill Child, a Trustee of the Purbeck Film Charitable Trust who also sits on the programming committee.
‘These films were shown on TV when I was young, but outside of festivals there’s nowhere left to see them any more. They’re more than 80 years old, they would have been shown at the Rex when they were new, and they still make people laugh. We have a dedicated group of people that always come to the silent screenings, but they also bring children and young people so the sound of children laughing to an old Buster Keaton film epitomises what the Festival is all about for me.’
A feature of Purbeck Film Festival since its inception has been its reach. Films are shown in village halls, community centres and pubs throughout Purbeck – at least 28 of them this year – as well as at Lighthouse in Poole, but the heart of the Festival has always been at the Rex, Wareham, even more so since 2009 when the Purbeck Film Charitable Trust bought the former Oddfellows Hall built in 1889, but a cinema since 1920.
‘People love the Rex and they come from all over Dorset to visit it. The average house throughout the year is 46, which goes up to 65 during the Festival fortnight so there is clearly an appetite not just for the venue but also for the programme,’ says Andrea.
‘We do very well with foreign language films and yet A Separation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year and is, in my opinion, the film of the millennium so far, only got 20 people. I can’t understand it, but there it is. The Screen Bites strand, in which we held film evenings themed around food, did very well as did the introductory talks.’
Over the years star guests have included Edward Fox, who lives locally, Alan Bates, Brenda Blethyn and James Watkins, director of The Woman In Black. Having brought Nuts In May stars Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman to last year’s Festival, veteran producer David Rose, who grew up in Swanage before forging a career in broadcasting that encompassed the original Z Cars in the 1960s, Play For Today in the 1970s as head of drama at Pebble Mill and commissioning editor at Channel 4’s Film On Four in the 1980s, has again promised his support for this year’s event.
The British film industry is rarely out of the media spotlight for long – no sooner is it congratulated for international successes such as The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, than commentators wring their hands in despair that, well, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.

James Watkins, director of The Woman In Black, took part in a Q&A after a screening of the film in April last year

Often the problem is one of definition – can a film shot in this country but with an international cast and paid for and distributed by an American studio be considered British? The answer probably depends on the point being made, but Purbeck Film Festival is happy to celebrate both the purest and loosest definitions this year and hopes to show rare and classic examples such as Pool of London, a scarcely-screened 1951 Ealing title and the first to feature a black male lead, Earl Cameron; The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine; Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s once-controversial study of a serial killer who films his victims’ final expressions; and Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s landmark 1966 thriller set against the backdrop of Swinging London.
The work of Arthur Evans, the largely uncredited set photographer who worked on Blow Up as well as 633 Squadron, Kes and The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s, is the subject of an exhibition as part of this year’s Festival.
‘His daughter turned up at last year’s Festival and we corresponded. His work is not widely known and this will be one of the first times it has been exhibited,’ says Andrea.
‘Purbeck attracts a similar sized audience to the Bath Film Festival, which some regard as far more prestigious, and I firmly believe there is enough demand and interest in the Festival for it to be much larger. We are also concerned with engaging with parts of the community we might not otherwise reach, so this year we’re showing three gay films at The Winchester in Bournemouth and have been looking at Eastern European cinema as a future strand.’
From vintage titles as archetypally British as warm beer and red phone boxes, to historic silent comedies and acclaimed foreign language films unscreened outside the major metropolitan centres, the continued success of Purbeck’s uniquely diverse film festival is good news for its broadminded and culturally adventurous audience. Cut!
• Purbeck Film Festival, 11-26 October, daily. Various venues, 07939 968238,

Denise Coffey, who played Soberness in Far From the Madding Crowd, at the Rex


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