INTERVIEW: Nuala O’Sullivan, director of the Women Over 50 Film Festival

In the next in our series of interviews with London’s red hot indies, RADIANT CIRCUS chatted to Nuala O’Sullivan, director of the Women Over 50 Film Festival (WOFFF) before the BEST OF THE FEST UK TOUR pops-up at Mother’s Ruin Gin Palace, Walthamstow (03 FEB 16:00).

> Links and event details below.

Nuala O'Sullivan, WOFFF Festival Director.
Nuala O’Sullivan, WOFFF Festival Director.

RADIANT CIRCUS likes to help people find their way to more adventurous moving pictures. What has your personal film journey been like?

I don’t have any stand-out cinematic memories mainly because I didn’t go to the cinema much when I was a youngster. We watched a lot of films on TV at home so I grew up watching what my mum and dad watched – MGM musicals, the Marx Brothers and black and white Hollywood films. To this day I still have a huge soft spot for them. Give me SINGING IN THE RAIN, A DAY AT THE RACES or SUNSET BOULEVARD, and I’m in movie heaven.

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a regular cinema-goer and can still remember the revelation that was BABETTE’S FEAST. That was my “gateway foreign language film” and it opened my eyes to world and indi cinema.

How did the Women Over 50 Film Festival first come about?

I’d been a writer and producer (mainly for radio and theatre) for a number of years when I wrote and produced a short film, MICROSCOPE, about a middle-aged woman examining her life and marriage, when I was in my early 50s myself.

With my producer’s hat on I started going to short film festivals to see where I thought the film might fit. At the film festivals I found I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me on the screen and, after screenings, amongst the people in the bar afterwards talking about the films we’d just watched, I wasn’t seeing many people who looked like me either. I found I was often the oldest person in the room, and usually the oldest women. Not many people talked to me; I felt pretty much on my own; like people weren’t really seeing me; I felt lonely and isolated – which is the exact opposite of how I expected to feel in a roomful of people who had the same interest and passion in storytelling and film as me.

It got me thinking about questions like: Who’s not in the room? Who’s not running film festivals? Who’s not behind the camera? Who’s not on the screen? Then, over a pint in the Marlborough Pub in Brighton one night, I was talking to my pal, Maggi, about how I was feeling about my film and film festivals, and Maggi said, ‘Well, stuff that! Let’s just start our own film festival.”

The word I’d like to highlight from that story from back in 2014, with the knowledge I have now, is “just”!

How has the festival evolved since then?

We began life as the Short Hot Flush Film Festival. In our first year, in 2015, with only a Twitter account and a website, we very quickly got 68 film submissions. When I saw the films coming in and the quality of them, I thought “The work is there; filmmakers are interested in getting their work shown; they just need the right space; we just need to put the right invitation out there.”

Once we had the submissions and had created a programme of 27 films to screen, the next questions were “Will people come to see this work? Are people interested in films made by and about older women?” And when 80 people turned up to fill the 80 seats in Exeter Street Community Hall in Brighton one Autumn afternoon, I knew we were on to something.

We’ve just had our fourth festival in September 2018 which was a four-day affair, in two cinema locations, screening 58 shorts, two feature films and hosting panel events, filmmaker Q&As, workshops, dinners and networking events.

So we’ve got a lot bigger over the last few years but all the films we screen at WOFFF still follow the same simple rule we set out when we launched in 2015 – there must be a woman over 50 at the heart of the piece on screen or a woman over 50 behind the camera in the core creative roles (writer, director or producer).

For me, the beauty of that rule is that it makes WOFFF open and accessible to everyone – because, for example, a 17-year-old boy can make a doc about his 57-year-old grandma and that film is welcome at WOFFF. In our first festival in 2015 we screened LOVELY ALICE POET, a film made by two young trans men (Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox) about the trans spoken word poet, Alice Denny. To me that sums up what WOFFF is about. Everyone is welcome to submit a film to WOFFF, everyone is welcome to come to WOFFF. As long as you want to be part of the conversation about older women, as long as you’re interested in what it means to be an older women living in the world today, we want to see you at WOFFF!

Each year we have more films and bigger audiences and each year the number of men and younger women engaging with WOFFF increases. And that’s something we’re very proud of at WOFFF.

WOFFF: TOUGH by Jennifer Zheng (2016).
WOFFF – Best Animation 2018: TOUGH by Jennifer Zheng (2016).

What gives you the greatest pleasure running the event? What still needs to shift in the industry?

I don’t think I can choose just one pleasure, though the moment the lights go down and the first festival film plays – sound and vision all working right – does have a pretty special place in my heart. I also love seeing how filmmakers and audiences react to the films. I love the sense of community that builds up during the festival. I love seeing happy people (and particularly happy older women) coming out workshops saying “Yeah, I can do that now”. I love reading feedback. I especially love the feedback from a younger woman who wrote the best thing about the festival was “hanging out with cool older ladies”. I love how men often come into the festival kind of tentatively at first, and then see them just get totally blown away by how brilliant the films are, and getting completely into the festival. I love knowing that WOFFF can and does make a difference in how all of us see and relate to the older women in our lives.

One of the shifts in the industry I’d like to see is more films that show us as we are! Older women are human – same as anyone else. We love and hate and have affairs. We can be vicious and proud and generous. We work, we’re unemployed, we retire. We have holidays and arthritis and sex – sometimes all at the same time. I’d like to see more of our real lives reflected on screen.

The other shift I’d like to see would help make that happen and that’s having more variety in the kinds of people who are behind the camera.

Stats from Motion Picture Association of America in 2017 show that on programmes with exclusively male creators, females make up 33% of major characters but on programmes with at least one woman creator, females account for 42% of major characters. More diversity behind the camera leads to better representation on screen. So I want to see more and more women, more people of colour, more LGBTQI people, and more disabled people behind the camera.

You have just won your first award, Take One’s Best Feminist Film Festival 2018. How good does that feel?

We’re completely thrilled. It feels so good to know that people in the film festival business are noticing us and think that we’re a film festival to celebrate. It gives us confidence that we’re on the right track and gives us energy to keep on keeping on.

You’re popping up in London again soon… What can people expect at Mother’s Ruin on 03 FEB 2019?

Mother’s Ruin is a great supporter and sponsor of the film festival, and we’re kicking off our WOFFF Best of the Fest UK tour at her gorgeous gin palace in Walthamstow.

It’s an afternoon of watching awarded-winning short films from our most recent festival and sipping gin cocktails.

It’s a pop-up cinema and it’s all pretty relaxed. It’s a come-whenever-you-like, stay-as-long-or-as-short-as-you-like kind of a thing. So you can watch a couple of short films and drink a wee bit of gin, or you can come for the whole afternoon, watch all the films and drink all the gin. Whatever you fancy!

It’s a free/donations welcome event and you can reserve your free ticket HERE.

How can filmmakers and audiences connect with this year’s festival?

We’re open for submissions now on FIlmfreeway. We’re looking for short films (drama, documentary, animation, experimental) which follow our one simple rule: each film has to have a woman over 50 at the heart of the story on screen or a woman over 50 in the core creative team (writer, producer or director).

Our next festival is in Depot in Lewes (21 to 22 SEP 2019). And our UK tour takes us to Tiree, Inverness, Tywyn, Aberystwyth, Folkestone, Eastbourne and lots of lovely places all around the country. More details of the festival and the tour are on our website [links below].

… and that’s the meat of it!

WOFFF: GRANDMOTHER.
WOFFF – Best Student Award 2018: GRANDMOTHER by Heather Dirckze, Charanpreet Khaira & Melina Campo.

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Featured image: FOR MURIEL by Rebecca Shapiro (2018).

Radiant Circus