Matt Bielby’s interview with Holly Tarquini for Bath Life
You can see the article here.
Back at the start of the ’90s, Bath Film Society mainstay Chris Baker decided to put on a season of French films, and ended up making £50 profit; a-ha, he thought, we could have something here. With pals Alastair Goolden and Philip Raby, owner of local institution On the Video Front, he set out to make Bath Film Festival a permanent thing, and all three are still involved. These days, though, it’s been renamed FilmBath – for reasons we’ll get to – and is headed up by executive director Holly Tarquini, a one-time documentary-maker, bubbling with smart ideas. Prominent among these has been the F-Rating, designed to highlight female storytelling and inspired by the Bechdel Test, which first appeared as a gag-with-teeth in American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For strip. In it, two women discuss their requirements for a movie: it needs to have two women in it, they decide, who talk to each other about something other than a man. “Pretty strict, but a good idea,” says one, and her buddy replies, “No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien…”
Things have moved on with the F-Rating, though, and Alien – despite featuring one of our most potent female heroes – wouldn’t qualify, for two simple reasons: both the writer and director were male…
The F-Rating started in 2014, didn’t it?
We’d seen a report that showed that, of that year’s 250 biggest films, fewer than five percent had been directed by women – and it’s got no better, actually – while, over in Sweden, a woman called Ellen Tejle had decided to highlight films that pass the Bechdel Test at cinemas she ran. Elsbeth in our programming team suggested we do something similar, and I thought: genius.
But the F-Rating’s quite different, isn’t it?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I really care about is more simple: who’s telling the story? So the F-Rating would be given to films directed by or written by women, and if one also starred a significant woman in her own right, it would get a triple F-Rating, our gold standard. That third criteria has changed over time, though: originally it demanded that the story featured a woman who isn’t rescued by a man, because that was my major bugbear.
Because it spoiled films I otherwise liked. Even in Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance, Imperator Furiosa has to be saved by Max at the end. But the term ‘significant women in their own right’ is less limiting, we’ve found, and doesn’t just mean the character is played by a famous actress. Instead, it’s about what agency the lead female has. Is the plot about her?
Ellen Ripley in Alien certainly has agency, but you’re saying that film would still fail the F-Rating?
Because of the first two criteria, which are more important: the Alien films were written and directed by men. As my friend, the actor and director Kate Hardie, said right at the beginning, we can’t have that third criteria carrying the same weight, because then you’d just get men telling women’s stories. And we’ve had that for centuries, right?
But something like The Hurt Locker passes, though it’s a film about men with few female characters?
Yes, because it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a woman. The ‘F’ in F-Rating stands for ‘Feminist’ rather than ‘Female’, and the overall intention is to encourage equality in who tells the stories we see on screen. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the films, and little to do with their subject matter: women are perfectly capable of telling misogynist stories, just as men are capable of telling feminist ones. But the fact is, for the past 150 years, men have been repeatedly allowed to make sh*t films, and women haven’t. In fact, they have to make brilliant films their first time out – because if they don’t, all women are considered bad directors.
As well as encouraging female storytelling, the F-Rating has really put FilmBath on the map…
I couldn’t believe the press we got. The F-Rating began as little badges in the festival programme, but people started writing about it in France, Italy, China… I knew we were onto something, so in 2015 we invited all the independent cinemas and film festivals in the UK to F-Rate their programmes, and now over 80 do so, including the Barbican, the Irish Film Institute and Raindance Film Festival in London. Then, in 2017, IMDb – the Internet Movie Database, a vast archive of information on films – also added ‘F-Rated’ as a keyword, and there are now over 23,000 F-Rated titles listed there. Of course, it was when IMDb picked it up that America found out about it.
And there was a backlash, we’re guessing…?
I once did a TEDx talk on the F-Rating, and got great feedback – until the IMDb thing, when suddenly I had hundreds of abusive comments. Even at FilmBath we occasionally get someone who hates it – that whole, ‘Are you going to have an M-Rating too?’ thing – but most audiences are supportive. It helps that Pukka, the herbal tea people, sponsor it, so every time you come to an F-Rated film at the festival you get a free cup of tea!
Your dad was a television critic, wasn’t he?
For the Financial Times for 35 years; he also presented Feedback on Radio Four. He wouldn’t let me watch things like Grange Hill as a child – he thought it a bad influence – but I was allowed black-and-white movies; my first love was Fred Astaire, and Top Hat was my first favourite movie. Later I studied art history, then worked in telly as a producer/director of documentaries, everything from a Channel 4 series about fostering, to This Morning With Richard and Judy.
And what brought you to Bath?
I’d burnt out doing TV and got into yoga, meeting my now husband on a retreat. We moved to South India, set up a guest house for yoga students, but returned to England when I got pregnant. We were looking for somewhere to live, and I had fond feelings for Bath from the time I’d worked on Animal Park, the series about Longleat. That it’s between my family in London and my husband’s in Torquay didn’t hurt.
And you got involved with the festival how?
I taught a ‘how to make a video’ module at Bath Spa University, and a tutor there asked if I’d be interested in programming the documentaries at the festival. I didn’t have time for that as a voluntary role, but asked if there was a paid job, and there was – but just part-time for three months of the year. So I met Philip Raby, and found out that the festival was at something of a crossroads – hugely successful in terms of getting people to come, but not in terms of making money. He and Chris were thinking they either had to put the whole thing to bed, or change gear and expand. We decided to grow, my role soon became full time, and we went to Col Needham – founder and CEO of IMDb – to ask him to support some awards. These days, FilmBath runs the 11-day festival, plus various IMDb Awards – Script to Screen and the New Filmmaker Award – plus the FilmScore Competition, too. We’ve also done community screenings, taking films to areas like Radstock where there’s no cinema.
Do you argue about which films you show each year?
Philip runs the programming – he’s much more of a film buff than I – with a group of volunteers, and yes, they certainly all champion their favourite films passionately. I, meanwhile, bring my own agenda, which is to support female filmmakers. Hollywood moguls will say there’s no sexist bias in the industry – that if it makes money they’ll do it, and if it doesn’t they won’t, and it doesn’t matter who the director is – but that’s simply not true. When you think that 51 per cent of the population in the UK and US is female, and historically more women buy cinema tickets than men, then the lack of female directors just doesn’t stack up. Right now, the films that women direct are in a pyramid shape, with documentaries at the bottom – women make about 30 per cent of these, because they’re the cheapest sort of film to make. At the very top of the pyramid are the special-effects blockbusters, of which only one recently – Wonder Woman – was directed by a woman. Each layer up, as it becomes more and more expensive, the fewer women there are.
Yet you try to run a strict 50-50 ratio of female to male directors at FilmBath, don’t you?
Which is only possible because we screen lots of feature-length documentaries, world cinema and art house films. What can knock us away from our target is if we get offered big films as special previews – long before they hit the cinemas – which we can’t resist. Last year it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and we weren’t going to reject that! Happy, we still had 50:50 films directed by women.
Why change the name to FilmBath?
To highlight two things: that we’re now much more than just the festival, and that film is the important factor and our location secondary. Also, it’s a pun on the thing you wash film in to develop it – but if nobody gets that, it’s fine!
So, what are the highlights this year?
As well as all the film screenings and the IMDB Awards, we’ll have a screening of a silent film with live music accompaniment – an original piece actually, by an amazing composer called Lillian Henley – and numerous Q&A sessions after the films, usually with the directors. (At many other festivals, only a dozen or so people stay for the discussion after a film, but not here!) Then there’s this year’s overarching theme, which is that film is arguably the greatest tool for empathy we have, and that watching films from other cultures leads to a greater understanding. As well as films by female directors, we love to celebrate voices from Africa and Asia that you wouldn’t normally stumble across – and that seems especially important in Bath, which is such a white city.
Do you ever worry that your feminist agenda can ruin film, this medium that you love, for you?
While it’s true that my feminist goggles make it very difficult for me to enjoy certain blockbusters, I’m generally a very happy consumer of film. Of course, this doesn’t stop my daughters constantly having a go at me. ‘Mum,’ they say, ‘it’s not all about gender, you know.’
Full schedule for the 2018 FilmBath Festival is here.