Gaia Meucci talks with Samantha Coughlan

Below you can find a brilliant interview with one of our short film programmers, Gaia Meucci.

This work is courtesy of Samantha Coughlan, whose original article can be viewed using the link at the bottom of the page, enjoy!

Gaia Meucci is the programmer for Encounters Short Film Festival which runs from 15 – 20  September in Bristol. Encounters aims to support new and emerging talent as well as promoting the art of short film making. Gaia worked at Edinburgh Film Festival and has worked with Encounters for 4 years.

Tell me more about this year’s Encounters Short Film Festival?
This year we have a ‘Women in Film’ strand. It’s been a hot topic this year. There will be a panel discussion, a short film programme and a retrospective on the Swiss film maker, Ursula Meier. Also one of the headline events, Desert Island Flicks will be hosting the writer and film maker, Carol Morley, who will be attending the festival and talking about her favourite short films.

Why did you choose a ‘Women in Film’ strand?
When creating this programme we had the idea of specifically selecting short films with convincing female representation, as a response to the frustration coming from the way female characters are being represented, which has gone from females being passive stereotypes to the total opposite, which is as dissatisfying! The strong female character has become an unbelievable kind of character and denies the complexity of females as human beings. It’s something I have noticed a lot in mainstream cinema.

There is such a richness in the way short films deal with themes, topics and film culture so I thought why don’t we create a programme selecting films that are not necessarily all made by female film makers – there are two in the programme that are made by male film makers – but nonetheless the representation of the female characters are truthful. They embody the female characters with all their complexities and intricacies and not as just stereotypes of one kind or another.

There is a panel discussion called Widening the Lens. We want to encourage a discussion about the importance of having diversity in film, so it will be not necessarily only about female representation but any kind of stereotypical representation on film. We are doing this in collaboration with a collective called Film Fatales. They are based in New York but they have a pocket based in London. We have connected with them for this event. Film maker Joanna Coates will chair. The idea of the event is to have two of the film makers (one male, one female) from my programme talking about their film, plus an academic and Joanna, to engage film makers in this open debate.

Did you call for films with a strong female representation?
No they came from an open submission process. The themes tend to emerge by themselves. As we were deciding the strands of the festival, we were already interested in doing something about women in film. Around that time I realised I had some really good material to tie in with this so the two came together: films and theme.

Do common themes arise every year?
This year was quite strong in that sense. I think this came from personal frustration with seeing how unbelievable certain female characters were and how they had become another cliche. Then that started to put into perspective some of the short films I had seen. That made me think these are characters I don’t necessarily agree with, or feel close to, but they are human beings. They are represented as complex human beings, not an image of something. So I tried to create as diverse a programme as possible and women in different moments in their lives and engaging in different kinds of situations.

Sometimes its even the simple fact that when there is an older woman on film, she’s always quite eccentric and I was annoyed by that. There was this short film which touched me very much, about this old woman and her relationship with her family, how they everyone gets on with their lives and don’t really include her any more. It is done without turning her into anything eccentric. She is just a normal human being in her late stage of her life, having lost her role as the person who brought the family together. There were a number of short films that went deep in to female representation.

Who are the women to watch?
Internationally, there will be many! From Norway, Gunhild Enger: she’s at the point where festivals are starting to do retrospectives about her work. She’s done a really interesting body of work.

A UK film maker I find particularly interesting is Anna Blandford. She is a returning film maker to Encounters. She is in the programme this year – which goes to show we keep following film makers and want to make sure we see their new films and where possible screen them.

Jennifer Reeder is an American film maker who had a massive break through last year with a film called A Million Miles Away which won our Grand Prix. She won so many awards with this film and it was featured in so many short film festivals but was an interesting example of a film maker who brought together short film festivals of very different kinds. She had her work shown in Encounters, Glasgow Film Festival, London Film Festival, equally in festivals that are a lot more niche like Oberhausen which is a very purist festival. She crossed over. That’s something that I had never seen happening that easily. She is an incredibly interesting film maker in terms of female representation: she focuses on teenagers. She reacts against the stereotype of the mean teenage girl as represented millions of times in cinema. We have selected her latest film to show this year.

What’s your favourite film with a strong female presence?
Jennifer Reeder’s film, A Million Miles Away impressed me a lot. It has an all female cast and it’s fresh in the way it represents these characters. There is an adult character and a group of teenage girls and the interaction between them has a healing effect so the connection she creates between these teenage girls – the girls are in a choir and she is their choir teacher. That is definitely something which has stayed with me.

I love Gunhild’s films because she is incredibly funny – a very specific kind of humour – she’s not necessarily focussing on female characters but she has such a particular eye for representing the mundane and the weakness and the humorous aspect of mundane situations, I love her work very much.

How did you get into programming? Was it something you fell in to or a conscious career choice?

I wish I could say I fell into it because it was a hard pursuit! It’s hard to make a breakthrough as a programmer. It requires a lot of determination because a lot of people want to be responsible for the programme. There are very few paid roles available. Before a festival gives someone the trust, to create the programme, there is a lot to prove.

I started as a pre-selector – as a volunteer with the Edinburgh Film Festival. I was part of the pre-selection team so I helped the programmers sift through 100s of films. I used to work in theatre initially and then in animation production and then I slowly moved in to programming.

Film has always been a great passion and I became progressively aware that I would love to be involved in making the decisions about what should go into a festival. That was my gateway. I’ve been programming feature films as well but mainly short film has been my specialist area.

There’s something really fascinating about short films; they’re incredibly dynamic and free. They never cease to surprise me. I love film in general. I come here [The Watershed] to watch films in the cinema and feature films all the time. Ideally I would always love to stay involved with shorts; they really revitalise film because of how unrestricted they are. They can be so much more free, not bound by narrative or genre, and much more inventive. There’s less pressure on film makers because there’s no money involved – or very little. At least in the UK, it’s not something that would necessarily give them a financial reward. For film makers, it’s a way to learn their craft.

After pre-selecting for Edinburgh, the short film programmer left and I replaced him and that was my first paid role as a short film programmer.

It’s very hard to find work as a programmer. It takes a lot of flexibility. I have relocated a lot. I am now based in Bristol but I have traveled around a lot to gain experience, to seize the opportunities wherever they were and build up this knowledge. I have worked with festivals in many other capacities like operational capacities and it been incredibly useful. It’s not just about picking the films, it’s about understanding what it means to produce a film festival, to produce a programme, to work with a small team and understand all the background work that goes with it.

What’s your favourite and least favourite part of your job?

Least favourite is rejecting films! At the last stage, they are all good and it is painful. The final list, I know I will have to reduce and every film that has made it to that point is great. We have 220 this year: around 80-90 live action films [the rest are animated shorts], so that’s my least favourite.

The film watching is my favourite and when the film makers come to the festival and they can present their work to the audience. When they can bring their work home and engage with the audience and with other film makers. Seeing their films on the big screen makes them feel really happy because they get the opportunity to share their work.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about getting into your field of work?

Watch a lot of films! I also have an extremely hard-working team of pre-selectors because we get so many films. We got nearly 2500 this year, obviously I can’t watch them all. What I find sometimes, is that, on paper, people want to pre-select and programme and then they realise that they actually have to watch hundreds of short films! But volunteering as a pre-selector is definitely a good way in, provided one has the passion and stamina to get through lots of work with great attention and respect for the films.

One has to be really passionate about all kinds of films and inevitably we watch all kinds of material and all kinds of quality. Being curious and open about all sorts of films is really important for this job.

(c) Samantha Coughlan September 2015

To view the original article, click here. 

To view the programme for this years event and book tickets, click here