Interview with Festival Director Berwyn Rowlands (Iris Prize Festival)

The Iris Prize Festival is a five day public event which includes screenings of the 35 short films competing for the Iris Prize, 15 competing for the Best British Iris Prize, premiere screenings of new feature films, retrospectives, panel sessions, networking opportunities, parties and a glittering awards show. All events are open to the public and take place at Cineworld, Chapter, and Park Inn Hotel in Cardiff.

Past winners, include Dee Rees (US) – 2007, Till Kleinert (Germany) – 2008, Eldar Rapaport (Israel/US) – 2009, Magnus Mork (Norway) – 2010, Daniel Ribeiro (Brazil) – 2011, Grant Scicluna (Australia) – 2012, Tim Marshall (Australia) – 2013, Brendon McDonall (Australia) – 2014 and Arkasha Stevenson (US) – 2015.

Berwyn Rowlands(4)Interview with Berwyn Rowlands:

Matthew Toffolo: Why is Iris special?

Berwyn Rowlands: The Iris Prize – Cardiff’s International LGBT Short Film Prize is supported by The Michael Bishop Foundation and continues to be the only LGBT short film prize in the world which allows the winner to make a new film. Iris is what film makers need – funding, support and guidance. The winner receives £30,000 to make their next short film in the UK. 7 short films have been produced to date in collaboration with the winning filmmakers of the Iris Prize. The 8th short is in pre-production.

MT: How big is the Iris family?

BR: The Iris family is international and brings together a global network of 25 partner film festivals in 19 countries. Film makers, journalists, distributors and members of the public who are interested in film making – gay or straight are members of the Iris family. Actor Simon Russell Beale (Spooks), authors Alan Hollinghurst (The Line of Beauty) Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet), and journalist Johann Hari (Independent) have all been members of the prestigious International Jury. 24% of the Iris audience are straight!

The Chair of the Iris Prize is much respected journalist Andrew Pierce. He is supported by five patrons who offer the festival invaluable support: Lord Glendonbrook (Michael Bishop), Matthew Rhys (Actor), Sara Sugarman (Director), Christopher Racster (LA based Producer) and Carol Coombes (Miami based Festival Producer).

MT: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers? 

BR: We try our best to find a new audience for filmmakers work and each year our audience numbers increase. I guess we are also unique in that we invest in film production. Each year at least one short film is funded by the festival through the Iris Prize. The £30,000 cash prize is the world’s largest LGBT short film prize and is supported by the Michael Bishop Foundation. To date we have produced 7 short films with the winning film makers and we are currently in pre-production with the 8th.

MT: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)? 

BR: 2016 is our 10th anniversary so you will experience some reflection looking back but mostly, we will be looking forward. We’ve increased the number of films competing for the two main short film prizes. Five new partner festivals have also joined the family bringing the total number to 25. This network of festivals in 19 countries makes us confident that what you see at Iris is truly the best of the best. Our new motto last year was “Watch Films. Party Nightly. Repeat” I expect more of the same in 2016 with the added bonus of a 5 day long 10th birthday party!

MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

BR: We delegate the responsibility for selecting most of the short films at Iris to our 25 partner festivals. Each partner is asked simply to select the best short film from their country or region. We talk about excellence in storytelling, which involves many people across many disciplines. Film is a collaboration! But at the heart is the ability to tell a story and captivate an audience.

MT: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why? 

BR: I don’t know is the answer! We are quite unique at Iris in that we can appreciate and understand both sides of the debate as we are both film producers and festival organisers. To get the most out of a festival experience, the film maker needs to do quite a lot of research. Just appearing without any prep work at a festival, could end up a costly and worthless exercise. Similarly I think festivals must be honest about what they can offer the film maker. Don’t exaggerate the number of press attending for example. Try and be as generous as you possibly can with visiting film makers – if they leave happy they will be the best ambassadors for your festival.

MT: What motivates you and your team to do this festival? 

BR: We basically want more people to see LGBT stories. The festival has been a great way to start the process. However at Iris we have adopted a holistic approach to reaching our audience, working in partnership with broadcasters, digital platforms, traditional exhibitors (dvd’s) as well as the more traditional festival / cinema experience.

MT: How has the festival changed since its inception? 

BR: It has changed in a couple of key areas. Firstly, it is bigger. 1500 admissions were recorded in our inaugural year. In 2015, we reached 7000 and fingers crossed we will get closer to 10,000 this year. Secondly digital technology is changing the way we produce films, and is having a huge impact on distribution and exhibition. Sharing films digitally (for selection and exhibition) and screening them at non cinema venues has offered us the chance to reach even more people.

MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020? 

BR: 5 years is a long time in this sector. If we continue to be relevant to film makers and our audience we should still be sharing LGBT stories during the annual film festival, and supporting the production of new films via the Iris Prize. I imagine we will also be reaching new audiences in ways we would not have expected, which might not involve the festival! The opportunities are endless and in a way I’m glad I don’t know about the future – but at the same time I’m excited about what we might achieve.

MT: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

BR: Love Actually followed by Jaws. 

MT: In one sentence, what makes a great film? 

BR: The ability to take you to another place and make you laugh or cry and if you are lucky both!

MT: How is the film scene in your city? 

BR: Cardiff is vibrant and busy. The TV sector is impressive with a lot of UK network television produced by the BBC coming from Cardiff e.g. Casualty and Doctor Who! We also have a strong education sector supporting the next generation of directors and producers.

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Berwyn Rowlands

Berwyn is a Welsh Internationalist who has 30 years’ experience in film and events with a significant track record of turning artistic and strategic vision into reality.

In 2006 he established the Iris Prize – presented annually during the Iris Film Festival in Cardiff, Wales (UK). 7 short films have been produced to date with the Iris Prize. Burger and Followers were selected out of 8200 entries for the 2014 and 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In 1997 Berwyn was appointed the Chief Executive of Sgrîn Cymru Wales in which capacity he established Ffresh, the Student Moving Image Festival of Wales, the Wales Screen Commission, and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales (in partnership with the National Library of Wales).

Berwyn has produced content which has been broadcast on BBC, ITV and S4C including Llety Piod (UK) starring Bill Nighy.  Among projects for radio, he produced Wales: Land of Film for BBC Radio 2.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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