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Celebrating his legacy on screens

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Bill Gosden in the film festival office in the early 1990s

by Lindsay Shelton
Wellington’s 48th annual film festival has begun. But there’s a notable absentee – the recently-retired festival director Bill Gosden, who has stood down from his job because of ill health.

Bill has been associated with the film festival for 40 years, since it was known as the Wellington Film Festival. He started as administrator in its eighth year – 1979 – becoming co-director two years later and then director from 1982. He took over a one-venue event showing forty new films. In 1985 he moved it from the Paramount to the Embassy, to double the number of seats. And the growth continued: it is now branded as the NZ International Film Festival, a hugely-popular annual midwinter event showing more than 150 new titles in eight venues. Last year Wellington ticket sales were a record 84,000, a tribute to his curatorial talent. (It has also grown to become a national event, screening in 12 other cities, with only Auckland surpassing the attendances in Wellington.)

For the past two years, Bill had continued to run the film festival while undergoing treatment for cancer. But he decided to leave the job at the end of March, to give himself the chance of sampling a European summer, something he’d never been able to do for forty years – because he was always in Wellington.

Announcing his retirement, Bill looked back on running a film festival:

I have known the pleasures of working with, for, and every so often to outmanoeuvre a profusion of filmmakers, exhibitors, distributors, sales agents, talent agents, sponsors, public servants, politicians, ticketers, journalists, musicians, programmers, publicists, writers, designers, printers, house managers, floor staff, festival directors, film societies, funders, technical wizards, volunteers, reviewers, critics and censors. Let’s not overlook the occasional con artist, defaulter, bully or backstabber and, long ago, bloody-minded projectionists who could turn any screening of a subtitled film into a showdown. I have relished associations with numerous lively film festival staff…

In a constantly shifting mediascape there have been few dull stretches. Regular iterations of the impending demise of cinema always denied us the luxury of reclining into ‘business as usual’. Though a few hardy individualists tough it out alone, filmmaking itself is generally a collaborative project. So, for sure, is making a film festival. . .

I had the good luck to arrive where I did when I did. In 1979 the battle was well underway to rescue our screens from total colonisation. (Read John Reid’s superb book about Pacific Films for a daunting account of the previous 30 years.) The opportunities were too good not to seize, the old guard so complacent and condescending that disruption was both prerogative and pleasure. Countless ventures later, I am faced by the ultimate disrupter. My primary oncologist has advised me to take time now to do the things I want to do. The truth is that since March 1979 I have rarely done anything else. Though I shan’t be short of ways to fill my days, I am going to miss so richly populated a working life.

In the first three days of this year’s festival, there’s been no shortage of film directors who have thanked Bill for his encouragement for them to complete their films. There was praise on Saturday night from Hamish Bennett, the young director of Bellbird, whose career was launched with a short film in the festival five years ago. And last night, at the world premiere of Tony Sutorius’s richly rewarding film about Helen Kelly, the credits included an acknowledgement to Bill.

Bill, in turn, has praised his closest colleagues:

[Our] success reflects the cohesive strength of key staff whose service to the film festival is measured not in years but decades: Comms Manager Rebecca McMillan (one decade), Accounts Manager Alan Collins (one +), Programme Manager Michael McDonnell (almost two) Programmer Sandra Reid and general manager Sharon Byrne (both two +). Whoever steps up to lead the programme can look forward to working with five sterling individuals who love their work and know the film festival backwards. The Board too is anchored in long service, not least from Andrew Langridge and chair Catherine Fitzgerald whose presence stretches back to the 1980s.

All of whom have been fully involved with this year’s film festival, while sadly aware of Bill’s absence.

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Bill Gosden (left) at a staff farewell, with festival chair Catherine Fitzgerald, and founding director Lindsay Shelton. Photo by Rebecca McMillan.

Though Bill left his job at the end of March, the 2019 programme closely reflects his tastes and choices. His colleagues wrote in the catalogue:

His legacy is monumental…In this period of transition, we have endeavoured to uphold the curatorial mission established during Bill’s tenure: to celebrate with New Zealanders the best that world and homegrown cinema as to offer, and to ensure that our audience’s appetite continues to surprised, delighted, rewarded and challenged.

That’s a pretty good legacy – to surprise, delight, reward and challenge Wellington audiences every year. And it’s happening now at the Embassy and seven other Wellington venues.

Lindsay Shelton was founding director of the Wellington Film Festival, which he programmed from 1972 to 1981.

1 comment:

  1. Alana, 31. July 2019, 5:09

    A wonderful tribute to the hard work done to produce such an excellent run of films made available to New Zealanders. And many thanks to Bill, and to Lindsay as well.