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British Independent Film Awards: 25 Years of Being “Trendsetters,” “Guinea Pigs” and Giving Early Honors to Florence Pugh, Letitia Wright (and Many, Many More)

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At the first British Independent Film Awards ceremony back in 1998, among the nominees for best British independent film was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the directorial debut of a young(ish) Guy Ritchie and a film that propelled him (plus Jason Statham and producer Matthew Vaughn) straight into the big league. It was Ritchie’s first brush with film awards. A few months later, Lock, Stock would land three BAFTA nominations. Within two years he had married Madonna.

Almost a quarter-century on and — with the possible exception of the marrying Madonna part — this is still what the BIFAs are doing best: providing rising talent with a very early (and often crucial) career boost and giving them a moment to celebrate their achievements in the often difficult world of independent film (Lock, Stock took 15 months to secure financial backing).

Heading into the 25th BIFAs on Sunday, the film with the most nominations is Aftersun, the Cannes-bowing and critically adored directorial debut from Charlotte Wells starring Paul Mescal that, for many, has signaled the immediate arrival of a hot new voice on the scene. Next up on the nominees list is another directorial debut, Blue Jeanthis time from Georgia Oakley and a film that sparked a huge buzz after premiering in Venice.

“When we do the nominations announcement and at the ceremony, you see the impact on the filmmakers and what it means to them,” notes Deena Wallace, who co-directs the BIFAs with Amy Gustin. “Because generally speaking, these films have had a tough time getting made, so it’s really valuable to recognize the work and effort, and is does stick with people, and the impact it can have on their careers is really important.”

For Gustin and Wallace, the BIFAs have a two-pronged impact for talent. On the softer side, it gives filmmakers and their teams, often together for the first time since wrapping, an (sometimes alcohol-fuelled) night in early December before awards season has moved into truly grueling gears to let their hair down, go wild on. the dancefloor and enjoy their new success among their (often equally refreshed) peers. On the slightly-more-important, actually-making-a-difference side, it’s how having a BIFA win or even just nomination can spur on the next stage of their rise and get that crucial next project green lit.

First established by Elliot Grove and Suzanne Ballantyne of London’s Raindance Film Festival (Gustin and Wallace took over the reigns in 2015), the BIFAs now boasts a winners and nominees lists that reads like a who’s who of major British talent. Alongside Richie, the likes of Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, Asif Kapadia, Gurinder Chadha, Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows, Kevin Macdonald, Edgar Wright, Andrea Arnold and Martin McDonagh are just some of the many directors to get early shout outs. In front of the cameras, the breakthrough performance category has included — almost exclusively for their debut features — Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, John Boyega, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Buckley, Jodie Whittaker, Rupert Friend, Dev Patel, George McKay and Gugu Mbatha. Raw. And many of these have regularly returned to where it all began for them.

“Because (a) BIFA is often the first recognition that talent gets, there’s genuine warmth towards it,” says Gustin, noting that they can often persuade the big names that have gone on to Hollywood glory to come back, speak passionately about independent film. and act as an “encouraging voice” for the next generation.

This year, they’re hoping to welcome Marvel’s own Letitia Wright, a breakthrough performance nominee in 2016 for Urban Hymns and now nominated for best joint lead performance alongside Tamara Lawrence for The Silent Twins. Another big attendee hope is Florence Pugh, who in 2017 broke the mold by bypassing breakthrough performance altogether for her debut in Lady Macbeth and leapt straight to the best performance by an actress in a British independent film category, which she won. This time, having since become arguably the most in-demand star around, she’s nominated for best lead performance for Sebastián Lelio’s Netflix period drama. The Wonder.

Both best lead performance and best joint lead performance are new categories for the BIFAs, who earlier this year revealed that they were going to go gender-neutral when it came to acting.

“I think for us, we just felt that the current categories weren’t necessarily representing the types of films and stories that we’re coming through,” notes Gustin. “Historically you had a female lead and a male lead, plus male and female supporting roles, but that isn’t how films are constructed anymore. Now you’ll often have three female leads in a film. So why are you picking one of those out?”

Taking a closer look at the more traditional and perhaps outdated performance categories is something that has been widely discussed across the industry, but BIFA — thanks to being a lot nimbler than other awards bodies in terms of its structure — has been able to put changes into action. without much fuss at all.

“Because we’re smaller and more agile, we can make decisions a lot more quickly, and can gather information a lot more quickly than other organizations,” says Gustin. “And because we are considered the kids behind the bike sheds, if we make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.”

For larger organizations — most notably on home soil, BAFTA — the stakes are almost certainly higher and any wrong move will likely result in, as has been seen over the years, outrage, angry headlines and unfortunate hashtags. Even when the British Academy looked to tackle problems with diversity back in 2019 with a huge overhaul of its voting system (an overhaul that adopted a lot of BIFA’s committee-led approach), it still faced backlash in some parts of the right-wing press. over perceived political correctness.

“People expect us to do things differently, they expect us to be bucking the trend, to be finding a problem, face it on and come up with an agile solution,” says Gustin. “And we like that position for us, as we can better respond to the needs of the industry that we’re representing and work harder for them.”

The BIFAs have gone against the grain before, perhaps most notably in 2017 when they became the first film awards in the UK to introduce a best casting category, as had been widely called for. BAFTA followed suit in 2020.

“For the other bodies, I think it’s useful to have us a testbed to iron out any issues — we’re the guinea pigs!” says Wallace. “I think we’ve always been that trendsetter.”

Trendsetters or not, at Sunday’s night ceremony, one of the most important things, alongside giving the independent film industry a hugely important boost during a difficult moment, of course, will be for the attendees — win or lose — to enjoy themselves, hang out with fellow filmmakers and perhaps even get a moment or two with an idol, maybe even while throwing some shapes.

As Wallace notes: “People do stick around, and some of the scenes… there’s really been some extraordinary dancing.”



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