A unique festival
Since its first edition in 1974, Film Fest Gent has grown into the largest film festival in Belgium with more than 100,000 visitors every year. For decades, Film Fest Gent has put the spotlight on film music, which makes it unique on the film festival calendar. Since 2001, Film Fest Gent has presented the World Soundtrack Awards, a series of prizes for the best soundtrack for films and television.
The early years
Under the name “Het Eerste Internationaal Filmgebeuren van Gent” (or “Ghent's First International Film Event”), the very first “Film Fest Gent” took place from 25-31 January 1974. The driving forces behind the initiative were Ben Ter Elst, manager of the Studio Skoop, and Dirk De Meyer of the university film club. Their aim was to programme films that did not get a chance in the regular cinemas because of their content and style. The first small-scale edition had about twenty titles on the menu and was screened in Studio Skoop and in the Capitool. The programme included Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky and Winter Wind by Miklós Jancsó, films that provoke, innovate and cast a different light on what cinema can be. This way, the event launched new names and stimulated interest in arthouse cinema.
By 1978, 'Het Internationaal Filmgebeuren van Gent' had grown into a film festival that presented about 50 films in various sections. Gradually, more and more attention was paid to film education and a festival offer that would appeal to various target audiences. During the 1978 festival, cinephiles could find something to their liking among author films by, for instance, Luis Buñuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bernardo Bertolucci and Alejandro Jodorowksy.
Internationalisation and the impact of film music
Under the influence of Jacques Dubrulle, the festival boomed thanks to a further internationalisation and an impressive guestlist. Among others, King Hu, Maximilian Schell and Bertrand Tavernier paid a visit to Ghent. The programme expanded to about 100 films. The modernisation of the festival thus ensured a much broader audience and offer. In 1983, the name changed to “Internationaal Filmgebeuren van Vlaanderen-Ghent” or “International Film Event of Flanders-Ghent”.
1985 marks the beginning of the mass development of the film festival. Both organisationally and financially, the festival underwent significant development. Film music became an increasingly important focus. In 1985, the International Film Event of Flanders-Ghent organised an international competition with a jury for the very first time. André Delvaux, Michael White, Simon Heyworth, Alain Pierre and Loek Dikker were members of the first jury. The main theme of the competition was 'the impact of music on film', a theme that was not on the primary agenda of any other film festival in the world.
In addition to a competition, the festival also decided to organise silent film screenings with newly conducted music that was performed live. One of the highlights was the performance of a new score by Georges Delerue for the Russian Casanova (1927) in 1987. Delerue conducted the work himself in a packed Ghent opera. That same year Ennio Morricone gave a concert in a sold-out Kuipke in Ghent. Thus, the film festival became an established name in the film music circuit. Other internationally renowned composers such as Jean-Claude Petit, Nicola Piovani, Peer Raben, Stanley Myers, Carl Davis, Bruce Broughton and Michael Nyman also attended the festival to perform their work.
In 1985, the festival presented its first Joseph Plateau Award during the Night of the Film. The prize is named after Professor Joseph Plateau from Ghent and is awarded to Belgian filmmakers who have made a significant contribution to the Belgian film industry. Later, the prize evolved into the Joseph Plateau Honorary Award, a lifetime achievement award for someone from the international film world. In 1992, Jacques Dubrulle and his team decided to change the name “Filmgebeuren” to “Film Festival”. During the 90s the International Film Festival of Flanders-Ghent even presented several film titles as European or world premieres and hosted big names such as Willem Dafoe, Samuel Fuller, Terry Gilliam, Anthony Perkins, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Schrader, Frederick Wiseman, Patricia Arquette, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Brooks, Crispin Clover, Paul Cox and Atom Egoyan.
Music in the DNA of FFG
More and more famous guests found their way to Ghent during the 90s. Robert Altman, Elmer Bernstein, Terence Davies, Arthur Penn, James Earl Jones, Guy Pearce, Karl Malden, Danny Glover, Michael Haneke and Irvin Kershner all paid Ghent a visit during these years. The focus on film music continued as well. A new part of the musical programme was introduced: in 1993 the festival organised a symposium on film music for the first time, which evolved into talks and seminars later on. Despite the fact that film music did not immediately steal the spotlight in the media, it was an important step for the International Film Festival of Flanders-Ghent to acquire a primary function. The festival aimed to support young composers and to safeguard the preservation and evolution of film music. The godfather of Belgian film music, Frédéric Devreese, conducted a double concert during the same edition in the newly reopened Flemish Opera Ghent. At this point, film music was firmly anchored in the DNA of the festival.
The International Film Festival of Flanders-Ghent started the new millennium with an increased interest in the short film genre. In 2000, the audience enjoyed the first European short film competition. Later, in 2019, the festival would open the competition to short films from all over the world, giving short films the full attention they deserve.
In 2000, the world-famous film composer Hans Zimmer was persuaded to come to Ghent for the first-ever live performance of his film scores, which took place in the presence of Morgan Freeman and Lisa Gerrard. The need to put all contact between composers, musicians and agents who attend the festival each year into a fixed structure grew bigger. This is why the festival (led by Jacques Dubrulle, music projects coordinator Marian Ponnet and Brussels Philharmonic conductor Dirk Brossé) launched the World Soundtrack Academy in 2001. During the 2001 edition, the WSA presented the first World Soundtrack Awards. None other than the legendary John Williams received the first Film Composer of the Year Award.
The 2000s also saw many prominent guests at the film festival, including Jean Reno, Juliette Binoche, Jeanne Moreau, Blair Underwood, Maurice Jarre, Paul Verhoeven, Darren Aronofsky, Tom Tykwer and Kathleen Turner.
More than film (music)
In September 2007, the esteemed American film magazine Variety placed the Film Festival of Ghent among the 50 not-to-be-missed festivals in the world. During this period, attention paid to underexposed themes and audiences in the film industry grew gradually. Specific efforts were made to program LGBTQ films and film screenings for the blind and visually impaired. Professionals also got more involved by organising 'The Day of the Film Profession'.
In 2006, the festival organises a major expo on filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. The festival had experience with regards to exhibitions, having brought the grandiose expo Cites Cines from Paris to Ghent in 1989, which gave visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in iconic film sets in the Floraliënhal. The 2010 edition featured a curated exhibition on French filmmaker Jacques 'Monsieur Hulot' Tati (in the years to come more expos on famous directors would follow). The following year, former film journalist Patrick Duynslaegher became the artistic director of the festival. In his first edition, Scandinavia took centre stage and the legendary Ingmar Bergman figured as the subject of a retrospective and the annual exhibition. Many renowned talents from the film industry visited Ghent during the period 2007-2012: Clint Mansell, Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins, Andy Garcia, Kevin Costner, Shigeru Umebayashi, László Nemes, Tim Robbins, Paul Greengrass, Jim Sheridan, François Ozon, Norman Jewison, Seth Rogen, Isabelle Huppert, Ezra Miller, Emmannuelle Riva, Paolo & Vittori Taviani, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne to name a few.
From film festival to film celebration
The 40th edition of the film festival took place in 2013. The festival underwent a transformation and celebrated this festive year with a new name: Film Fest Gent. The very first edition under the new name focused on American Independent Cinema. The following year, the festival focused on French cinema. Catherine Deneuve (in Belle de jour) figured on the official festival poster. The festival also celebrated the centenary of Chaplin's iconic character The Tramp with screenings of The Circus (in Kuipke Ghent with live music) and The Gold Rush (in the Stadshal of Ghent). Erik Van Looy's much hyped film Loft opened the festival and later became one of the greatest Belgian films of all time (in its own country). The annual exhibition was entirely devoted to the oeuvre of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. To enhance the exhibition, a concert was organised with film music by Nino Rota for Fellini's films.
The following editions paid special attention to British, Nordic, Italian, Hungarian and Spanish cinema. In 2016, Japan took centre stage and Film Fest Gent welcomed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to the World Soundtrack Awards Gala where he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The 2017 edition, with Italy as the central country, promoted itself with Claudia Cardinale on the campaign image. The music section drew attention to the centenary of jazz with a Symphonic Jazz Concert and praised the trumpeter and jazz musician Terence Blanchard at the WSA. The 2018 edition of Film Fest Gent had a Hungarian focus, and a retrospective was organised presenting the films of Miklós Jancsó. The edition kicked off with the premiere of Girl, one of the most praised Belgian films with, among others, a Caméra d'Or for director Lukas Dhont at the Cannes Film Festival. There were also some new things to discover in terms of music. Vooruit and Film Fest Gent presented a unique crossover between film and music called 'Videodroom', which became an annual part of the festival. Guest of honour at the WSA was Carter Burwell, mainly known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers. He saw his music being performed live for the very first time.
In 2019, Wim De Witte, who has been active in the organisation for years, succeeded Patrick Duynslaegher as artistic director. The film programme included a focus on Spain with a series of contemporary Spanish films and a retrospective of taboo-breaking Spanish filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel, Agustí Villaronga, Victor Erice, Alejandro Amenábar and Pedro Almodóvar. During this year, Film Fest Gent also decided to strive for a revaluation of the short film genre. For the first time, the international short film competition received short films from all over the world and became a more prominent part of the festival programme. This complemented the Belgian student short film competition which was already well-established within the festival and had been for years. Marco Beltrami was the guest of honour at the World Soundtrack Awards Gala. At the gala, Film Fest Gent and the World Soundtrack Academy honoured the renowned Belgian film music composer Frédéric Devreese with a live performance of his music for films such as Un soir, un train and Benvenuta.
During the period of 2013-2019, the following guests found their way to Film Fest Gent: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bret Easton Ellis, Sergei Loznitsa, Yorgos Lanthimos, Colin Farrell, Sir Alan Parker, Michael Nyman, Craig Armstrong, Alan Silvestri, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kôji Fukada, Terence Davies, Tran Anh Hung, Ken Loach, Olivier Assayas, Derek Cianfrance, Asghar Farhadi, Isabelle Huppert, Leila Hatami, Geraldine Chaplin, Rian Johnson, Thomas Vinterberg, John C. Reilly, Jacques Audiard, Terence Blanchard, Jayro Bustamante and Hildur Guðnadóttir.
In 2020, Film Fest Gent was forced to organise a more sober edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team opted for a hybrid festival with both physical screenings and screenings on a VOD platform. This way, the festival could maintain its important role in supporting filmmakers and the entire industry by putting film culture in the spotlight. Yet again, the festival was able to present a packed and intriguing programme with a focus on German cinema, a cutting-edge competition and a brand-new section entitled Official Selection: Masters & New Voices. The retrospective was dedicated to the Neue Deutsche Welle, with films by Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, and Helma Sanders-Brahms. The most important international guests were actor-director Viggo Mortensen, who presented his directorial debut Falling and received the Joseph Plateau Honorary Award, the author-director Pedro Costa and the French actress-director Maïwenn.
During this edition, the festival wanted to show solidarity with filmmakers, cinemas and colleagues who had to cancel their festivals due to the health crisis. In the theatres, on the red carpet and backstage, everyone was wearing masks. The organisation took no risks and was rewarded for its efforts with a lot of interest and compliments from the authorities.
The year also marked the 20th anniversary of the world-renowned film music awards, the World Soundtrack Awards. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the event was transformed into an online anniversary edition, which could be followed around the world via livestream. During the online music celebration, Gabriel Yared performed his compositions live and thousands of people could see reactions from famous composers such as Alexandre Desplat, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Nicholas Britell. For the occasion, the renowned magazine Screen dedicated a unique supplement to the World Soundtrack Awards, which highlighted the rich history of the WSA and guests of honour Alexandre Desplat, Gabriel Yared and Michael Abels.
© Jeroen Willems
© Jeroen Willems