Photo by Patrick Rafferty - Harriet at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival 2016
Having obtained an MSc in Film Studies, Harriet has written about film for Sight and Sound, CineVue, KINO!, Little White Lies and the Glasgow-based Physical Impossibility zine. She has also worked as a programme coordinator on several film festivals, including the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival and AV Festival. She is currently Producer of Alchemy Film & Arts based in Hawick, Scottish Borders, has worked on the programming team for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and been included in the International Film Festival Rotterdam Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics.
You graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Film Studies in 2010. At the same time, you started running your own film blog Cinematic Investigations which you have maintained since. What was it like transitioning from being a student to taking the first steps in building your career?
Harriet: I had done my Masters part-time and in the summers, volunteered at Edinburgh International Film Festival, first as an Industry Event Assistant in 2009, then as an Audience Reporter in 2010. I’d also started organising screenings and programming after I’d completed my first degree in Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee in 2007. Back then, a wise exhibitor friend advised me that if I wanted to programme film, I should become a critic. Because I had tried programming before I studied film, it felt very much that I’d started building a career in parallel with being a student. In terms of a transition period as a critic though, the early version of Cinematic Investigations was very much my attempting to reconcile my academic interests in film theory with my fascination for the structures of how film is shown and shared with audiences. I had thought I might continue with academia, but my desire to work in exhibition was stronger, so when I applied to work at EIFF again, I was very happy to be offered a placement in the screenings team in 2011. When I started there, I knew I had found my place, I was mentored by the programme manager and I learned so much from all my colleagues, who were all very supportive.
2012 seemed like a busy year for you - writing reviews for The Flaneur, blogging for the Glasgow Film Festival, and joining the Edinburgh International Film Festival as a short film viewer and Programme Coordinator. What were your highlights during that time, and what skills did you have to develop?
Harriet: That year I started testing my voice as a critic and programmer. Blogging for Glasgow Film Festival was the first experience I had of producing daily copy during a festival, and the purpose was to share the experience of being there in an accessible way, so I had to develop skills in writing fast and with confidence. A major highlight in 2012 was going back to work for EIFF and again being supported and given new opportunities to impact the programme and festival structure. Viewing shorts was a brilliant experience because I saw how much talent there is in the short film sector and found that my recommendations for the programme were shared by the short programmer, so it was fantastic to see films submitted being screened for a large audience.
I was also given the chance to host a Q&A with a filmmaker for the first time. Though I’d spoken in public before, I was still nervous, but the best advice I was given was that in a Q&A situation, the audience cares most about hearing from the filmmaker, so it’s less about intricate questions and more about making sure they are comfortable and want to share. I learned so much from being in the thick of the festival from the senior programmers around me, not least of all that a good programmer cares about every film and giving the audience the best possible experience. I developed stamina – to keep up that enthusiasm, stay focused, stay hospitable, and pay attention to details.
Another highlight in 2012 was trying out criticism proper, by attending festivals like Berwick Film Festival and London Film Festival and reporting back for The Flaneur. I learned that planning a film festival schedule as a critic is a skill in itself, especially in a large city like London, where back then, the press shows were spread across different venues and trying to get to what I wanted to see wasn’t always possible. That impacted on how I approached my writing, and how much I was able to produce. 2012 was really about learning how to approach, research and experience a festival from the similar-but-different perspectives of critic and programmer.
You are Producer of Alchemy Film & Arts, you’ve written articles for the likes of Sight and Sound and CineVue, International Film Festival Rotterdam included you in their young film critics group as a part of a talent development initiative, and you were recently a member of the Shorts Competition Jury at the Bratislava International Film Festival. With so much going on, tell us about what a typical day of work looks like for you.
Harriet: The nature of a ‘typical’ day changes all the time. Back in January and February, it involved quite a bit of writing, such as festival coverage – I wrote for KINO!, the Slovenian film journal from IFFR, and for Sight & Sound and CineVue from Berlin Film Festival – as well as maintaining my site with new features such as Aniston of Week. More recently my days have been more focused on key projects at Alchemy, but I’m also still balancing different freelance jobs, such as hosting Q&A’s at EIFF and Filmhouse.
In February 2016 you started working as a Producer with Alchemy Film & Arts in the Scottish Borders. What would you define as your key experiences in the role thus far?
Harriet: Producing the sixth edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival was a fantastic experience. My role was very varied and demanding, managing the film, installation and live cinema programmes, recruiting, training and scheduling fifty volunteers, and coordinating hospitality for over sixty visiting filmmakers from all over the world. The festival takes place in Hawick, and we have a brilliant partner in our main cinema venue, the Heart of Hawick, Tower Mill. What’s so special about Alchemy is the way that our international programme of artists’ film and the filmmakers who visit become part of our local community for four days, and the audiences, volunteers and guests of the festival meet, share and discuss film.
It’s also been a pleasure to get to know the people who volunteer for Alchemy Film Festival and become part of the creative community in the Scottish Borders, there’s so much going on! We now have Alchemy Community Engagement (ACE), a project to integrate all our activities working with the community, such as supporting the brilliant Moving Image Makers Collective – a filmmaking group who started after receiving training from Alchemy in 2014. I’ve learned a lot from collaborating with people who give their time freely to making the festival happen, and from seeing the talent, curiosity and willingness to experiment among our local artists.
In May, Alchemy Film & Arts was selected by the Scotland + Venice partnership to curate Scotland’s national presentation for the 57th International Art Exhibition, the Venice Biennale, which will be a major new film work by the artist Rachel Maclean. The project has been very exciting to work on so far, seeing the artist’s ideas develop, working with our partners, Talbot Rice Gallery and the University of Edinburgh, and thinking through all the complex elements of the project.
At the moment, we’re balancing Scotland + Venice 2017, the seventh edition of Alchemy Film Festival and ACE project planning, so each day brings new challenges and is keeping me busy!
Looking back to a time when you were less experienced as a freelancer, did you do anything back then which you would do differently now?
Harriet: I think I would have just done more, watched more, written more. As I’ve become more experienced I’ve learned the importance of just trying things out, and being less fearful that things might fail. Looking back, I might simply have broadened my search when looking for opportunities and asked more people for advice.
Thinking back to your University days, what advice would you give to your younger, student self, or to anyone else looking to develop a career similar to yours?
Harriet: Do as much as you can and look for every opportunity and don’t be afraid to invest time in professional development. Stay busy, even if that means periods when you’re volunteering or doing something slightly unrelated to your specialism. I’ve done courses, training days, been to networking events and sought advice from colleagues and it’s all been helpful. These days, employers require such a diversity of experience and skills, so it’s best just to get involved and learn by doing. After every job I reflect on what I’ve learned and update my CV straight away, translating tasks into a new skill set and evaluating accomplishments.
Also, enter competitions! I broke into writing for Sight & Sound when I won their female film journalist competition in 2013, and have just kept up pitching to them ever since. I think another good thing to remember is that networking should be about people you want to work with, and if you meet someone interesting, follow up with them, because building those contacts can be valuable months, even years down the line. Also, if you have an idea for an article, or a review or any kind of writing or creative project, and no-one wants to publish it – just do it yourself because it’s important first of all to value your own ideas.
Lastly, I think I’d advise my younger self to worry less and take care of myself – it’s easy as a freelancer to work, work, work but health and wellbeing is the most important thing. Put simply, if you have good health and well-being, you can achieve anything.
You can follow Harriet on Twitter: @HarrietWarman, like her Facebook Page and read her website.