There are plenty of stories here on the Raising Films website about how film festivals can get it so very wrong when it comes to accommodating attendees and delegates with children, so we are delighted to share this most excellent account from one of our founders – Hope Dickson Leach – about what happened when Ghent came calling. Over to Hope…
It’s not very often you get the call to be on a festival jury. Or at least, it’s not very often I get the call to be on a festival jury. So when I received the invitation to serve in the official competition jury at the gorgeous Ghent Festival, I was a bit overexcited. It wasn’t just about the great honour but also about the opportunity meet a whole heap of fantastic people and watch a whole load of fantastic films. All the way through! In a cinema! The dream. Then I opened my diary to check the dates…
Stuck in a development and financing lull, I was feeling very proud of having organised the half term break in good time this autumn. My husband had arranged time off and we were all going to spend it together. Family time. So of course, that’s when the festival was. Because that’s the thing about this industry, the things you want to do always come along when you are trying to be a good, normal, regular parent.
My heart sank for a few minutes, as my standard rule is that family comes first, and holidays and weekends are sacred. But having attended the brilliant Screenplay festival on Shetland last autumn where we we had been looked after so beautifully and had the best adventure as a family, I wondered if we could do the same.
Luckily we weren’t long out of the World Cup, and I remembered that my oldest son was a Belgium supporter. Maybe this could work! With the approval of my tribe, I called the festival back and asked what they thought. Could I bring my family with me? I had researched Airbnb flats in advance, and of course offered to cover my family’s flights over. I was ready to have a tricky conversation, smooth their discomfort at my responding to an invitation with a request. I was giving off charm and light, whilst in my gut I was feeling guilty and nervous. (Guilty for what? Inconveniencing them? Behaving like a diva? Asking for special treatment even though I’m not really special? All of my worst instincts were driving that guilt, let me tell you. I’m sure you’re better at this than me).
But they couldn’t have been nicer. Truly. “Of course, Ms Dickson Leach!” they said. “No problem! We can pick you all up from the airport, and you can all stay in a suite at the hotel!” It wasn’t a big deal at all and all I’d had to do was ask.
Six weeks later we were all on a plane on our way to Brussels. I may have been a little bit vague over the details about whether we were going to meet Eden Hazard or not, but everyone was excited and we were all together.
But, 36 hours later there were less smiles. The oldest had a temperature, so my other son and husband were stuck in the hotel (in our large, comfortable suite, but still, in a hotel away from home) and they were getting bored of room service and grouchy. I had watched eight international feature films and was starting to forget how to speak English. My brain was on fire, my imagination overworked, and I was creatively stimulated in ways I’d forgotten. Watching brilliant, world cinema with brilliant people to talk to about it afterwards is inspiring and exhausting. It is entirely absorbing and when your head hits the pillow you want to sleep and prepare for the next day.
But of course when I returned to the hotel room I had to do cuddles and stories and download the latest on the patient. I was worried that this had been a terrible idea. We weren’t spending time together and they weren’t having fun.
Like many things, in the morning it all seemed brighter. At a massive hotel breakfast, my six year old declared “This is the best day EVER! We’re living like kings!” as he tucked into his three plates of ham and a bucket of creamy hot chocolate. And so the tide shifted. We figured it out.
The temperature went down, the boys all made it out to explore the castle, and we managed to meet up for tea. They’d spent the afternoon at a Flemish children’s film that was being shown at the festival and despite there not being any English subtitles, they totally understood it.
And it just got better day-by-day. As our schedule eased off, we were able to meet up now and then for lunches and gatherings. We managed to explore the art gallery and museum, and the boys found a staggering 117 thousand conkers which all had to come home with us. On the final day we had free time, and went to Bruges together, in a festival vehicle. We really were living like kings. We’d pulled it off.
Would we do it again? Absolutely. Would I do things differently? Of course. But that is true of all parts of my parenting and filmmaking life.
What was surprising about it was that as well as the family holiday and professional experience, I also got a boost from doing something new, something I didn’t think I could pull off. Sometimes when you’re in a rut you start to lock down. Exhausted by all the challenges of being freelance in an unpredictable industry with children who were constantly changing, I start to limit myself. I need consistency and enjoy regularity. The thought of upheaval becomes harder all the time – especially when you’re living with little professional reward or satisfaction, as is often the way with filmmaking life. But by saying Yes to this, and having a partner who was willing to jump with me, my self-esteem grew. I felt released, enabled. My confidence grew.
So I want to say a huge thank you to the Ghent Film Festival not just for inviting me, and looking after my family and I so beautifully, but for enabling this transformative experience. I don’t think you can have known how much it meant to me, and to my work. You are truly Raising Films.
TOP TIPS FOR ATTENDING FESTIVALS WITH YOUR CHILDREN:
- Bringing a partner/grandparent/nanny to look after them whilst you are busy is crucial. If you can’t manage this, you need to limit your expectations to what you will be able to do at the festival.
- Identify time in advance where you are going to intersect and spend time as a family. Festivals are free form and you want to get carried along with the fun, but you will probably regret abandoning them for another festival party later.
- Find a babysitter – via the festival, or local pals, or ask other filmmakers who may have attended in the past. Having an evening out will make the whole thing feel like a real holiday for your partner and you.
- If you’re in a hotel, Deliveroo is your friend. It will save you from expensive room service menu and is likely to have more kid friendly options.
- If there are family/youth screenings – get along to them! Even if they’re not in your native language or subtitled, your kids will probably get a lot out of them. And it helps everyone feel like they’re part of the festival.
- Don’t stay out late – mornings and breakfast time may be the best quality time you have with your kids, so you want to be awake for that.
TOP TIPS FOR FESTIVAL ORGANISERS TO HELP GUESTS BRINGING CHILDREN:
- Be welcoming! This isn’t a big deal, and chances are your filmmaker is used to lugging their family around, so they will be able to manage it without too much additional work to you.
- Have some recommended and trusted babysitters in your arsenal.
- Offer the single parent/carer an ‘Angel’ who can go to events with them, and if necessary hold the baby/look after the kids while they do Q&As, press etc.
- Ensure there are breastfeeding friendly spaces at every venue the breastfeeding filmmaker is going to.
- Give the kids festival passes – it’s so easy to do, and they LOVE it.
- Identify which events your guests might be able to bring their families to.
- Put together a family pack – a pdf of things to do in your city/town/area that is of interest to families. This is something that can be done in the off season and can be a lifesaver to filmmakers who haven’t had the time to prep as much as they might like.
- If you’re putting your guests in apartments or cabins, see if there are some age appropriate toys you can supply.