Cork Film Festival CEO: 'There are a lot of female voices coming up...'

Cork Film Festival is underway with more than 300 films and events taking place. Here COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the CEO, Fiona Clark
Cork Film Festival CEO: 'There are a lot of female voices coming up...'
Fiona Clark, Producer and CEO, Cork Film Festival Photo Credit: Allianz Business to Arts Awards

GROWING up, Fiona Clark thought the most appealing job of all was acting. The director and CEO of the Cork Film Festival (— which runs from November 7-17 — was sent to elocution classes because she was shy and her parents wanted her confidence to improve.

Born in Ecuador and schooled in Australia and other countries for a while, Fiona was mostly brought up in London. Her father’s job with Shell meant the family moved around a lot.

Fiona’s earliest memories include being brought to the pantomime by her grandparents. She was enchanted by the theatre.

At Bristol University, from 1986 to 1989, Fiona studied English and drama — and she discovered that there were roles in the theatre outside of acting, including writing, directing and producing.

She set up her own theatre company which performed at the Edinburgh Festival, both during her time at university and afterwards.

“I have huge admiration for actors,” says Fiona in her Cork city centre office.

“But they have very little control over their lives.

“As a writer, director and producer, I could create projects for myself. I got a job at the Bristol Old Vic as an education assistant. This was at a time when arts education was a very new thing. It blew my mind.”

Fiona, who is married to a Cork man, became interested in the power of social drama — including on film which her degree studies had touched on. She liked the Ken Loach films Kes and Cathy Come Home.

Fiona worked in many theatres after the Bristol Old Vic. She spent more than eight years at the Bush Theatre as CEO and executive producer. It specialises in discovering, developing and producing new writing talent.

“It was very gratifying to incubate debut writers and then later, to see them get a drama with the BBC or Channel 4,” she said.

Some of the Irish writers that were nurtured at the Bush Theatre during Fiona’s time there include Mark O’Rowe and Billy Roche.

Fiona took several shows to the West End, Broadway and other places including Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie.

She is very proud that the Cork Film Festival, which she joined in 2016, is launching a new outreach and education programme, called Intinn. It’s an extension of the festival’s Illuminate programme which screens films centred around mental health issues, with guests and panels for post screening discussions.

“Intinn is for Transition Year students. We did a pilot last September which was massively over-subscribed. So we will run it over Munster next year. I hope to be able to scale it into a nationwide programme.”

Fiona describes herself as “an ideas person”, adding: “My skill is having a vision and bringing the right people together to realise it.”

She is not a film programmer “but there is a programming element to my job because the overall vision of the festival is part of that.

“I would play a part in how artistic policy is developing and what areas we want to grow, such as family audiences.”

Describing her programming team as “brilliant”, Fiona says that there are “healthy debates about what does and what doesn’t fit into the festival.

“On the whole, you’ve got to trust the taste, knowledge and skill of the staff.”

Outside of festival time, the Cork Film Festival has a staff of just three or four.

“At festival time, there are 50 of us and about 120 volunteers. The 50 people would be on short term seasonal contracts, making up everything from box office staff to venue managers and people involved in programming and marketing.

“There is a lot of plate spinning but there is a structure to it. And there’s a great sense of a team at work, and fun. Festivals are extraordinary beasts. They have a personality and dynamic of their own. It’s not a linear thing. There are real peaks and troughs throughout the year.”

Last year, the Cork Film Festival audience grew by 22%.

“That’s an endorsement of what we’re doing. There’s a huge appetite for good independent cultural cinema in Cork. There’s a place for everything, from a children’s animation film to a three-and-a-half hour documentary with subtitles about a war zone.”

The budget for this year’s festival is around €500,000.

“We receive public investment and we generate our own income and sponsorship from partners. We have numerous partnerships who give gifts in kind worth more than €240,000.”

The festival doesn’t have a title sponsor.

“We would rather have a small stable of interested and committed partners who want to work with us over a period of time rather than a headline sponsor. That type of sponsorship seems old-fashioned now.”

Before coming to Ireland, where she first started working with the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin, Fiona took time out from the arts in the UK. She worked as the CEO of Earthrace Ltd, which set a new world record for a powerboat to circumnavigate the globe, using 100% renewable biodiesel fuel.

In that job, Fiona met the man who was to become her husband, Adrian Erangey from Shanagarry. (He was the operations manager for Earthrace. He now runs a telecoms company in East Cork. )

Fiona went on to work as CEO for Get Connected, the UK’s confidential helpline for young people under 25 who need help and don’t know where to turn.

Initially intending to spend less than a year with the charity, covering maternity leave, Fiona ended up spending nearly five years there.

“What was surprising was how creative a role it was. There was a lot of strategic thinking, putting your vision into practice. I learned really good governance there.”

While working in London for Get Connected, Fiona says that when her husband spoke of wanting to return to Ireland, she said she would need a job that she was really suited to.

“I was approached about the job at the IFI ,where I became head of development and fundraising. I thought it would be a good introduction to Ireland. It was great. I learned a lot about Irish film and the arts in Ireland.

“But it was tough doing the weekly commute. We had bought a house in Ballycotton which we’re doing up.”

The Cork Film Festival job was a perfect fit for Fiona.

“Cork is where I’m committed to. And it’s important to me to do something that is contributing to the community I live in.”

Fiona loves Cork, which “has managed to retain an air of independence with independent cafes and shops and interesting little pockets to explore.”

Next year is a big year for the Cork Film Festival. It will be celebrating 65 years. It is the country’s oldest film festival.

Next year is also the year that 50/50 gender parity in the film industry is supposed to be achieved.

“Last year, at Cannes Film Festival, a pledge was made for 50/50 by 2020. Film Festivals are a part of that and we’ve signed up to the pledge.

“The films that we present would be either directed or produced by women. Obviously, we can only select films that are available to us so that limits our choice. But it’s not just that. It’s across the board. We’re conscious when asking guests to be jury members that we look at diversity.”

Some 4,000 films were submitted to the Cork Film Festival for consideration for this year’s screenings.

“There are a lot of female voices coming up,” said Fiona.

The new director of programming at the festival for 2020 is Anna Kopecka. Her three-year role follows the successful conclusion of Michael Hayden’s tenure as programme director. For the past three years, Anna was the artistic director of the Prague International Film Festival. With two women at the helm at the Cork Film Festival, next year’s festival is in good hands.

FIONA CLARK’S PERSONAL FILM CHOICES FOR THE FESTIVAL

1. Away, an animated Latvian film for all ages.

2. System Crasher, a German film about a troubled nine year old girl.

3. The Last Right, an Irish film about a fateful exchange on a flight from New York to Ireland.

4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French love story set in the 18th century.

5. Singin’ in the Rain, the glorious musical starring Gene Kelly.

6. Mother, a moving documentary set in Thailand dealing with Alzheimer’s patients.

7. Tiny Souls, a documentary that tells the story of three Syrian siblings growing up in a refugee camp in Jordan.

For a full line up see www.corkfilmfest.org.

More in this section

Sponsored Content