Roger Gibson lovingly recalls the moment he became enchanted by the magic of celluloid.
‘I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming’
He was an impressionable five-year-old growing up in South Africa when his dad took him to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
The music, the animation, the sheer joy of being captivated by the giant screen would live with him forever.
It sparked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the cinema, a passion which, at the age of 74, has earned him the respect of the industry in Britain.
From Fantasia to fantasy: for Roger once had a dream – to set up an independent cinema, sustain it and perhaps, one day, launch an international film festival in it.
He’s done it, but even he could never have imagined that it would all be achieved in an old Victorian school.
‘I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming it has all happened,’ he says as we chat at the midway point of the current Chichester International Film Festival.
For that’s where Roger has triumphed. In a once-draughty old building he now attracts legendary names from the cinema world to come and introduce films and take questions from the audience at what is now called Chichester Cinema at New Park.
This year he’s enticed Derek Jacobi, Ronald Harwood, Virginia McKenna, Sarah Miles, Tony Palmer and Amanda Waring among others into this quaint, much-loved venue.
Last year Ken Russell made his final public appearance at the cinema before his death in November.
The cinema has a fiercely loyal audience. It is probably the most successful independent cinema on the south coast, attracting people from a wide catchment area.
‘We get lots of people from the Portsmouth area in our audience. If you put on the right films, people who love the cinema will make the effort to come some way. Of course, we could always do with more of them.’
That loyalty was shown in the past year when they raised £60,000 in less than six months so the cinema could go digital.
Roger sighs: ‘As 35mm films are being phased out, the only way we could survive was via our very generous and loyal supporters.
‘When you consider we are tiny, seating only 120, we managed to attract 57,000 people last year, which is no small feat.’
Roger started teaching film studies at Chichester College in the 1970s and was asked by the principal if he would establish a film club. His cinema moved to New Park Road 33 years ago and this month his international film festival has come of age. It’s the 21st.
‘It started very humbly,’ he adds. ‘It was 1991 and it was part of the annual Chichester Festivities in July and it lasted just six days.
‘I felt it was rather overlooked by the mainly music programme so I decided to let it stand alone as film festival and moved it to August in the second year.’
This year’s began on August 16 and runs until September 2. It’s now considered to be one of the major UK festivals.
‘At that first one we screened 50 films which included 12 previews and nine new British films.
‘This year we’re offering 142 screenings and events including 13 European, six UK and seven United States’ premieres.’ There have also been open air screenings in nearby Priory Park.
Roger continues: ‘It tends to get harder each year as the ambitions grow and we struggle to get decent funding to achieve these ambitions.
‘Projects like the open air screenings are very costly to put on and we would like to import more films from abroad – films which I have seen at European festivals, but the shipping costs plus higher film fees limit our aims.
‘There are only a limited amount of new films available to premiere or preview each year and the available window is only about six weeks before the London Film Festival in October.
‘The more prestigious art films are kept back for them. However, as the festival gains in reputation, sometimes acquiring important titles gets a little easier with some distributors keen to support our festival.’
Roger spends much of the year travelling Europe to choose the most appropriate films for Chichester.
He goes to Cannes, Berlin and Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic to bring home what he considers will appeal to his West Sussex and Portsmouth-area based audience.
‘I have sat through a large number of challenging, difficult and sometimes boring or bad films over the years at various international film festivals.
‘But I have always tried to have a balance between the challenging, stimulating and entertaining films for a satisfying programme.
‘Audiences tend to be conservative and it is difficult to promote and get people’s interest in some unknown obscure films which have had very limited exposure.
‘But this is the essence of a festival – to take chances and occasionally discover a gem or some kind of revelation that was not expected.’
A bit like the impression Fantasia had on a young lad nearly 70 years ago.
Roger Gibson has pulled off a bit of a coup for the closing film of this year’s Chichester International Film Festival.
On September 2 he will be giving the British premiere to Hope Springs, a comedy starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.
Another comedy launched the festival and again it was its first showing in the UK – a Canadian film called Cloudburst staring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker.
Next Thursday Roger will screen his annual ‘surprise film’. He won’t let on what it is, but he promises it will be an unreleased gem.
In the past three years they have been Julie and Julia, Cannes winner Certified Copy and Jane Eyre.
For full details of 21st Chichester International Film Festival, go to chichestercinema.org