The 10th Annual, VISFF happening in February, will be the last one under the leadership of Johnny Blakeborough. The festival co-founder and director is stepping down to pursue new projects, but will retain a “mentorship” role in training and advising the new management team next year. The Navigator sat down with Blakeborough, and reviewed the decade of careful planning and accidental successes.
How would you sum up the 10 years of running the VISFF?
When John Gardiner and I started talking about doing this 10 years ago, we didn’t have any idea what it was going to become. I was still in my 20’s and had just recently landed my first decent job and I had this belief I could do anything without worrying about failure. I don’t recall ever thinking that if we don’t get a certain number of submissions or sell this many tickets, it won’t be a success. We just did each step as it came up. And we had a sold out show the first year.
Why do you think people took to it so fast?
A decade ago in Nanaimo there was not as much happening as there is now, especially downtown and in the arts scene. I mean, there was some great stuff happening, but it seems like the arts scene has exploded in the last few years. And I think we were just at the beginning of that uptake—we filled the vacuum with something that was unlike anything else before. But it would be interesting to know what got those 400 people to show up in the first year, because they couldn’t have known if it was going to be a good show or not. Maybe we were just lucky.
You’re suggesting that you were at the right place at the right time. What do you think the conditions are like for someone who would want to found a festival today?
I think there’s more room for these kinds of cultural events now. There’s a huge growth in the art community downtown, and over the time I’ve had a lot of requests from people to do specific themes such as horror or GLBT films. I tell them: “That’s a great idea! You should do that.” The VISFF tries to be a diverse show open to people who want to do and see a lot of different things. But there is room for specialized events. Look at the Banff festival. It’s a hugely successful festival about outdoor stuff. And it travels all over and even comes to Nanaimo.
What do you consider to be the festival’s biggest accomplishment?
Getting people together to discuss film and socialize, even though that was not the initial idea. It happened kind of organically as people hang out in the foyer before, during the break, and after the show, and we’ve evangelized that. It has now become the central and most important element of VISFF and whenever there were suggestions to improve the festival which would pull away from the social aspect, I resisted it. I think everyone on the team sees how important it is for the festival to be successful.
What other steps did you take for the festival to succeed?
Another thing that I think was essential to the success is the presentation. We also try to put on a show that’s entertaining, but also professional. We hire professional graphic designers and we’re very conscious about the quality of everything around the festival. The VISFF is a brand that people within and outside the community know and want to go to.
How does the festival benefit you personally?
I don’t know if I would have searched out all these films on my own if it weren’t for the festival. I definitely had selfish reasons to have a festival. I wanted to see short films. I wanted other people to see and make short films in our community. And so I got a chance to see great stuff that I wouldn’t know of if it weren’t for the festival. I also got to meet and talk to so many cool people, film lovers and filmmakers. One of them told me once: “I force myself to make a film every year so that I can submit it to your festival.” That’s one of the nicest things a filmmaker can say to me.
The 10th Annual VISFF will also be the last one for you as the director. What role do you plan to take on in the future?
I want to be able to support the people I’m handing the reins to next year, but I also want to give them the opportunity to lead as well. I’ll step back as much as possible and be available to them in case they need help or advice, but let them make the decisions. I think that in order for the festival to continue and grow, it needs people who will be invested in it and not just following my lead. I also want to move on to my other projects.
Once you leave, it will be taken over by different personalities with maybe different interests or styles. How do you think the VISFF may evolve?
That’s hard to say. This year we’ve brought on more organizers than before, so the future team gets the opportunity to see how different parts of the jobs are done. I don’t want to see the festival flaunder, but I’m not worried about the new team in the future; they are already doing a great job. They have a very strong interest in continuing to make a great show and supporting local filmmakers, which I think are the two essential aspects of the festival. Specifically, there is a strong interest in pushing the event to become a big draw to the audiences outside Nanaimo and making it a destination cultural event. I’ve never had the ability to do that, but I’m excited about it.
What is on your horizon?
There are a couple of charities I work for that I want to devote more time to, specifically the Desert Bus For Hope. I have also been planning a 10-part documentary radio program about television, but it would make sense to make it a video documentary. I have a radio show about technology that I did for over a year that has been on a hiatus, and I’d like to get back to it.
You also used to make short films. Can we expect a submission of yours in the future?
I have not made more than one or two things, that you might even vaguely call a short film, in the last decade—and it used to be one of my biggest passions. I’ve always thought short films are an amazing medium because of how much simpler and cost effective it is. John and I started the festival with the idea of somewhere we’d be proud to show our films, but we agreed we couldn’t possibly submit our films to our festival. Then John stepped back (from the management) and started making and submitting films. I took over, hoping he would come back and I’d have a chance to make films. Now I’d like to work on a film and collaborate with people. I have a few ideas but no scripts or solid plans. My main idea right now is to go to VISFF in 2016, sit down in the audience without having seen any of the films before, and be completely surprised with what I see on the screen.