The Agony and the Ecstasy – Behind the Scenes of Pre-Selection

Whittling down countless submissions into a shortlist for the Iris Prize is never easy, and this year was more of a challenge than ever before. David Llewellyn gives us the lowdown on the process of pre-selection.
There are picture descriptions for the visually impaired at the end of this post. I knew I was in trouble when I'd drawn a red circle around the first four films on my list. This list of forty-four had to be narrowed down to a total of five, plus - if I felt like it - a wildcard. A  red circle meant "I LIKE THIS FILM A LOT", and I still had another forty films to watch. For the last few years I've been a part of the Iris Prize pre-selection jury. Most of the shortlisted films are nominated by partner festivals around the world, the rest are chosen, by us, from open submissions. The ratio varies each year. Two or more festivals might nominate the same film, or a film that's been submitted by the filmmaker might get nominated by another festival. It evens out at around 2/3 nominations, 1/3 submissions, with a shortlist of 35-36 international shorts.
David making some tough choices. (Disclaimer: Photograph may have been staged for the purpose of this blog post.)
Anyway, this brings us back to my red circles, and how I came to have the sole responsibility for watching those 44 films. You see, with the number of submissions increasing each year, it's impossible for the entire pre-selection jury to watch all of the films submitted. It would simply take too long, weeks probably, and it isn't a paid gig. As a result, the jury itself has grown, reflecting something of the diversity we hope we champion at the festival. We're the gatekeepers, and with great power comes great responsibility. Which is a highfalutin way of saying that each of us is given a batch of 40 or more films to watch in our own time, from which we choose five favourites (with the aforementioned option of a 'wildcard'). The next stage sees us gather in a Top Secret Location (actually not that secret, but preferably somewhere with a big screen, decent sound system and air-con) to watch the films selected. When all of them have been seen, the arguments begin. Actually, it's much more civilised than that. Iris's criteria has always been "Excellence in storytelling", which helps focus the discussions, but doesn't make choosing the films any easier. From the dozens we'll watch, we can pick around 10-15 in total. Generally, each pre-selection juror will have maybe 1 or 2 of their films get through. Sometimes more, sometimes none at all. The heartache starts early. Of my 44 films, there was one that didn't meet our criteria (read the submission guidelines, peopleand one I just plain didn't like (my lips are sealed). The rest were all good. Really good. And of those, there were twelve I thought were excellent. Cutting that refined list down by half was a process that took weeks, watching and re-watching the films, deducting points over the tiniest of reservations. (I turned down films by filmmakers I've met and liked in person, which feels just awful - Iris has friends but no favourites.) If I had my way, I'd have put all twelve through, but if everyone did that, expecting each film to get shortlisted, the festival would go on for months. And I don't think any of us would survive that. The payoff of to all this is a shortlist we're proud of, one that came about not through lazy consensus (i.e. "None of us disliked this film...") but through discussion and compromise and a genuine love for the stories being told. If you submitted a film to Iris this year but didn't get through, don't be disheartened. The competition was fierce from the second it began, and just because your film didn't make the list, that doesn't mean it can't enjoy success elsewhere. If it's any consolation, it broke our hearts to see many of those films fall away. I've been working on the festival, in some capacity, since it began in 2007. We had some great films that year, but the best of them - a handful, really - stood out. Things have changed dramatically in the last 12 years. It's getting harder and harder to guess a winner. Each year we get films from  countries that have never been represented before. Last year, Lebanon. This year, Peru and Bosnia & Herzegovina/Macedonia. I like to think Iris and other festivals are driving quality, that filmmakers at various stages of their careers and all over the world are inspired by seeing great films, and that this is why the job of choosing those films and picking a winner gets more challenging. This was, without a doubt, my toughest year on the pre-selection jury, but boy oh boy... if you're coming to Iris in 2019, you're in for a treat! Picture Descriptions
  1. A stock image of an empty screening room, with rows of seats and, at the far end, a blank screen.
  2. The author of the post staring intensely at a notebook and scratching his bald head, as if struggling to make a decision.