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In Conversation with Anna Smith, Film Critic, Broadcaster and Host of "Girls On Film"

Anna Smith is a freelance British film journalist and broadcaster, regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Empire or Time Out, in addition to hosting the film podcast “Girls On Film", voted No. 1 in Stylist Magazine's Best Feminist Film Podcasts. The show features guests such as Akua Gyamfi, creator of The British Blacklist, or Francine Stock, host of The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4 who together discuss film in refreshing and original ways. We discussed her career and the many twists and turns she has experienced, ranging from how to create relevant content, film journalism in practice, to the importance of paying journalists for their work.

Image: Anna Smith

Can you recall any early encounters with film, or pinpoint any keys moments that sparked your interest in film and eventually film journalism?

I actually didn’t go to the cinema a great deal when I was younger, which is maybe one of the reasons I became slightly obsessed with it – often what you’re denied becomes your hobby or your fascination. I remember going to see “101 Dalmatians” in the seventies when I was a very small child in America; I think there was something very exciting about that. The magic of cinema certainly struck me then.

Watching Back to the Future on TV one Christmas, just sitting there on my own, the wonder of cinema just hitting me because, it’s one of those films that brings everything together, the fantasy, the sci-fi, the comedy and it’s just a very sharp narrative, and something you can really escape into. I became slightly obsessed with time travel movies after that.

At University in Leeds, I did a "Gender and Popular Culture" option, and studied “Thelma and Louise” alongside “Basic Instinct”, which are very different films, but fascinating form a female perspective. So, I absolutely loved writing about those, so I just kind of thought, “This is a wonderful thing to do”. When I decided on journalism, I did do some film reviews for the Leeds Student Newspaper, but actually, went more in the direction of women’s magazines and music magazines when I graduated from journalism school, because I think I just thought it would be hard to make a living as a film critic (which it is), but I actually didn’t even consider it as a full time option, figuring it might be apart of a bigger picture.

Then I went on to study a one-year course at Cardiff for Journalism School (which is also NCJT approved) which I found very vocational and useful for magazine journalism. After that I became, temporarily after a maternity cover, editor of navigation news. This was not my area at all; I have no sense of direction even. But, it was one of those courses where you were taught how to be a journalist and an editor and you could transfer it to any subject. But obviously, it wasn’t my passion.

So when a job came up through one of my course mates to go on Generator magazine (which is a dance music magazine), I became their clubs editor. When that magazine folded, with a colleague I took the title to a new publisher, they took it on, made me editor, and renamed it Wax, which was more of an underground dance music magazine. Ministry Magazine then head-hunted me, so I went there but not for very long, and then I went to Minx Magazine, became their assistant editor. Minx was a really feisty female magazine and it was fairly short lived, just a few years, but it was really trying to do something different in that scene, and to be less patronising, not talk down to women. It folded for practical reasons, such as not having a big enough audience, but they were also constantly revamping the format and aesthetic, and weren't consistent in that sense. But, that is where I started to do film reviews.

When I got made redundant, I had been thinking of going freelance anyway but obviously was afraid of the risk, but being made redundant gave me a financial cushion, so I thought "great, let’s try doing film reviews and see what happens". Then it was a process of gradually building up the work, knocking on a lot of doors, and spending a lot of time proving myself (as you do in your twenties).

I had worked for four or five magazines so I definitely wasn’t going to do anything for free, so for me, I don’t know if that’s the case know, but because I had done really specific training, meant I didn’t need to do much for free. In terms of film reviews, it helps to have done them at Minx Magazine, and then I was able to go to Time Out Magazine, again thanks to a colleague from Cardiff who was writing about music there, who told me they were looking for someone to do TV reviews. So I started doing those, and finally the film section noticed me and I was able to start writing for them. Now I take on the role of acting editor of Time Out whenever needed.

Being the Chair of the film section of the Critic’s circle for the last 5 years, I’m really happy to have been able to pioneer the Critic’s Code, which is about not working for free. It has actually benefited quite a lot of people when we politely tell broadcasters “Look, we’re not doing this for free, and this is why”, as in why we should be paid for our work as skilled writers and journalists, and more often than not they come back to us with payment. As you become more in demand, that becomes less of a necessity, and sometimes I agree to do something for a certain fee, but require that publisher to then pay everyone else that fee, and occasionally that will work. So it’s fantastic to be able to do things like that, and it’s wonderful to be able to represent the Critic’s circle on TV and for events.

What is your approach to interviewing?

The aim is to get on well with them, create a rapport, so that you can get something out of them that someone else hasn’t. No one wants to read the same old parroted phrases, and I know for a fact that it is very easy to pour out the same answers if you’re being interviewed several times a day (particularly older actors). But the really good ones will make it fresh and they’ll try and work with you to make it fresh, so you’re both playing the same game, and it is a game. It can be quite strategic, people are “media trained”, so there’s a bit of acting involved on all sides. Of course, research their background, interests, and subtly let them know what your interests are if you can, to give them a sense of your personality without taking up too much space in the conversation.

How did you come up with the podcast idea? And how did you get it off the ground?

It was in my head as a show as soon as I left Minx in the year 2000, it was something like a dream, and then I told my agent Hedda Archbold (who is also a producer) about it last year, and she said, “well why don’t we try doing it as a podcast?”, so we did.

Thoughts of doing it on my own didn’t work out brilliantly, and I thought actually, there is huge strength in numbers, and how fantastic it would be to get brilliant women in the industry, not all of whom have enough of an outlet or a voice, and all of them are fantastic and speak beautifully about film. The idea was to get them all together, have a rotating roster of guests, and speak to people about film from a female perspective. It’s initially been an investment for both Hedda and myself as we’ve both put our own money into it, but we now have some partners lined up to help us cover the costs, because there has been an amazing response, I am just so happy about it.

We like to discuss both new and slightly older releases (maybe a month after it’s general release), because we do get feedback saying “Well that’s great but none of us have seen anything you’ve talked about yet”. And that is exactly why I am excited to talk about Jordan Peele’s “Us” at Home, because by the time we get to Manchester I’m sure many more people will have seen it, which will allow us to begin the conversation with a “spoiler alert” as such and then dissect the film in a really interesting way.

When I started writing loose scripts for "Girls On Film", I almost didn’t know where to start because I’m so used to writing for other people, and had to ask myself truly what my own voice was. Even though I do have my own voice within that space, it is obviously always altered slightly to fit the brief of that publication. Being able to completely do what I wanted was liberating and at first, quite disconcerting because I had become so accustomed, over 18 years, to writing for other people.

How do you go about the film reviewing process?

I find the questions friends ask me about films to be quite revealing – “What is the first thing that this person with a short attention span will want to know to get them interested?” You also want to get your first sentence exactly straight on what you’re talking about; don’t be too enigmatic unless it’s the kind of space that allows for that, and give people a really clear idea of what you’re saying from the first few sentences. Another thing to remember is that being honest to your first personal reaction can be really helpful. Because often, if the first thing that grabs you about the film or that you were expecting about the film is really immediate in your mind that may well be a good way to start, so it’s quite instinctive.

Often, I avoid reading other reviews before writing my own, unless I’m really on the fence about something. The film critic’s association actually asks critics not to discuss new film releases with each other when they first come out. And that is quite helpful, as you need to go through your own thought process before engaging with anyone else’s in order to produce a review that’s true to your opinion.

To do our job, it’s important to know how to stay fresh. The more film knowledge you have, the more expectations you have in a way, and it can be useful to remember what it’s like to watch a film genre for the first time and to avoid being too cynical.

Film journalists usually see most films at press screenings, well in advance of general releases in order to hit our deadlines, but sometimes seeing a film with the public can add a lot of value to the film, as critics do tend to get comfortable in a sort of bubble. I went to see “Us” at Picturehouse Central this weekend with a friend, and that was a brilliant one to see with an audience. Comedies and Horrors are particularly good examples of that.

The role of a film critic, to me is really to analyse a film which will enhance people’s understanding or enjoyment of it, whether they’ve seen it already, whether the intend to see it, or even it they don’t intend to see it at all, but are interested in good quality writing. So, to help advise, and to encourage people to get deeper under the skin of a film. It’s an on-going battle to convince certain editors or publications that certain types of film deserve the space that many others and I believe they do. It’s the usual story especially if we’re talking about the print industry rather than broadcast or online, to create a good amount of space for the arts, given the decline of print advertising (trailers and media advertisement is mostly all on Youtube, Twitter and Instagram now).

What topics in films move you? Are there any that leave you cold?

I’m very interested in character driven films, that really explore female sexuality a lot - the psychology of that is very interesting to me, and the development of the erotic mind in cinema. I love films that explore the concept of the afterlife as well, such as “Where Dreams May Come”. Anything that looks at why humans behave the way they do and also the extremes of that, which is obviously what drives a lot of cinema. One of the things I find beautiful about cinema is its ability to let us discover other cultures, especially through documentary, about things that we could never dream about experiencing otherwise.

Something I feel an aversion to, without getting on a moral high horse, is what you could refer to as “torture porn”, and I feel slightly troubled by audiences that enjoy it. I was very vocal about my dislike of Lars Von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built”. He’s a great filmmaker and I’m a fan of a lot of his work, and he’s made a film that’s very beautiful in many ways and is well acted, but it’s severely nasty, and has absolutely no soul. In fact it’s the opposite of that, it presents a very extreme character without any kind of journey or redemption, and it gets to a point where it’s so nasty and he is deliberately torturing the audience, and he does like to do that. And that puts my back up.

I’m very alert to the fact that there are women who don’t include men in the conversation, which is a minority of women, but there is that sense of assuming someone is guilty before he has had a chance to be proved innocent. Confusing the work of an artist with the life of an artist is a heated on-going debate. As a critic, I might choose what to feature, but I would never give a film one star because the people or a person involved did something I disagreed with, that is the total opposite of what I do. The problem is when the artist is polemic and is trying to impose their point of view on you, which actually Lars Von Trier is doing in “The House That Jack Built”, and when the issues creep into the art itself. I'm not saying he’s a serial killer but he’s clearly a disturbed man, I don’t know if I want an insight into that brain. I find it slightly unnerving when events like Cannes decide to put that sort of film up in lights as opposed to some wonderful films that have positive, wonderful things, and people being good to each other, that aren’t pushing any sort of agenda down your throat, and are in some ways a simple, beautiful snapshot of people being decent to each other (such as in “Leave No Trace” by Debra Granik, which was my favourite film of last year).

This is a really difficult and interesting ground that we’re navigating at the moment, post #MeToo, Weinstein scandals, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, and the idea of censoring films and leave all these films in the past – Are we supposed to chuck out all our Woody Allen DvDs? "The Breakfast Club" was a favourite of mine growing up, and still is in many ways, but if I were to talk about it from a feminist point of view, that film has some extremely problematic takes on romance and homosexuality. It’s all about contextualising the film, so you can enjoy and critic what ever you want, how ever you want to.

Listen to the podcast here

Anna Smith will be going back to HOME on the 24th of April for another live “Girls On Film” podcast, as a part of the year long “Celebrating Women in Global Cinema” programme. Find out more here:

You can also follow @annasmithjourno on Twitter.