Photo / Bill Gosden (left) with Jonathon Dennis. Photo courtesy the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF)
The passing of Bill Gosden, who died of cancer last week, has left an immeasurable gap in our cultural landscape. As the director of the New Zealand International Film Festival for nearly 40 years Bill championed diverse, unusual and offbeat storytelling which in turn enriched the lives of many and created opportunity for aspiring filmmakers in Aotearoa.
Fellow film fanatic Ant Timpson, husband of Ensemble co-founder Rebecca Wadey, pays tribute to his longtime friend and occasional rival.
Over the decades I’m sure Bill Gosden heard the phrase “Well there’s more to life than movies” more than a few times. Usually from friends or colleagues trying to comfort him over missing out on the latest film from some major filmmaker.
But for a true cinephile and cultural curator like Bill, cinema was life and such off-hand comments were probably seen as condescension. Though he’d never state it out loud, a wry smile and an arched brow were enough visual cues to respond to any such flippancy.
For those of us blessed (inflicted) with cinephilia, our existence has always revolved around the movies. From wide-eyed childhood to discerning adulthood, we prefer to escape our day to day drudgery through the magic of the movies. And we’re usually happiest when immersed and spellbound by whatever tale is being projected.
All the pivotal moments in our lives have been portrayed far more dramatically in cinema. And all of our real-world memories over time have become blended with their fictitious simulacrums from the silver screen. Which is a long way of saying that my friendship and working relationship with Bill Gosden will always be treasured and remembered as something larger than life.
Like many great cinematic narratives, Bill and I began as rivals. Though that term puts us on equal footing, the reality was Bill and his festival (and it really was his festival) were cultural giants on the New Zealand landscape. Before there was throwing shade, I was practically blocking the sun with my non-stop jabs and taunting of Bill and his festival in the early 90s. I called it an antiquated fuddy-duddy affair for art lobsters and snobs. It wasn’t true but it didn’t stop me taking to the streets with a loud haler screeching about the one true film festival. Mine. Smash cut to Bill with arched brow and wry smile back in his office.
When I finally made my first short film Crab Boy, I didn’t programme it in my own film festival - I instead went, tail between legs, to the only show in town - Bill’s New Zealand International Film Festival. Bill not only selected my short, he programmed it to play in front of Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral throughout NZ. I never told him at the time, but Bill’s appreciation and support of my short was ‘the’ revelatory validation for me as a filmmaker. I should have always known we were more alike than I initially felt and his condemnation of the banning of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer should’ve sealed it.
Over the following decades, I got to see Bill at various events and festivals overseas. His industry street cred was second to none. He was always familiar but it was in these quiet moments away from the hometown fest shenanigans that I got a more rounded picture of the man. Once the professional demeanour was dropped, he was rather cheeky with a wicked sense of humour. We loved talking about certain beloved films nearly as much as we did bitching about certain assholes in the biz. Like I said. Cheeky. Possessed with an elephantine memory of those who had been unsportsmanlike, it was a rare treat to hear him eviscerate some nogoodnik.
He also seemed to know everyone and managed to massage and navigate all the complex egos and personalities to maintain the festival back home as one of the best in the world. Bill kindly connected many industry dots for me and was an open book with his deep-dive knowledge of the scene.
Eventually in 2004 we joined forces - or as history will more accurately record - Bill did me another solid. When I’d hit the wall running my own festival, he was gracious enough to let me continue to curate my own programming strand within the larger event. Things escalated quickly in terms of my relationships with international filmmakers and festival directors from that point on thanks to Bill.
The positive (up for debate by some) spin-offs from my relationship with Bill are just one minor part of the overall impact he had on the New Zealand creative landscape. The profound impact and influence Bill had on so many lives and careers over four decades will always be underestimated but it shouldn’t be, nor the cumulative trickle-down effect that will be felt in New Zealand for decades to come.