SHEILA WHITAKER: IN MEMORIAM 1936 - 2013

Mon Jul 29,2013

For nine energetic years, Sheila Whitaker was one of the people at the heart of the Dubai International Film Festival. From its very beginnings and founding in 2004 as the first international film festival in the UAE, Sheila brought her extensive international, festival and programming experience to its development. She played a crucial role in helping it to be built on solid foundations and become internationally recognised as one of the important new festivals in the world, particularly for its celebration of Arab cinema. Over those nine years of her involvement and in her final role as Director of International Programming, she helped to bring some of  the best – and often off-beat -  films from around the world to Dubai. From Hollywood too. Her selections often echoed her particular interest in cinema from Latin America, films about music or  ones reflecting social and political issues.
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The Artistic Director of DIFF, Masoud Amralla Al Ali,  who worked closely with her, has spoken movingly of her importance to the festival and to him:
“I knew Sheila to be meticulous, clear, understanding, opinionated, professional, and passionate…. She dedicated her life to understanding the emerging cinema…the Arab cinema, and Iran, and Latin America. She engaged with the people of those regions, with their culture and true nature. She knew them well and she formed so many friendships.”

Dubai marked the culmination of a remarkable career in the cinema. A keen cinemagoer and member of the then National Film Theatre in London, she was appointed in 1968 to be Head of the National Film Archive Collection of stills, posters and original designs. Only in 1975, as a mature student, did she enter further education to study comparative European Literature at the University of Warwick. One of the most important UK film journals of the period – it was a period of polemical film journals - devoted to independent cinema around the world, Framework, was initially based at Warwick and she was a co-editor from 1976-78. In 1979, she was appointed director of the Tyneside Cinema, one of the most lively and committed of regional film theatres which also had its own Tyneside Festival of Independent Cinema, which she also directed. Her success and that of the cinema was reflected in her receipt of the Variety Club of Great Britain Northern Personality of the Year in 1983 !

The experience in Newcastle-upon-Tyne set her in good stead to move to London to become Head of Programming at the BFI’s National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank). In 1987 she combined this post with being Director of the London Film Festival and did both jobs until 1990 after which she dedicated herself solely to the burgeoning  film festival until 1996. She oversaw a significant growth in the size and international impact of the festival, which until this point had only had screenings at the NFT. One of the achievements of which she was most proud was extending the reach of the festival and its location out into the cinemas of London’s West End to access a broader audience.

A regular visitor to the Fajr Film Festival in Iran during the years when the festival played an important role in discovering the new directors, she co-edited Life and Art; the New Iranian Cinema in 1999 to accompany an NFT season. In 2000 she edited a book devoted to the Argentinian screen writer and director Maria Luise Bemberg. Throughout her career she wrote articles that were widely published, including obituaries for The Guardian, and edited books that reflected her passionate, radical and humanitarian perspective, her feminism, her commitment to certain cinemas and to the work of women directors in particular. But she was also a lover of classical Hollywood, in particular westerns. And one of her first publications was an NFT monograph on Martin Ritt.

Her interests and commitments went far beyond the cinema into the other arts. She was the founding editor of Writing Women, a journal devoted to women’s prose and poetry between 1982 and 1984. Her passionate interest in the events and the culture of the Middle East were reflected in her activity as a board member and one of the founders (in 2008) of the Palestine Literature Festival (Palfest) designed to support Palestinian cultural life and to bring together Palestinian and international writers.

Sheila was a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (France) and received honorary degrees from both the University of Newcastle and the University of Warwick.

Earlier this year, soon after the last Dubai International Film Festival, Sheila who was 77, was diagnosed as having the first indications of motor neuron disease. She faced the increasingly debilitating consequences of the disease with fortitude, grace and humour, watching films and listening to music to the end. She died peacefully at home in London on 29th July.

There will be a private cremation for close friends and family with a memorial to be held in October.
Instead of flowers, Sheila requested that donations should be made to Palfest at https://secure.thebiggive.org.uk/charity/view/6862

She is survived by her brother.

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