Our LIFF Behind the Scenes series brings you interviews with a wide range of people working in film exhibition in Leeds and Yorkshire, giving you the chance to get to know the individuals behind some of your favourite film organisations.

Here, we talk to Olivia Thomas (she/her), Film Office Coordinator at Screen Yorkshire and member of Leeds Queer Film Festival's organising committee...


Olivia Thomas

I’ve worked in film production for ten years, initially as a freelance production coordinator and production manager and more recently as the Film Office Coordinator at Screen Yorkshire where we help attract and support productions to film in Yorkshire. I started programming in 2018, first for Trans Pride Leeds and more recently with Leeds Queer Film Festival. 

Lockdown forced us to cancel our 2020 festival and we are currently working on how we bring our DIY community focussed screenings and events back in the post-Covid world. Look out for some announcements in the near future on our plans! 

What do you enjoy most about working in film exhibition?

Discovering a great new (or old!) film and then bringing it to our audience. I joke with my LQFF colleagues that I’m on a search for the perfect film made by and about queer trans women. I haven’t found it yet but we are getting closer every year.

What inspired you to become involved in film exhibition and what were your first steps?

I was volunteering for the first Trans Pride Leeds in 2018 and got involved in programming the short film programme. After that LQFF asked me to be on the jury for the queer short films at LIFF 2018. I really enjoyed both of those experiences and was delighted to be asked to join the LQFF organising committee shortly thereafter. From then on it’s been a lot of watching the good, the bad and the ugly of queer cinema!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become involved in film exhibition now?

You don’t need anyone’s permission; just go and do it. Leeds Queer Film Festival started out in a squat and we’re still a DIY community run organisation. It’s relatively easy and cheap to set up small screenings for your local community and there’s lots of support and funding out there from organisations like Cinema for All, Film Hub North and the Independent Cinema Office.

What is the main change you’ve experienced in film exhibition since you started? 

Seeing the trans community being represented more in queer cinema. When we were programming for Trans Pride in 2018 we really struggled to find more than a handful of good short films. For LQFF 2019 festival we had 20 films submitted with trans representation. For 2020 it was 112. To go from struggling to put together a single programme to having too many good films to show them all in just a couple of years is a fantastic change. Hopefully this becomes more evident in feature films and TV in the near future.  

What would you like to see change in film exhibition in the future?

I think there needs to be much more diversity amongst programmers and distributors. Even many LGBTQ+ film festivals often feature all white and/or all cisgender programmers. This is then often reflected in the films that are selected. I’d also like to see a much bigger focus on accessibility. At LQFF we screen all our films with English subtitles, offer pay-what-you-can ticketing and have a range of comfy seating. I find it frustrating that many English language films, including some bigger budget feature films, don’t have subtitles available, when subtitles are created as a matter of course for non-English language productions.

Do you have a favourite highlight from working in film exhibition so far?

Visiting Hamburg Queer Film Festival in 2019 was a revelation. To see big city centre cinema screens packed out with hundreds of spectators for some very niche queer films was inspiring. And the festival really felt like an event for the whole city not just the queer community. I came away having seen so many great films and excited to bring some of their festival ideas to LQFF. 

Is there a film you love that you wish could be seen more widely by audiences?

Almost any queer film! I still haven’t quite got over having to cancel our 2020 festival due to the first Covid lockdown. Lingua Franca, directed by and starring Isobel Sandoval, was to be our opening night film and still hasn’t secured a UK release despite streaming on Netflix in the USA. It’s both a story about undocumented migrants in contemporary America and a fantastic portrayal of a romance between a trans woman and a cis man.

Do you have a favourite cinema-going memory as part of an audience?

Most of my favourite cinema-going memories are from festivals and there are too many to pick just one. It’s wonderful to go into a film without preconceived expectations based on marketing or social media perceptions. 

I was fortunate enough to see Beasts of the Southern Wild at Cannes in 2012. It was one of those magical screenings in a packed cinema where you feel the audience take a collective intake of breath at the beginning of the film that seems to be held all the way until the end credits.

Amongst the many screenings I’ve seen at LIFF my fondest memory is watching All is Lost in a quiet midweek afternoon screening at the Town Hall in 2013. I was dreadfully hungover having been at a friend’s graduation in London the night before. Watching Robert Redford all wrapped up in a tiny orange lifeboat, drifting through a storm was the most soothing and comforting thing in that moment.

Which filmmaker’s work means the most to you?

If you were asking me this ten years ago I would have found it easier to answer. I’m fascinated by Alma Reville and think in another time she would be considered a great filmmaker in her own right. I hope we get to see more films and more recognition for fantastic queer women directors like Cheryl Dunye and Isobel Sandoval in the future. As a film student I was massively inspired by Scorsese, Godard and Almodovar. Nowadays, having worked in film production, I’m less enamoured by auteurs and more excited about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. In some ways this brings me full circle as what initially sparked my interest in film as a career was reading about the collaboration in the writers room on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Which new film have you loved recently that you would recommend to audiences?

I think the last few years have been a brilliant time for documentaries. Your Turn (Espero Tu a Revolta), an amazing account of the Brazilian student protest movement and The Infiltrators about a group of Dreamers (undocumented young Americans) who decide to infiltrate an immigrant detention facility to help free the inmates. Both films speak to the important political and social challenges of our time.

Saint Frances, released to rave reviews last summer and another film from our lost 2020 festival, is hilarious. It has by far the best on screen depiction of abortion that I have seen and is a fantastic representation of lesbian motherhood.

Brief Story From the Green Planet (Breve historia del planeta verde) which won the Teddy for best LGBTQ feature at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival is a hilarious and touching account of a trans woman and her friends’ adventure attempting to return an alien to its home planet. I’m not sure it’s had any screenings in the UK as yet but I’m determined to screen it at some point soon!

Part of LIFF Behind the Scenes