Film Festival Doyenne Sheila Whitaker Dies at 77

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images For Dubai International Film Festival
Sheila Whitaker

The former BFI London director most recently was a regular participant at events throughout the Middle East.

LONDON -- Sheila Whitaker, a familiar face in the international movie sector and former BFI London Film Festival director, died peacefully at her home in the British capital on Monday. She was 77.

A keen moviegoer and member of the then-National Film Theater in London, Whitaker was appointed in 1968 to be head of the National Film Archive Collection of stills, posters and original designs.

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In 1975, she left to study comparative European Literature at the University of Warwick and was co-editor of the U.K. film journal Framework, deemed one of the most important independent-movie publications of its time.

In 1979, Whitaker was appointed director of the Tyneside Cinema, a regional movie house in the North East of England, which ran its own Tyneside Festival of Independent Cinema, which she also directed.

She then moved to London to become head of programming at the BFI’s National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank) and in 1987 combined that role with being director of the London Film Festival.

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She did both jobs until 1990, before concentrating on the film festival alone until 1996 as it grew in size and international impact. One of the changes made by Whitaker was to seal a deal to bring the festival out of the NFT and into the movie theaters of London’s West End to access a broader audience.

A regular visitor to the Farj Film Festival in Iran during the years when the festival played an important role in discovering 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 Argentinean screenwriter and director Maria Luise Bemberg.

She also spent nine years at the heart of the Dubai International Film Festival from its founding in 2004 as the first international film festival in the UAE.

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Whitaker is credited as playing a crucial role in creating solid foundations for what is now recognized as one of the important new festivals in the world.

Her final role was as director of international programming.

DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, who worked closely with Whitaker, described her as "meticulous, clear, understanding, opinionated, professional and passionate."

Whitaker's interests and commitments went beyond cinema.

She was the founding editor of Writing Women, a journal devoted to women’s prose and poetry, from 1982-84, and she was 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.

She is survived by her brother.