Mark Cousins on his dream festival: 'Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s Bag of Rice is projected on to Dolly Parton's bedsheet'

With film festivals either cancelled or moving online, we have asked stars for their dream festival lineups. First up: the Palace of Westminster is turned over to film, dance – and Judi Dench’s fish pie

There have been film festivals for more than seven decades. In that time, they have been great at telling the story of cinema, but they are everywhere now, and too many of them are similar. They need to innovate a bit, dream a bit.


The Palace of Westminster, London.


A 100-day film festival, which starts with one 57-second film. Each day, two more are added.

Opening night

No red carpet, no VIP area. Alice Guy-Blaché’s 57-second silent film L’Avenue de l’Opéra is screened on a loop in one of the old parliament’s prestigious rooms. In another room, we hear a 45-minute song by the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. Somewhere in a third, more distant, room, Billy Fury’s song Halfway to Paradise plays.

It’s free, and people simply show up and wander around.


From day one, the kitchens are open and free food is available. Or people can bring and make their own.

The White Balloon.
The White Balloon. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex Shutterstock

Subsequent days

The 57-second film and the music continue to play, but on day two more films are added. They are chosen by the Indian economist Amartya Sen and Dolly Parton. Each sent a bedsheet to the festival, and the films are projected on to them in other rooms. Other elements are added in other rooms: radio interviews with Marlon Brando and Lena Horne, the music of the Scottish band Altered Images and the soundtrack of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

On day three, films chosen by Robert Pattinson and Awkwafina are added. Again, they are projected on to bedsheets they supplied. The songs of the Brazilian musician and philosopher Tigana Santanà begin to play in another room, and we hear a long interview with Bette Davis. On day four, the French thinker and writer Hélène Cixous chooses her favourite north African film, and a film selected by Cher plays. Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and Jafar Panahi’s Iranian film The White Balloon are also added.

Tigana Santanà peforming in London.
Tigana Santanà peforming in London. Photograph: C Brandon/Redferns

The films, songs and interviews repeat and repeat. Films selected by members of the public are also added. In the main debating chamber, Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, about the partition of Bengal and consequential refugees, plays on a huge screen.


The daily additions are never announced. Each one is a surprise. The selectors send video messages or are there in person. Hundreds, and then thousands, of people show up every day, to see the place, its transformation, its millefeuille of films, music and sounds. The room that shows Astrid Henning-Jensen’s Palle Alone in the World, about a small boy who has the world to himself, is full of wonder. Next to it, Peter Ramsey, the co-director of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, has chosen his favourite animations.

Judi Dench and Thandie Newton are in conversation, and then serve fish pie. Ryan Coogler and the Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi choose the 49th and 50th films. In one of the rooms, unannounced, is the premiere of a new short film by Steven Soderbergh. Also embedded in the labyrinth are premieres by Pedro Almodóvar and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. People dance in three different rooms.


Each day, six roving cameras livestream Halfway to Paradise, capturing its sounds, films, visitors, rooms, adventures.

Switch off

On the 100th day, a team of film fans cleans the kitchen and, one by one, switches off the music, audio and 199 films. The palace goes quiet except for one film, which will play there for ever: Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s Bag of Rice, about a determined little girl’s adventure across a city. Halfway to Paradise moves to another city, another major building.


Mark Cousins

The GuardianTramp

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