With the Bahamas International Film Festival entering its eighth year this December, its founder and executive director, Leslie Vanderpool, continues to tirelessly work year-round to bring film professionals and top movies worldwide to The Bahamas, making our unlikely archipelago the place to watch in a global film industry.
Vanderpool credits her ability to be grounded in helping her year after year to achieve the tremendous feat of organizing an annual film festival that features globally acclaimed and local films as well as major events and the coordination of celebrity guests, directors and actors. Such a trait—which she credits to the guidance and lessons imparted by her parents—gives her faith and courage and helps her maintain a positive outlook year after year.
“All I know is I enjoy doing what I do and when you enjoy it, there’s always a way to get it done,” she says. “This has been a labor of love for me for many years.”
“Many people aren’t used to taking a risk when they start something up, and even I don’t know how I manage sometimes, but when people see your passion, they gravitate towards it.”
Such a passion was realized when Vanderpool was a child. She knew she just loved to perform in any way she could.
“I was always in front of an audience, whether in school plays or horse riding so I knew that it was my calling,” she says.
Figuring that out early on in life afforded her the chance to develop this passion at a performing arts high school in New Jersey. Knowing she wanted to have something else to fall back on, however, she pursued an international relations degree at Mt. Vernon College in Washington, D.C.
Yet nothing could stop her from following the path she had realized for herself at a young age—for ten years after college, she enjoyed an acting career, first in Florida where she did commercial and modeling work and then New York City, Screen Actors Guild card in-hand.
There she studied at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and took part in both on- and off-Broadway plays like “Guys and Dolls”, “The Trial”, and “As You Like It”. In the meantime, she also studied Shakespeare in Balliol College in Oxford, England.
Though an actor’s life is notoriously difficult and full of challenges and struggle, Vanderpool looks back on it fondly.
“It wasn’t challenging at all,” she says. “If you love something, it isn’t challenging. Every bit of it was rewarding, even the negatives. It was a treat to follow a passion and have a career in it.”
The career also gave Vanderpool the chance to build relationships with other professionals worldwide, especially as she traveled to international film festivals, which gave her a solid foundation to create her own film festival eight years ago.
Indeed, it wasn’t until she traveled home to The Bahamas for a month after 9/11 that she decided to organize a film festival in her home country.
“I was trying to think of things I could do here—direct a play? Make a film? And then the idea for a festival came to me,” she remembers
Yet she credits the idea being planted in her long ago by her uncle Albert Johnson, who passed away in 1998. A compelling lecturer on film studies in the Department of African-American Studies at Berkeley in California, Johnson was program director of the San Francisco International Film Festival from 1965-1972. It was he who introduced the standard festival practice of tributes to stars.
Vanderpool, who attended major film festivals around the world with him, remembers when her uncle came to The Bahamas when she was only 16 years old and heard him observe that it would be the perfect place for a film festival.
“I put it aside; I was young and wanted to go away and concentrate on what my dreams were, but she seed was planted,” she says. “Every year during the festival I think of him and use him as a pillar of strength.”
Eight years later, with the Bahamas International Film Festival having successfully put The Bahamas on the map in the worldwide film industry, her uncle would be proud. This year when the festival kicks off on December 1, it will show 69 films from 28 countries—most free and open to the public at JFK Galleria Cinemas—and provide many educational opportunities like master acting and directing classes, panels with film professionals, a filmmaking program in local schools and a first look at movies by emerging Bahamian filmmakers, inspiring a generation of Bahamians to consider a bright future in film.
“I see the opportunities a lot of people in The Bahamas could have,” Vanderpool says. “It takes someone to take that first step and when people see it’s possible, it gives them the courage and tenacity to do it. The film festival does that.”
Year after year, what’s most important to her is to ensure the festival is firmly rooted in the Bahamian culture and community, not an elitist event—that it celebrates careers that Bahamians could have in film, while simultaneously diversifying the Bahamian economy and marketing The Bahamas to a new kind of creative tourist and creative professional. Looking ahead, she sees nothing but those goals being met again and again, helping the film industry to grow and meet international standards.
“I want the festival to impact the world,” she says. “I want The Bahamas to be known as having a great event that makes academy-award-winning filmmakers and actors. It’s going to take a while but we have proof of it—Sidney Poitier has set the bar and that’s a good standard to have and to know that it’s possible.”
“I imagine us 65 years old,” she adds. “Even if I’m not here, I imagine someone else doing it. It’s long term, this dream.”