Sheila Whitaker, who has died aged 77 after suffering from motor neurone disease, was an influential film scholar and festival programmer whose eclecticism and political awareness earned her respect and admiration at an international level. Sheila's 45-year career in cinema culture took her from London and Tyneside to the Middle East, where, in 2004, she helped found the Dubai international film festival, becoming its director of international programming.
As well as celebrating Arab film-making, Sheila endeavoured to bring the best of world cinema to Dubai, imprinting on the festival her particular interest in Hollywood and Latin American films. The artistic director of the festival, Masoud Amralla Al Ali, described her as "meticulous, clear, opinionated, professional and passionate … She dedicated her life to understanding the emerging cinema." She also had unyielding feminist convictions, championed female film-makers, and actively supported the Palestinian cause.
Sheila was born in Thornton Heath, south London, and grew up in north London. During the second world war, her parents, Hilda and Charles, decided against evacuation, and, as Sheila liked to put it, she slept through the blitz. After the war, the family lived in Manchester, Cardiff (where she was a pupil at Cathays high school) and Birmingham (where she attended Kings Norton girls school). Sheila declined a scholarship to study history at Birmingham University and trained as a shorthand typist. It was her experiences as a secretary in engineering factories that helped to politicise her.
Sheila was appointed, in 1968, to oversee the stills, posters and designs collection at the British Film Institute's National Film Archive, where we became colleagues and close friends. In 1979, after co-editing the cinema journal Framework and gaining a degree in Comparative European literature at the University of Warwick, she was made director of Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema. There she established the Tyneside festival of independent cinema and began a lifelong friendship with one of her award jurors, Julie Christie. She was also founding editor of Writing Women, a journal dedicated to women's prose and fiction.
In 1984, Sheila became head of programming at the BFI's National Film Theatre (now called BFI Southbank), eventually adopting full-time the role of head of the London film festival (1987-96). As well as her adventurous and groundbreaking programming of world cinema, she was proud of expanding the LFF beyond the exclusive NFT membership ghetto and on to West End screens, crucially extending its public profile. She also showed, for the first time in a mainstream international film festival, new restorations of classic and rediscovered films preserved in archives.
After a period as a consultant, festival juror and arts charity administrator, during which time she edited two books, Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema (1999) and An Argentine Passion: María Luisa Bemberg and Her Films (2000), Sheila was invited to help establish the Dubai international film festival. It was there that she developed her interest in the culture of the Middle East, reflected in her role as a founder of the Palestine festival of literature (PalFest).
With her signature mop of curly hair, ready smile, penchant for good food and wine, and delight in all kinds of film – she loved westerns and screwball comedies as much as the emergent cinema of Iran and Palestine – Sheila lit up the festivals she hosted and attended. She was a long-term contributor of film obituaries to the Guardian and was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Newcastle and Warwick. In France, she was appointed a chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Typically, she was just as pleased with her receipt of the Variety Club of Great Britain's northern personality of the year award for 1983.
Sheila is survived by her older brother, Geoffrey.
• Sheila Hazel Whitaker, film scholar and festival programmer, born 1 April 1936; died 29 July 2013