The Festival Whirl

The utopian possibilities—and dystopian realities—of the modern film festival
by Richard Porton  posted September 8, 2009
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André Bazin’s 1955 essay “The Festival Viewed as a Religious Order” gently lampooned Cannes as a quasi-monastic institution in which pilgrims gather to pay homage to a “transcendent reality”—the cinema. In recent years, as festivals continue to proliferate at an ever accelerating rate, the myth of diehard film buffs traipsing to the cinematic equivalents of Lourdes coexists with the advent of megafestivals—extravaganzas such as this week’s Toronto International Film Festival—that are as much corporate entities as showcases for innovative cinema. The introduction to Screen International’s 2009 “autumn festival special” issue includes both a residue of romantic cinephilia and a hefty dose of hard-nosed realism: “All around the globe, the international traveling band of festival-goers are beginning to dig out their passports and scan screening schedules as the industry gears up for the busy autumn festival season…(T)o help visitors navigate their way through the key events in Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, Pusan, and Tokyo, Screen International looks beyond the programmes to the rich diversity of cultural events and co-production markets attached to each.” While cinephiles with a purist bent may still view cinema as a “transcendent reality,” the “international traveling band of festival-goers” Screen has in mind are more likely to be distributors, programmers, and sales agents than freelance film lovers.

Of course, the art cinema usually championed by international film festivals would come to a halt without the participation of the institutions and businesspeople that trade publications like Screen International seek to assist. Yet it seems important to both acknowledge that fact and admit that most of the writing on festivals by mainstream critics is inordinately celebratory. To a certain extent, this is attributable to the fact that magazine festival reports, even in highbrow journals, are at least partially written as “payback”—for either airfare, accommodations, or in the case of the snootier festivals, the mere privilege of receiving accreditation and standing in interminable queues. Several recent books—among them my own anthology, Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press, 2009) and Dina Iordanova and Ragan Rhyne’s more academically oriented collection, Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit (St. Andrews Film Studies, 2009)—attempt to provide an alternative to the usual conformist cheerleading that surrounds film festivals. In addition, a daylong event held last April at St. Andrews University in Scotland—the International Film Festival Workshop (the university’s Dynamics of World Cinema Project also funded Film Festival Yearbook)—brought together an eclectic array of academics, programmers, critics (I represented Cineaste magazine), students, and former festival directors determined to apply some analytical rigor to a subject encrusted with journalistic clichés.

During the introductory panel at St. Andrews, Sight & Sound’s Nick Roddick (known to his readers as “Mr. Busy”) referred to himself as a “lapsed academic.” Given that I’ve more or less retreated from the groves of academe, this self-deprecating moniker struck a chord with me. I must admit that the typical film festival meld of cinephilia and frivolity partially represents a welcome respite from the stuffier ambience of academic conferences; while the slightly absurd rituals dissected by Bazin in his poison pen letter to Cannes at least inspire occasional comic interludes, the monotonous drone of scholars reading their papers allows for only inadvertent levity.

These qualms aside, the St. Andrews workshop proved instructive in demonstrating how academia has changed since the heyday of hermetic “high theory” in the 1970s. No longer preoccupied with the dissection of “filmic texts,” the less rarefied terrain of cultural studies promotes, even relishes, analysis of complex bureaucratic institutions such as film festivals. The new subdiscipline of film festival studies, defined by the scholar Ragan Rhyne as an “interdisciplinary field that considers critically the institutions of film festivals, the films that circulate through them, and the communities that grow out of them,” confronts the paradoxes at the heart of events that are, on the one hand, presumably devoted to the aesthetic frisson of cinephilia and, on the other, vast marketplaces devoted to the bottom line. Megafestivals that Vancouver International Film Festival programmer Mark Peranson labels “behemoths”—Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, and Cannes—are famous not only for their fairly mainstream competitions but also for more audacious sidebars such as Cannes’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) and Berlin’s International Forum of Young Cinema. Yet these festivals, however altruistic the veneer at times, are far from disinterested purveyors of quality cinema. Peranson’s essay, “First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two Models of Film Festivals” (initially published in Cineaste and included in Dekalog 3) demystifies many of the platitudes concerning festivals that proliferate in both trade magazines and serious film journals. Viewing festivals as “political actors,” Peranson argues that “two kinds of festivals exist in an essentially core/periphery relationship.” According to Peranson’s schema, business festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, and Toronto—the most prestigious events in an increasingly event-driven culture—have increasingly become beholden to the demands of markets and especially sales agents, “whose main purpose is to sell films for domestic distribution.” Inasmuch as the lessons of “business festivals” are deployed to illustrate a somewhat dystopian reality, more audience-friendly festivals such as Vancouver and the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema are hailed as emblematic of more utopian aspirations throughout Dekalog 3.

If many contemporary film festivals have evolved into strangely unfestive marketplaces, this is only grist to the mill for film festival scholars. The title of the founding work of film festival studies, Marijke de Valck’s Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (2008) hints at the ways in which international festivals provide a handy conduit for examining most of the major tributaries within contemporary film studies. Many of the pieces in Film Festival Yearbook 1 demonstrate how film festivals, at least since the 1970s, have become bound up with identity politics. An essay by former Toronto International Film Festival programmer Kay Armatage (included as a case study in Film Festival Yearbook 1) traces the relationship between internecine warfare within Canadian women’s film festivals of the ’70s and tensions between French and Anglo Canadians, as well as fissures within the feminist movement itself. In addition, as de Valck and Skadi Loist point out in a bibliographical overview of film festival studies, gay/queer festivals have received considerably more scholarly attention than events emanating from other communities. Neoliberalism and globalization, the recent mainstays of left-leaning academics, have also figured prominently as scholars weigh in on the shifting fortunes of various festivals. Ruby Cheung (in the St. Andrews volume) and Stephen Teo (in Dekalog 3) discuss the ways in which “corporatization” (or what is usually referred to as “privatization”) transformed the Hong Kong International Film Festival from a government-sponsored event with an emphasis on auteur cinema to a more commercially minded affair where, according to most critics, the overall quality of the offerings declined.

It perhaps goes without saying that attending festivals in the flesh can undermine even some of the most cogent generalizations formulated by critics and academics. Before arriving to serve on the jury of the 2009 Jeonju International Film Festival in late April, glowing reports from acquaintances led me to expect a cinephilic festival that somewhat resembled the well-curated International Film Festival Rotterdam or the Viennale. Even though these assumptions proved more or less accurate, certain local idiosyncrasies were both intriguing and surprising. I was rather bemused to find that virtually the entire local audience was composed of film buffs under the age of 25. After I queried a member of the festival staff, I was told in no uncertain terms that “old people don’t go to festivals in Korea.” It also didn’t hurt that certain university film departments purportedly gave students a week off in order to attend Jeonju. Despite my slight queasiness in often (with the exception of fellow jury members) being the oldest member of the audience, it was difficult not to conclude that this was, without doubt, the most attentive festival audience I’ve ever encountered. Whereas a Cannes audience will noisily bang their seats in disgust when leaving a film deemed either deadly dull or offensive, the Jeonju cinephages dutifully sat through everything from Straub-Huillet shorts to archival prints of Korean classics (not to mention a healthy amount of more consumable, quasi-commercial fare such as Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl).

Jeonju’s imposition of several inflexible rules at the screenings somewhat tempered my enthusiasm for the fresh-faced audience members. Given the many overlapping films scheduled at festivals, it’s important to commence screenings punctually (one exception was a small Portuguese festival I attended some years ago where the staff’s lack of experience with 35mm projectors caused every film to start at least an hour late). Yet movies at Jeonju did not merely start on time—they often began five minutes early and latecomers were physically barred from entering the cinemas. In addition, a promotional announcement that preceded every film reminded us that we were required to sit through the credits! Most festivals, consciously or not, endorse a certain flânerie, or at least a flitting about from one film to the next. At Jeonju, such spontaneity was out of the question and some foreign visitors were relegated to arguing with one of the many friendly, if firm, volunteers if they wanted to leave the cinema and proceed to another, presumably more alluring, film.

These were of course minor annoyances (or fascinating eccentricities, if you like) and Jeonju’s penchant for promoting experimental cinema that would be marginalized in most other festivals (the Toronto International Film Festival, for example, isolates avant-garde film in its “Wavelengths” section, a sidebar covered by few mainstream journalists) deserves unqualified praise. Of course, as Adrian Martin, another jury member, observed, the International Competition we were invited to judge was, for the most part, the most aesthetically conservative component of this adventurous festival. Amid a certain amount of dross, as well as a few diverting but problematic offerings, one stellar film—Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Imburnal—ended up being our choice for the main prize, the Woosuk Award. One of the most lyrical and nonjudgmental films ever made on street kids (rivaling established classics such as Los Olvidados and Pixote), Imburnal employs an arsenal of experimental strategies that allow viewers to enter the street urchins’ private reveries without patronizing them.

Although a festival like Jeonju, which remains attentive to the needs of a specialized audience, can often highlight something truly fresh on the order of Imburnal, the media-saturated events that receive the most ink in the press are becoming incapable of doling out genuine surprises. From the perspective of the international art cinema market (sales agents and distributors working in tandem), the blessing of one of the major international festivals functions as what, especially since the publication of Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2002), has been critiqued as “corporate branding.” At a time when festivals are no longer merely local events (even the tiniest regional festival makes sure to insert “international” in its title) and have become inevitably embroiled in the web of corporate globalization (not to mention the labyrinth of global public relations), it’s not surprising that political, as well as aesthetic, controversies have come to the fore at major events in Melbourne and Toronto.

In the waning days of July and early August, the Chinese government unsuccessfully attempted to halt a screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival of The 10 Conditions of Love, a film on Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer. Nevertheless, Chinese hackers played havoc with ticket sales on the festival’s website and three Chinese films were withdrawn from the festival in protest. In an ongoing controversy that raises considerably more complex questions concerning freedom of expression and the power of governments to influence public opinion, a group of well-known filmmakers, activists, artists, and intellectuals circulated a petition assailing the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to inaugurate its new City to City sidebar with a program devoted to films dealing with Tel Aviv by Israeli directors. The signatories—Ken Loach, Jane Fonda, David Byrne, and Naomi Klein herself, among others—claim that the festival’s programming decision reinforces a “Brand Israel” campaign, spearheaded by a Canadian PR firm and the Israeli government, to burnish the image of the Jewish state. Festival co-director Cameron Bailey insists that no external political pressure was applied, and links between the “Brand Israel” initiative and the City to City sidebar are only sketchily delineated in the Globe and Mail article that detailed this brouhaha. Despite the fuzzy contours of this controversy at the moment, it nevertheless confirms film scholar Janet Harbord’s assertion (in her piece “Film Festivals—Time Event,” included in Film Festival Yearbook 1) that “the task of the film festival is to make time matter, to give urgency to the viewing of film in an historical context in which the public release of film is no longer a necessarily compelling event of itself.” In an era where digital technology makes it feasible to design a film festival that will not require any of us to leave the confines of our own homes, the films screened at any one event are almost less significant than the institutional apparatus that promotes them and the media buzz that either enshrines or demonizes them. 


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Cannes International Film Festival
The red carpet at Cannes
Photo Gallery: The Festival Whirl


Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

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