Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SEISMOGRAPH OF AN ERA—The Evening Class Interview With Peter von Bagh

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) presented its 2013 Mel Novikoff Award to legendary cinephile Peter von Bagh for his lifelong commitment to international film, accompanied by an onstage conversation with Anita Monga and a screening of Helsinki, Forever (Finland, 2008), von Bagh's ode to Finland's capital and its cinema. SFIFF56 likewise screened Mikko Niskanen's Eight Deadly Shots (Finland, 1972), a rarely seen epic drama, considered by many a lost masterpiece of Finnish cinema and personally selected by von Bagh for its U.S. premiere at the festival.

"Peter von Bagh embodies the essence of the Mel Novikoff Award," said Rachel Rosen, San Francisco Film Society's director of programming. "He has worked indefatigably and infectiously to share his appreciation of world cinema and has many good stories to share about the filmmakers and icons he's met during his half century in the movies."

Throughout his career Peter von Bagh wore many different hats in the cinematic arena. Besides being a film director, one especially attracted to compilation films, von Bagh had been a television and radio producer, book publisher, curator and program director of the Finnish Film Archive, professor of film history, artistic director and cofounder of the Midnight Sun Film Festival and artistic director of Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival. As a film critic and historian, he (co)wrote and/or (co)edited more than 30 books, including The History of World Cinema, 1975 and 1998. Regarded as a Finnish national treasure, von Bagh is a true master of international film and an extraordinary example of cinema lived to the fullest.

With both SFIFF56 screenings of Helsinki, Forever and Eight Deadly Shots, I was keenly aware of something von Bagh articulated in his documentary Sodankylä Forever (Finland, 2010-2011): "Film screenings, like films themselves, are part of history; the seismograph of the era." With his passing earlier this week, I recall the privilege of speaking with von Bagh when he was in San Francisco in 2013 to receive the Mel Novikoff Award. He was unpretentious and generous with his intellect and gifted me the four-DVD set of Sodankylä Forever; one of the treasures in my library. My thanks go out to Bill Proctor of the San Francisco Film Society for facilitating our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on receiving the Mel Novikoff Award from the San Francisco Film Society.

Peter von Bagh: Thank you.

Guillén: One of my predominant interests is in film festival culture and I thought you would be the perfect person to talk to about that.

Von Bagh: That's okay, but with the strong limitation that I don't go to film festivals. I don't like them, though I run a couple of them.

Guillén: Let's talk a bit about the two festivals you run. Can you synopsize for me their singular focus? How long you've been working with each? And how you were drawn into running them when, as you confess, you don't like film festivals?

Von Bagh: In Finland it was more natural in a way because I was programming for the Finnish Film Archive [the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland] for 20 years or so. I started there in 1967 and was programming there all the time until the mid-80s. Originally, I was the Executive Director of the Archive but then I concentrated on programming because I felt that was my thing—I didn't want to go to meetings or anything—so I had that background.

Then I finished at the Finnish Film Archive in 1985, which was very sad for me. I was programming even in my dreams and had no outlets for my thoughts. But that same year Anssi Mänttäri, a Finnish director, was in a small village in the north out in the middle of nowhere—I don't know why—and it was November and all dark. Anssi was probably drunk and was looking out the window at ... nothing. Even during the daytime there were no people around, just emptiness. Then he came up with the idea: "Why not start an international film festival here?" Certainly, the most absurd of all origins for a festival. He was associated with two emerging talents of the time, Mika and Aki Kaurismäki, there were the three of them, and Anssi contacted me and asked me if I would like to become the director of the festival? That's how the Midnight Sun Film Festival started.

At first, I doubted the idea could work. I felt it was too absurd to travel so far for a film festival. But within a month I agreed to do it. We already had good contacts. I had been around for a while with the Archive and had already published Elokuvan historia (History of Cinema) by the mid-70s, which was the only survey of world cinema published by a Scandinavian. But you must remember this was before video. So how did I see films? I went to archives and film shows everywhere. I also had an interest in interviewing film directors. So within the first group of people that we invited to the festival, I already knew Samuel Fuller. I knew Bertrand Tavernier. I'd met the Kaurismäki Brothers with Jonathan Demme. I knew Jean-Pierre Gorin. They were all willing to come as guests to the festival. In fact, since that first festival, no one has refused to come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival. It's just too strange to refuse.

So the festival was created and one specialty of the festival started on the very first morning of the first day, which was that every day at 10:00 there would be a two-hour discussion with one of the guests. It was an astounding event for a film festival. Usually, conversations with guests are flashy and rapid; but, we dedicated time for discussion, which became a signature for the festival. Several guests have since said that it was like a psychoanalytic session. But it was not all serious. There were plenty of funny moments and lots of laughing during the festival, but basically we respected the filmmakers as serious human beings and not joke machines at press meetings. We concentrated on seeing films. And the filmmakers would have time to talk to people on the street. Many film festivals destroy themselves by isolating the big names from their public. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival we didn't even care if someone was a "big name" or not, everybody behaved, no one acted like a star. For example, when Francis Ford Coppola came in 2002, he was absolutely wonderful. He was just one of the group. He never acted as if he were important. Never questioned why he had been invited.

Practicality is one of the most important attitudes when creating a film festival. If we showed a film, we intended it to be a memorable screening under the best circumstances. We wanted to represent the original work of filmmakers in the best way possible so that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I remember that second year Michael Powell stated what has been frequently stated since: "It was as if I was seeing my own film for the first time." That's a specific experience the Midnight Sun Film Festival provides.

Guillén: When is the Midnight Sun Film Festival held?

Von Bagh: It's always in mid-June 12-16. The 22nd of June is the Scandanavian mid-Summer and the festival is one week before that.

Guillén: The sense I'm getting when folks speak about "destination film festivals" is that these are events precisely meant to entice cinephiles to travel far for specific programming. With regard to the Midnight Sun Film Festival, it sounds as if there's an element of the pilgrimage involved. Cinephiles travel to a festival where films will be devotedly dealt with at depth. There's a deep motivation at work.

Von Bagh: With, perhaps, one added nuance. I don't think you could call the Midnight Sun Film Festival audience a cinephilic audience. Of course they like cinema, that's why they come, but they're not as knowledgeable as cinephiles are. By contrast, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is a cinephilic paradise. All the leading cinephiles of the world gather there. But in Finland at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, the audience is composed more of young people who come from all parts of Finland and are curious. By being curious, and accumulating knowledge in front of our eyes, by being directly influenced by film, they are somehow the best audience you can have.

Guillén: The Bologna film festival, then, how long have you been with them? How did that opportunity come about?

Von Bagh: Quite surprisingly, at the end of 2000 I was asked by the founder and existing director of the festival Gian Luca Farinelli to take over the festival in 2001. He was feeling that he could no longer run the festival because he had been hired as the director of the cinematheque and film archive Cineteca Bologna. Cineteca Bologna and Il Cinema Ritrovato are, in effect, one and the same thing; and so Farinelli is my boss in a sense. He basically said, "You do it now." This was one of the most surprising developments of my life. I would never have imagined that I, as a foreigner, would end up being the director of one of the best film festivals in the world! I was always happy to attend and saw everything there and admired it very much. As a foreigner, there were immediately practical difficulties, including some resistance to my appointment, but not so much. It was actually through the encouragement of his colleagues at film archives in Portugal and Spain that I was offered the position. I had never done anything abroad and so, for me, I thought, "Why not do that?" I didn't for a moment think there would be any difficulty in running two film festivals. I would run a third festival if someone wanted me. I've been with Bologna for 13 years now.

Guillén: What are the dates of Il Cinema Ritrovato?

Von Bagh: It runs from the last days of June to early August, eight days.

Guillén: So these festivals are back to back?!

Von Bagh: Yes, back to back. Which has become more and more difficult for me. In the last few years there has only been one day between the Midnight Sun Film Festival and Il Cinema Ritrovato, so it's almost inhumanly possible to recover from one festival to attend the next, let alone to switch the pathways of your brain because, as festivals, they are so different from each other. As we've already discussed, one of them is for cinephiles and the other is for the highest specialists of the world where you have to talk to them and satisfy their wishes to see their films. That's one of the reasons so many people come to the Midnight Sun Film Festival because there are so many diverse programs there and many films that no one has ever seen.

Guillén: Your criticism of the current film festival landscape is how so many of them have capsized into celebrity events where the spectacular dimension of a film festival is overemphasized.

Von Bagh: Very much. Not only the celebrity but that they are dedicated to paying attention only to known names. I would guess that remarkable films escape their attention all the time. They don't access them. They don't even look at them. A thousand films come out every year and no one pays attention to the unknown filmmakers so it's possible to say that the best film of the year might not make it to such a film festival at all.

Guillén: Recently, in a conversation with Thomas Elsaesser, he explained to me that the European film festival landscape was created at the time in conscious defiance or opposition to Hollywood's hegemony and that for many years, at least a couple of decades, these European film festivals were able to advocate cinema under the aegis of national cinemas with an auteurial emphasis. But somehow that has been co-opted again by the same commercial forces that they were initially resisting.

Von Bagh: He's absolutely right. Something ghostly happened along the years. Somehow European film festivals have become more Hollywood than Hollywood itself, not only with the ceremonies which imitate Hollywood, but also the concentration on best-selling names, and attracting audiences with stars who they pay to attend.

I am ambivalent about the Cannes Film Festival. I attended Cannes three times in a row in the early '70s when it was still relatively easy to get around. Even then I didn't much like it, and I would disappear after just a few days, but then beginning in 1999 I served three times as a juror at Cannes, otherwise I wouldn't have gone. I served on the jury for Caméra d'Or, which is for first films, and the chairman was Michel Piccoli and I would say that is the best time I had at Cannes because he was such a great personality. Then I served on the FIPRESCI jury, which was the most anonymous because no one on the jury even had time to sit down to talk to each other. It was restless. Then suddenly in 2004 I received a telephone call from Thierry Fremaux inviting me to be part of the Grand Jury. What surprises me now in retrospect is that I seem to have been the only film critic or film historian in the last 20 years who has been on the Grand Jury, which shows how wrong everything is because there should always be at least one film critic or film historian on the jury. They act as if we don't have the knowledge. Instead, they invite stars who aren't knowledgeable about film. The year I was there the jury was run by Quentin Tarantino. What was clearly lacking on the jury was a knowledge of film. That's when I finished with Cannes.

What is good about Cannes is that there is a cinephilic heart behind the machinations. That means they focus on innovation and—with regard to the names—there are not just 20 names from world cinema, but 50 names from world cinema, which means that when someone like Chantal Akerman or Jean-Marie Straub or Manoel de Oliveira make a new film, Cannes will promote them by giving their film good placement. Also, the most interesting new cinema is provided necessary help by Cannes. That is the best that I can say about the Cannes Film Festival.

Guillén: It's my understanding that—in reaction to the fact that the perspective or the vision of European film culture has capsized under the weight of international commercial interests—some film festivals have consciously matured into archival film festivals. Either that or strongly enunciating within their programs restored films from the archives. As you know, here in San Francisco we have the Silent Film Festival, which has turned into one of the best in the world....

Von Bagh: It is very remarkable.

Guillén: ...and we have Noir City, which focuses on Hollywood product but with a focus on public engagement with film preservation. Il Cinema Ritrovato clearly falls within this domain.

Von Bagh: That is the whole point of that festival. There are not other attractors at all. It's totally about rare, seldom seen films that have all but disappeared, restored films and so forth. With the silent cinema, they have a multitude of films that you wouldn't see anywhere else. It's simply the best place to find remarkably interesting old films.

Guillén: It strikes me that the reason that commercial forces could co-opt cinema is because audiences have let them. Is that because, as audiences, we've been colonized by commercial desires? Have we been taught to want only so much out of cinema? And how can festival progammers generate a film festival culture that teaches audiences, and guides them, not only to deeper historical connections to cinema, but to present and relevant connections to cinema?

Von Bagh: I would simply say that film festivals are absolutely free to do better than whatever they do nowadays. They are hiding behind the mask of audience opinion. It's a pretense. First, the audience is not as stupid as they think they are. Besides, it's not about that at all. It's not about whether the audience is stupid or not. At Il Cinema Ritrovato we can freely show anything of real rarity and we will have a full house. Audiences can trust us as programmers, and for me that's the most gratifying thing to see during a festival is when the audience sees something rare.

Someone in the audience might be at their very first film festival, but will still take almost anything. The point is film festivals are a place where you can get audiences. That's somehow alarming. The film culture that ought to be—and used to be—in the network of commercial cinemas, which had repertory theaters that would show films from 20-30 years back, has disappeared completely in Finland. It's impossible for Vertigo or a Preston Sturgess or a Humphrey Bogart film to come to a local theater. It doesn't happen anymore, even though such was the case just 25 years ago. Audiences, who have come to expect mediocre films at commercial theaters, attend a film festival and—within the frame of the festival—will accept any program you're proposing. As a programmer, then you can take considerable risks. At the Midnight Sun Film Festival, all we have to do is advertise that we are showing a film that has not been screened at a commercial theater in 25 years and the house is full.

Guillén: When the European film festival culture started to thrive, the concept of the national cinema became an important tool by which to promote perhaps the most artistic endeavors from each country. However, in our contemporary moment, with production expenses for film becoming exorbitant, there's more international financing going on. That makes the definition of a national cinema slippery. Can you speak to that?

Von Bagh: It's been a problem for quite some years now. And I'm always trying to avoid the dialectic that the more national you are with a film, the more local and truthful to a particular reality, the more universal you get. There was this saying in the '60s and '70s among the Anglo-Saxon film festivals that many of these films situated themselves "mid-Atlantic", meaning their audience was indeterminate; that the films were created for abstract international audiences. This is unfortunate for world cinema because it means local films will disappear. And even remarkable filmmakers will make films that don't situate themselves anywhere.

Roman Polanski was great when he was doing Chinatown in Los Angeles, Repulsion in London, not to speak of his early Polish films. But now his films in a way seem to spread everywhere; they don't have any characteristics of film.

Guillén: You say you're trying to avoid the dialectic that the local can lead to the universal?

Von Bagh: Exactly. My own modest films are very local. For me, it's interesting to think of my youth and my school time in northern Finland. What will happen to those films? For the first time, my films move around in retrospectives in Europe and so on. What will happen to these films that are limited to my childhood, my young age, that town, and what happened there? Somehow I'm hopeful that my films will become something that everyone will understand. I didn't compromise. I didn't remove my films from their surroundings.

Guillén: The compromise taken to make something seemingly international strikes me as a colonial mindset.

Von Bagh: That is a beautiful definition. That's quite thoughtful. It is colonialization. But it's happening in the big countries as well. It's more visible and obvious in the case of some Costa Rican director, but is less obvious with a United States-based director.

Guillén: You've been a programmer for such a long time, do you see a distinction between programming and curating?

Von Bagh: I've never thought of any difference between them because I was sometimes on both sides. Every day I learn the same thing somehow. But I feel the pressure of being the head of a film festival. Once, Edith Kramer and I were having some coffee after an interview and she remembered seeing me at the festival in Bologna sitting in the movies all the time. Edith said, "That's it." That was her policy also. It's a natural instinct. How would you know what's happening in the audience if you don't sit and watch films with them? Then you know your next step after that. I'm always sitting with the audience. That's my way to present. I mentioned this a little earlier, but you can articulate a film showing in a film festival in a way that the screening can be as memorable as a live performance of music or theater.

Guillén: As someone who has seen film culture evolve over the past few decades, any thoughts on the so-called digital revolution?

Von Bagh: I'm extremely pessimistic about that. No one would listen to my complaints. I refuse to see a film like Sunset Boulevard or Singing in the Rain on digital. For me, when it loses its own material truth, it's not the same thing anymore. I think it's tragic.

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