Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Film International Special Issue on Film Festivals (Vol. 6, Issue 4)

Regular readers of The Evening Class are, no doubt, aware at this point that I am an affirmed film festival junkie. I credit this addiction to the influence of Michael Hawley who introduced me to the San Francisco International some 12 years ago. I had been attending Frameline and some genre festivals; but, with the San Francisco International, I was hooked! When I began The Evening Class a few years back it was an online literary reaction to my increasing involvement with film festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area, with infrequent sojourns to festivals out of state. I had become intrigued with what I have often termed "the sociality of film culture"; a term that keeps adapting even as my own experience of film festival culture keeps adapting. Certainly, watching films within a film festival venue is a distinct experience from watching films in their theatrical distribution. For starters, the audiences are different. I would even go so far as to say that the latter filmviewing experience (and its attendant audience) has become increasingly less attractive to me as time goes on and there are many reasons for that, which I hope to explore in due course. Where there has been much focus on the formal qualities of film production and the evolving nature of film criticism, in my opinion not enough attention has been paid to reception studies and the sociocultural dimensions of global cinema as reflected through film festival culture, in contrast—let's say—to the sociocultural dimension of online discourse about film studies, which lately has begun to remind me of a high school popularity contest.

With transnational aplomb, the current issue of
Film International (Vol. 6, Issue 4) is a specially-themed issue on "Genre Films & Festival Communities" that seeks to redress that oversight. This issue has been indispensable in helping me articulate my continuing position within this cine-phenomenon. It's been one of the most impressive and serviceable film journals I've read in quite some time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in film festival culture. Its most immediate reward has been exposure to the work of Dina Iordanova, guest editor for this particular issue. Dina Iordanova is Professor in Film Studies and Director of the Centre for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her research approaches cinema on a meta-national level and focuses on the dynamics of transnationalism in cinema; she has special interest in issues related to cinema at the periphery. She has published extensively on international and transnational film art and industry, including Budding Channels of Peripheral Cinema: The Long Tail of Global Film Circulation and (most recently) New Bulgarian Cinema (both published by College Gate Press and beautifully produced by PoD provider Blurb). Dina Iordanova's blog DinaView likewise features erudite commentary on international films, directors, actors, and events.

In her editorial introduction to Film International 6:4, Iordanova has stressed how the proliferation of film festivals around the world necessitates a concentrated focus on the international dynamics of the festival phenomenon. She succinctly summarizes the key concerns of each of the essays contributed to the issue and frames the questions that run through the collection: "What is the impact of the worldwide festival network on the other elements of the global film industry? How does the festivals' hierarchical … system impact on the complex dynamics of global cultural production and distribution? What is the place of festivals in the structure of international film distribution (and, increasingly, production)? What historical and technological conditions led to the current powerful positioning of festivals as fundamentally influential cinematic institutions? What is the role of festivals in the system of national, regional and worldwide cinematic culture? Can the international festival operation be economically rationalized? Are festivals indeed crucial yet underestimated links in the context of the global film industry?" Proposed answers to this initial set of questions essentially serve as springboards into further inquiries. By reviewing the history of the evolution of film festival culture, and by scrutinizing specific festivals while likewise addressing more general issues concerning the functioning of festivals at large, further questions arise about the role of festivals in the context of arts management and cultural policy and "a range of other issues, such as the specific temporal and spatial aspects of the festival circuit, the paradoxes and contradictions of the economic logic of festivals (straddled between the culture/commerce divide), the importance of film markets attached to festivals, the role of centralized festival regulation, the impact of new digital technologies, the complex festival synchronization across national and international frameworks and the professionalism of the film festival operation." (Film International 6:4, pp. 4-5.) In the weeks to come, I intend to pepper entries here at The Evening Class with insights gleaned from the diverse approaches represented in the current Film International issue.

For starters, I glance at the epidemic hazard of an oversaturation of film festivals in the Bay Area alone. In October, as helpfully detailed by Brian Darr at
Hell on Frisco Bay, there have been 12 film festivals, many dovetailing if not downright overlapping each other. Though one would like to perceive this as an embarrassment of riches, more truthfully it feels—as Brian described it—"crammed" and "at least eleven too many for one cinephile to attend" or to "write about with much care and detail." Brian did his best and my approach was to leapfrog festivals to do justice to those I landed on. I received frequent, nearly frantic, emails from such festivals as the United Nations Association Film Festival and the International Documentary Film Festival requesting coverage. Though I have never had to before, this year I chose to guiltily ignore some of these requests, and consciously not attend some of the festivals, in order to provide decent coverage to the rest. As Sergei Mesonero Burgos writes in his essay "A Festival Epidemic in Spain": "Of what use are film festivals? If the abundance of something were related to its necessity … we would venture to say that they have become increasingly indispensable. But, for what? And for whom?"

I chose to focus on the second edition of Dead Channels, the inaugural line-up of French Cinema Now and the Arab Film Festival. Despite some very good programming on the part of Bruce Fletcher, Dead Channels was not as well-attended as it should have been for the amount of excellent press it received from nearly every media outlet in the Bay Area. As Burgos has further written: "Is there enough audience to sustain all this abundance of events? Assuming that the answer is positive, this still does not mean that the audience will always be there." (Film International 6:4, p. 13.) Contributing to the dilemma is that some of the entries in Dead Channels—Let the Right One In and Surveillance, to name two—were likewise on the lineup at the Mill Valley Film Festival. To minimize this maddening overlap, as a film writer I specifically avoided mentioning Mill Valley, much like I avoided mentioning the midnight series at the San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival, which—like Dead Channels—revived Tokyo Gore Police, a film that—to worry the bone—had already played at earlier film festivals in San Francisco. Overlapping dates, overlapping line-ups, repeated programming, have contributed to what Salvadore Llopart has termed "a true feeling of anarchy and chaos" and which Burgos warns "has helped undermine the traditional consideration that film festivals once received by the critics, the public, and the industry." (Supra, p. 12.)

The capacity crowds at French Cinema Now, however (except for the noticeably unpopular and underattended Lads and Jockeys) made me question exactly what had happened at Dead Channels? Fundamentally, I believe it's a genre problem (and possibly a venue problem). With the increasing digital access to genre films (you can buy certain foreign-region titles through Twitch before they've even reached American soil), genre-specific film festivals are being cut off at the knees, especially when they're competing with films that have no digital distribution or ready exposure. As someone who loves genre films and someone who finds little delight in the social deficit of being banished to home entertainment, this is a troubling development. There was a time when you would go to a genre festival to see films you'd never see at your local multiplex. And Bruce Fletcher deserves high marks for not charging filmmakers submission fees and for programming entries such as Karla Jean Davis' Golgotha and Jimmy Creamer's Reality Bleed-through, which—honestly—might never see a theatrical screening anywhere else without Fletcher's visionary generosity. In the realm of genre film festivals especially—along with festivals oriented towards representation of minorities long assimilated into the larger culture (I'm thinking of the problems being faced by Frameline)—new strategies must be devised if these festivals are to survive.
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