Monday, August 03, 2009

FILM FESTIVAL YEARBOOK 1—A Response to Section One

Hello. My name is Michael and I am a film festival junkie, which means I cycle through addiction (should I watch four movies today or five?), recovery (I'm feeling oppressed with movies and I'm going to stop watching so many of them) and recidivism (the Toronto International's coming up!). Thus, you can imagine my unbridled delight in Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, edited by Dina Iordanova with Ragan Rhyne, published by the Center for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews and Wallflower Press.

As synopsized: "The first installment in an annual series, the Film Festival Yearbook features essays on the global proliferation of film festivals, focusing on the dynamics of the festival circuit. Contributions discuss the function of individual festivals within a larger and more complex network and the cultural policies that shape channels of film exhibition and distribution. The inaugural volume will include essays by Dina Iordanova, Charles-Clemens Rüling, Ragan Rhyne, Ruby Cheung, and Rahul Hamid. Forthcoming volumes cover gay and lesbian film festivals; festivals of Asia and the Asian diaspora; and the relationship between festivals and geopolitics."

Dina Iordanova is professor of film studies at the University of St. Andrews, where she directs the project Dynamics of World Cinema. She is the author of Cinema of the Balkans and Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and the Artistry of East Central European Film, both published by Wallflower Press. She guest-edited a recent Festivals issue for
Film International, where I first became acquainted with her work and which I reviewed for The Evening Class. Highly-recommended reading.

As is Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, which impressed me straight off for its staged parity between academics and critics-practitioners. Walking their talk even further, I was honored—as a non-academic and more practitioner than critic—to be invited to contribute to the next volume. Reviewing the worth of this first volume is almost impossible, if not implied—its necessity and timeliness are givens—so, instead, what I've decided to do is to respond to the essays themselves in a series of four entries that correspond to the sections of the book to set an (idiosyncratic?) example of how I've rendered the information relevant to my own festival experience(s).

As editors Iordanova and Rhyne lay out in their introduction to the volume: "By launching the series of the Film Festival Yearbook with this inaugural volume, we aim to: 1) explore festivals in a systematic manner that, while relying on individual case studies, will foreground theoretical concerns at the intersection of arts management, cultural policy and film studies and 2) chart the complex structure of the international film festival network, bringing along a better understanding of World Cinema. A level of abstraction is needed for the study of festivals to gain momentum and translate the currently scattered research environment of festival studies into a sufficiently structured context. Our hope is that the Film Festival Yearbook will serve this function.

"In a programmatic essay, Thomas Elsaesser described the festival network as a specifically European industry response to Hollywood's distribution mechanisms and explored festivals in the context of actor-network theory. With respect to Europe, Elsaesser claimed, the festival circuit had become the key force and power grid in the film business, with wide-reaching consequences for the respective functioning of other elements of film culture, such as authorship, production, exhibition, cultural prestige and recognition." (2009:2) That "programmatic" essay—"Film Festival Networks: The New Topographies of Cinema in Europe"—was published in Elsaesser's European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005). Although film festival scholarship had been ongoing for some time, Elsaesser's essay provided a fulcrum through which existing scholarship could be incorporated into the burgeoning field of film festival studies as well as a gameplan on how to proceed systematically. As important as his essay is to the field of film festival studies, I'm heartened that it has been made available in PDF format. Again, highly recommended reading.

"It is only through the continued development of both strands of festival studies—case studies and the theorization of their broader relevance to our understanding of the festival as a circuit—that this research will continue to progress," Iordanova and Rhyne argue in their introduction. "Just as the study of museums and galleries has become crucial to our understanding of the institutionalization of arts and heritage, so too must the study of festivals be central to understanding the socio-cultural dynamics of global cinema and international cultural exchanges at large." (2009:1)

As mentioned earlier, the volume has been divided into four sections. The first section on the film festival circuit begins with an analysis by Ragan Rhyne—"Film Festival Circuits and Stakeholders"—wherein she "deploys some of the case studies in this volume, arguing that the various interests of festival stakeholders are negotiated through the administrative and economic structures of a newly-globalized non-profit sector." (2009:3)
Ragan Rhyne is a Research Associate at the Center for Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews on the Dynamics of World Cinema project. Her work has been published in GLQ, Velvet Light Trap, and the Journal of Homosexuality. It is perhaps of contextual import to note that the Dynamics of World Cinema project is a major research project undertaken by the Center for Film Studies at the University of St Andrews and sponsored by The Leverhulme Trust. This two-and-a-half-year-long study hopes to examine the patterns and cycles of various distinctly active circuits of contemporary film distribution and exhibition, and the dynamic patterns of complex interaction between them. Their attention will focus predominantly in four areas of the global circulation of non-Hollywood cinema: the international penetration of international blockbusters mainstream distribution, the film festival circuit, the film circulation via diasporic channels, as well as the various Internet-enabled forms of dissemination. The project's distinctiveness is in the endeavor to correlate these diverse strands and foreground their dynamic interactions.

Rhyne's essay poses the provocative consideration that the film festival "circuit" might be a misnomer. "The trouble," she writes, "is that materially, the film festival circuit is not nearly as connected as we have thought. In fact, we might abandon the structural idea of the festival circuit as a single entity altogether and instead understand it as an international cultural sector linked by a common economy of public and private subsidy." (2009:9) This economic understanding of the festival as a cultural industry managed through a global non-profit sector necessarily places a spotlight on who the stakeholders are in any given film festival. By "stakeholders", Rhyne references "filmmakers and studios, journalists and press agents, professionals and programmers, local cultural councils and supranational agencies, tourist boards, cinephiles, and others", all of whom she proposes "have particular interests in seeing the network proliferate." (2009:9) As both journalist and cinephile, I'm primed to question my own staked interests.

Rhyne's historical purview of the role the non-profit mechanism has had in enabling film festivals to function—being funded by "some combination of earned income, government funding, corporate sponsorship and private donations" (2009:10)—likewise raises thorny issues about the hazardous reliance on such means of economic backing. Most recently, at the 29th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Executive Director Peter Stein and the festival's programming staff came under severe fire from conservative constituencies protesting the inclusion of Simone Bitton's Rachel, a documentary about Rachel Corrie and her controversial death. Conservative private donor Maurice Kanbar—who felt Rachel had no business being in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival line-up—was overheard proclaiming that the Jewish Film Festival would not receive one more penny from him. The Koret Foundation and Taube Foundation likewise pulled their funding, protesting injuries to the Israeli state. They were deeply offended that the SFJFF invited Rachel Corrie's mother to the festival, and that the program was co-presented by the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voices For Peace; organizations which they claim are "virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups that support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel." At Tikun Olam, Richard Silverstein staged debate on the issue. Statements by both The Koret Foundation and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival have been posted at, where coverage on this "controversy" has continued.

I, in no way, want to deminimize the economic impact that withdrawal of funding from Kanbar and the Koret/Taube Foundations might have on the operations of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, albeit momentarily, and I consider this an unfortunate blow; however, this is a classic example of funders trying to manipulate a festival's programming, and thereby cultural policy. Perhaps Kanbar and the Koret/Taube Foundations should concert their conservative efforts to financing their own Zionist Film Festival—spelling it out clearly for all concerned—and leave the mission objectives of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival alone?

In a less vitriolic but no less important example, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently jettisoned their 40-year-old film program. Doug Cummings has provided a masterful synopsis of the controversy at his site
Film Journey; a controversy that, once again, underscores how withdrawn funding can strangle film culture. Critic Kenneth Turan lays out the hazards competently for the L.A. Times.

Both examples confirm Rhyne's hypothesis: "From the outset, geopolitics and cultural politics have been co-articulated in the institutional structures and commercial affiliations of international film festivals." (2009:11) Rhyne cites Daniel Dayan's essay "Looking For Sundance: The Social Construction Of A Film Festival" (published in Moving Images, Culture and the Mind) wherein Dayan remarked that the film festival—referencing Sundance specifically—is often "an agonistic site of negotiation" dependent "upon a variety of conflicting interests" and "structured to not only contain them but also to deploy them toward institutional goals through what he calls the collective performance of the festival—a performance that actually requires the negotiation of these conflicting interests. Ironically, these conflicts, he argues, are fundamental to the cohesion of the festival as an event.

"…Dayan argues that the festival is constituted not only through the negotiation of these conflicts but also through journalistic chronicles of it—what he calls the 'written festival'. 'Like the physical event, but even more acutely so, the written festival turned out to be made of different versions, relaying different voices, relying on different sources of legitimacy. But it also provided its own common threads.' (Dayan 2000:52).

"Through his concept of 'the written festival', Dayan suggests that film festivals—or at least Sundance in particular—are constituted not only through the negotiation of various stakeholders, but through the articulation of these conflicting positions in journalistic coverage of the festival. This negotiation, in other words, is not incidental to the festival institution itself, but crucial to both its function as an event and to the way that the festival is understood as a cultural phenomenon. We might understand this as suggesting that the constant public discussion of the battle of festivals for aesthetic autonomy from the varying pressures of Hollywood, audiences, critics and corporate sponsors is theoretically misleading. The festival cannot solve these conflicts. Rather, it has an interest in playing them out in the cultural public sphere." (2009:18-19). San Francisco and Los Angeles have certainly had the opportunity to do so in recent weeks.

It's perhaps important to remember that the festival as a cultural industry managed through a global non-profit sector was an evolved response to the administration of the world's first film festival in Venice, founded by none other than Benito Mussolini and conceived as a tribute to fascism in Italy and Germany.

Moving on to Dina Iordanova's entry "The Film Festival Circuit", she "challenges the standard line in festival studies that film festivals constitute an alternative system of distribution. Instead, her suggestion that it is better understood as an exhibition network sheds light on how the economy of the festival circuit actually functions." (2009:3)

Cautioning that the art of cinema has been taken over by seemingly "secondary concerns like the rank of celebrities on the red carpet and the numbers of accredited journalists" (2009:23-24)—take heed San Francisco International!—Iordanova concludes: "The global film festival phenomenon is not inherently networked. Most festivals come about as singular ventures, independently from each other as temporary entities and discrete exhibition sites. They mushroom autonomously from each other, copying each other's model and replicating it in their own locality. It is only after a festival is established locally that the issue of its relationship with other festivals in what constitutes a loose network comes about. In that, individual festivals are discrete phenomena that spring up independently rather than as part of an orchestrated move." (2009:26).

The notion of film festivals as an alternate distribution model surfaced for me during my days on the board of the Global Film Initiative and was articulated by Jonathan Marlow in his fiercely opined Greencine editorial
"They didn't build their sales model for you" (which remains a good read all these months later).

Film festivals as an alternative exhibition network, however, raises questions about the fees extracted by filmmakers and distributors from festivals to offset costs which will most likely never be achieved by a theatrical distribution (rendered incidental). Transparency on this subject is woefully inadequate. Any input encouraged.

Finally, Janet Harbord's essay—"Film Festivals-Time-Event"—"takes a somewhat different approach to her conception of the festival circuit, calling for renewed attention to the temporality of the festival circuit, rather than a strict focus on festival geographies." (2009:3) Harbord is Reader of Film and Screen Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Film Cultures (Sage, 2002), The Evolution of Film (Polity, 2007) and Chris Marker: La Jettee (Afterall/MIT Press, 2009).

Harbord's essay thoroughly fascinated me, as much on a philosophic level as on a cinephilic one. "While attempting to think of a film festival, its meaning is inseparable from its particular location. And if it is not possible to make sense of a film festival without its emplacement, it is increasingly difficult to imagine certain cities apart from their film festivals." (2009:40). Hello, San Francisco! In my recent research project on the community-based festivals in the Bay Area, it's already becoming apparent how crucial the multiculturalism and ethnic diversity of San Francisco and environs plays out in its ongoing festival culture. In some respects when it comes to personal experience, some cities are their film festivals. Though I have been to Toronto several years in a row, I know nothing about the city itself except the infrastructure of TIFF. The same for the Palm Springs International. I do not extend myself past the festival experience to familiarize myself with what else the city might have to offer. But those are the admitted failings of an affirmed film festival junkie.

The spatial qualities of film festivals not only have to do with urban settings but the venues within those cities. For example, I have a vigilant eye on negotiations to move the San Francisco International out to the Presidio and away from the more-convenient Sundance Kabuki theaters. I hope to determine why this is considered a necessary choice; what—if any—connection it has to civic subsidies for development of tourism; and if this choice can escape a critique of classism, especially from a population committed to public transit? Has the San Francisco Film Society thought out a solution to access? Transit to the Presidio is highly problematic, let alone that the site itself is insular, with few amenities for the public. Will SFFS consider shuttles from convenient transit nodes (much like the Palm Springs International) or are they catering to an upper echelon of membership who can drive their fancy cars to the festival; lower minions be damned? I propose that one of the most winning aspects of the Toronto International Film Festival is how its public transit system efficiently connects its various venues, insuring egalitarian attendance.

As for time? Her essay could have just as aptly been entitled: "Does anybody really know what time it is?" Harbord defines a film as a recorded document of something past, which is then exhibited in the present. She argues that festivals gather together "the time of film and the time of viewing and recenters the time of projection as a live event. This choreography of a dance between the live event on one hand and the recorded, pre-fixed film on the other is the manufactured time of the festival. The alchemy resulting from these different temporalities, the now and the then, characterizes the potency of the film festival as event." (2009:44)

Further considerations of time involve when a festival is scheduled within a yearlong calendar. One of the specific challenges encountered by the San Francisco International, let's say, hinges on its being perhaps the very last festival of the calendar year, coming into play as Cannes announces its line-up of what is presumed to be the next year's bumper crop of films. Then there is the somewhat addictive intensity of film festivals produced by the compression of time anywhere within a few days to a few weeks. Then there's each person's selection of films, the choices made to best manage time spent at a festival; choices that include film length, film stock, conflicted screenings, and how much time one has to get from one venue to another, or to nourish the body with food, social networking or unapologetic down time.

If truth be told, my film writing was conceived by diary entries; my journalism from journal entries. Anaïs Nin encouraged me to consider that attending a film was a valid moment of life experience. She faithfully recorded cinematic events in Paris in her diaries, which inspired me to endeavor the same. This habit of writing in my diary about films I've seen has reached its seeming apotheosis in The Evening Class, which has become my running account of the sociality of Bay Area film culture. Harbord reflects on same: "A critical factor in the manufacture of live time is the role of reporting, the witness statements of journalists and bloggers sent out to the wider public to describe the event that has already happened. If the gate-keeping functions of film festivals are most evident in spatial terms, the barriers and ropes that demarcate internal worlds, the temporal also has a function in this practice of demarcating the event from everyday life, from the outside. Written reportage, which is the main form of festival journalism, is a delayed experience, a postcard as it were emitted from the place of happening. The newspaper report helps to seal the time of the event as a live happening that can only be recounted afterwards to those outside of its boundary.

"The task of the film festival is to make time matter," Harbord asserts, "to give urgency to the viewing of film in an historical context in which the public release of film is no longer a necessary compelling event of itself. The condensed structure of the festival makes the here and the now of viewing critically important. Contingency, which marks the festival as an unfolding event whose details are unknowable in advance, affords a singularity to the experience: to see a film here and now will be unlike any other time of viewing. This moment of viewing will attach itself to the film in many cases, bringing a film notoriety or award that then becomes part of its circulation, a moment 'carried over'." (2009:43-44).

These are fascinating concerns that ramify into considerations of what the difference is between the advance previewing of films on screener in contrast to the in-cinema reviewing of films in a festival, modes of distribution and exhibition, and how both anticipation and fulfillment are temporally and spatially structured.

Cross-published on


Michael Hawley said...

Michael, I really appreciate your summarizing the main points of this volume, as I suspect the writing within might be a bit academic for my tastes.

Also, thanks for the wikipedia link for Maurice Kanbar. Who would have thought that the man for whom the SF International Film Festival has named a screenwriting award would also be a major funder for the activities of rabidly right-wing radio talk show host Michael Savage! That sound is hear is my SKYY vodka being poured down the kitchen sink.

Michael Guillen said...

Michael, thanks for stopping by to comment. I won't refute that some of the essays in the Yearbook capsize into "academicese", but rarely as much as I've read in other volumes. Because there are a variety of contributors, there are equally a variety of voices and approaches. Nick Roddick's essay, for example, is quite accessible and hilarious.

Other folks wrestle with crossword puzzles; but, I enjoy popularizing academic volumes. Well, perhaps "enjoy" is too strongly put. I feel it's necessary.