Friday 5 May 2017

Why are all these film festivals cluttering up our consciousness and our cinemas? Because they can and for other reasons...

Over the last few weeks the Film Alert blog has published a series of posts by Sydneys most resolute cinephile Barrie Pattison enthusiastically, mostly, reviewing the offering at this years Spanish Film Festival. But finally someone cracked. Cinephile, critic par excellence and a person unafraid to pass an opinion, Adrian Martin sent in a Facebook post saying This has got to be the most mainstream selection of current Spanish cinema imaginable !! It's a dreadful programming selection, I am suspecting the usual sales agents ... That barb was delivered from close range, somewhere near Barcelona where Adrian and his dearest Cristina Alvarez Lopez are happily ensconced turning out critical pieces, audio commentaries and their highly esteemed specialty, audio-visual essays. (Somewhere or other there may be, and if not maybe should be, a site that allows pure at heart cinephiles to access these things but I fear most are locked up behind paywalls.) But I digress.

Longtime cinephile and festival adviser Michael Jasper responded:
Such a very timely and astute observation. There are too many of these national film events with a high rate of undistinguished, sometimes google-proof titles at least in English, sold at higher than normal cinema prices PLUS booking fees. Years ago an Italian critic, given a list of that year's Italian festival offerings, said exactly the same thing. "Where do they get these titles from in the context of a serious survey of that country's cinema?" That said, these festivals are sometimes not designed for cinephiles but more for the overseas diasporas of the countries from which each festival derives. The worst aspect of all this is that independent film distributors are struggling to have their new releases shown with the exhibition arteries clogged by the two dozen festivals of this kind. Not unique to Australia. That said, this year's French Film Festival did include half a dozen or more films of distinction. Create an event is the new credo. Watching some recent exceptionally long documentaries, one wonders if these have such extended running times to qualify for festival binge-watching, like long form but documentary narratives. Wiseman's films with their exceptional organisation and insights seem short by comparison. There are still a few national/regional cinemas not yet in this collection but I have no intention to even mention them here.

My own initial comment was: This is a good exchange the warrants reposting on its own. I'm going to send it out to a few people by email and invite comments but otherwise would be delighted to gather up any further comments and put it all together. Let me add one point. Local independent distributors regard these events as very safe ways of releasing films bought for modest sums at international markets. This takes the place of a commercial cinema opening with all its attendant risks of not recouping costs of DCPs, advertising etc. Some events, the French Film Festival in particular, produce very large and riskless returns.

I thought this might unleash a torrent of vitriolic comments about the state of the market and the way it is being manipulated by Palace Cinemas in particular. Not so. Maybe everyone is happy and its only a few Senior Card holding grumps like moi who complain about this turn of events. My response anyway nowadays is to ignore them all no matter where and what they present. I have more than enough to catch up on. I made an exception for Bertrand Taverniers Un Voyage a travers le cinema francais but that was it so far this year. (The Sydney Film Festival is different. Independent curation even if the taste involved is relentlessly conservative, it represents ambitions towards a panorama of what has happened over the last six months or so out there in the wide quality world.. Got that distinction clear in my mind but dont start me on the postage stamp screen at the State Theatre!) But I digress.

Former BIFF Director, APSA selector and now co-head honcho for the esteemed boutique event, The Iranian Film Festival in Australia, Anne Demy-Geroe has happily weighed in with a nice viewpoint: I do like Michael's comments... My own philosophy in programming the Iranian Film Festival Australia is actually pretty much the same as it was for the now defunct BIFF - a few big, more commercial titles so that I can afford to programme the small gems. But actually including a few more commercial titles that I might not like often does give an overview of what's happening nationally in a cinema - just a broader survey. It's of interest to some, not others. However again, as with BIFF, I always try to suggest this in the programme notes. And a smart reader gets it.

Adrian Martin will recall arriving at BIFF once and announcing that he knew from my notes that I did not like a particular film. Michael's point about the festivals targeting the overseas diaspora is also valid - many Iranians consider our event the highlight of Iranian cultural events. Although the Iranian cinephiles, too, will criticise the commercial titles. But we always travel to Iran to select. Some national cinema events are, it seems to me, just dumping grounds for distributors of titles they've had to acquire as part of a package. What else to do with them other than inflict them on us.... ?

Which neatly leads to this contribution by an international festival programmer and consultant as to how the systems work: A few weeks ago I travelled to London to the British Film Institute on Stephen Street to join the Artistic Director of a film festival I work for, to view new British films that could be potential contenders for the festival. I must admit I was quite looking forward to it as there has been some very strong British films, particularly debut films, over the past couple of years that have surfaced, and I have always enjoyed discovering new talent.

I was told that we would watch the first 30mins of each film, and only watch the entire film if it warranted it. We started off with a schedule of around 20 new films for the day, all unreleased in the UK. I’d never heard of the vast majority. The first 6 films all came from the same distributor/production company and I’m afraid were absolutely terrible (plot, acting, originality etc) and by lunch we had already gone through 12 films and not seen one good one. The quality was really mediocre and we both felt deflated. I seriously could not believe that this was a fair representation of what is currently being made in the UK today, it seemed like we had been served up a lot of old fodder that a couple of production companies just wanted to offload.

After lunch we sat through another 10 films, and only one came out as a potential candidate.

We wondered if it was possible that the best of new British films had been sidelined for Cannes (the announcement at this point was still 2 weeks away of what was to screen). I was still flummoxed as to why these were the titles we were being offered. Was it that they didn’t deem the festival worthy enough or sufficiently high profile to launch their film? Who knows, but I refuse to believe that what we saw was a fair representation of British cinema being made today, and if it is, then heaven help us!

Finally, some statistics, admittedly from a year or four ago. Back in 2013 Associate Editor (Restorations and Revivals) Simon Taaffe kept a list of the number of FFs in Sydney and environs that year. Here’s the result.
Australia's Silent Film Festival
Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival
Mardi Gras Film Festival
Brazilian Film Festival
French Film Festival
WOW (World of Women Film Festival)
Windows on Europe Film Festival
Young at Heart - Seniors Film Festival
First Sydney Transgender International Film Festival
San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival (6 movies)
African Film Festival
A Night of Horror Film Festival
German Film Festival
Banff Mountain Film Festival
Sydney Film Festival
Spanish Film Festival
Indian Film Festival
Worst Ever Films Festival – (1950s Triple Feature)
Arab Film Festival
Russian Film Festival
Israeli Film Festival
Korean Film Festival
Latin American Film Festival (Short films)
Persian Film Festival
Latin American Film Festival
Auburn International Festival for Children and Young Adults
flEXiff 2002-2022
Antenna Documentary Film Festival
Italian Film Festival
Iranian Film Festival Australia
Jewish International Film Festival
Greek Film Festival (Delphi Bank)
Sydney Intercultural Film Festival
Japanese Film Festival
British Film Festival
Wordless International Short Film Festival
Hola Mexico Film Festival
Women Media Arts and Film Festival (Cineast)
Short Soup International Short Film Festival
Some are gone, some are bigger than ever. For those that are gone others have taken their place….. Some seem bigger than Texas….and most seem here to stay…..Get used to it folks….

…and to respond to Adrian’s first cri de coeur, I guess given all this if you can't beat them, join them. There is still a vacancy for someone to assemble some new vehicle to bring us the latest of the New Spanish Cinema.

1 comment:

  1. As host to several of this kind of programming in Vancouver, many would seem to be programmed with government funding and hence de facto (and sometimes literal) censorship. Many titles are picked with an eye for export, naive as that may be. I also help to curate an Italian film festival in Vancouver, very popular with the local Italian community, and not much helped by Italian distributors and European sales agents, who charge unreasonable licensing fees if they respond at all to our overtures.


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