How Do Festivals Work

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Given the degree of standardization in the overall feel of film festivals, and the organizational patterns that regulate how films enter this network, it is tempting to ask what general rules govern the system as a whole. Can one, for instance, understand the film festival circuit by comparing it to the mega art exhibitions that now tour the world's major museums? Or does it behave more like a very specialized UPS postal service? Are festivals the logical extension of

Farewell My Concubine

the artisanal model of filmmaking practiced in Europe since the 1960s, so rudimentary that it obliged filmmakers to organize their own distribution and exhibition circuits? And if so, have festivals "matured" to a point where they fulfill this function, and begin to constitute a viable alternative to Hollywood, encompassing all the traditional parts of the film business - production, distribution and exhibition, while not sacrificing the advantages of the "European" model, with control over the work retained by the film's author? As I have tried to argue, the answer to the latter question is: yes and no. Yes, to the extent that there are some remarkable points of contact and comparison between the increasingly globalized and interlocking "European" model of the festival circuit and the "Hollywood" model of world-wide marketing and distribution. No, insofar as the differences in economic scale and media visibility, not to mention the secondary markets, keep the Hollywood entertainment conglomerates in an entirely different category. Yet the mere idea of the festival circuit as a global network possibly paralleling Hollywood obliges us to think of the traditional categories of European author cinema in different ways. For instance, if films are now to some extent "commissioned" for festivals, then power/control has shifted from the film director to the festival director, in ways analogous to the control certain star curators (rather than collectors) have acquired over visual artists and exhibition venues. Yet the situation is also comparable to the way marketing and exhibition have always determined production in Hollywood, and real power is wielded by the distributors. A delicate but a-symmetrical interdependence is evolving that represents a new kind of social power exerted by intermediaries (festival directors, curators, deal-makers), with implications for how we come to understand what are called the "creative industries".

As Hollywood has changed, so the festival circuit has changed. If at first glance, the logic of transformation of the two system has little in common and obeys different laws, the festival circuit shows parallels to the studio system in its post-Fordist figuration, where outsourcing of certain skills and services, one-off projects rather than studio-based annual production quotas, high profile, "sponsored" cultural events besides stars-and-spectacle glamour form a particular set of interactions. While differing in scale from the studios (now mainly concentrating on distribution and deal-making), the festivals do resemble them, insofar as here, too, different elements are networked with each other. Many of the world's filmmakers are "independents" in the sense that they often act as small-scale and one-off producers who have access to the "markets" primarily and sometimes solely through festivals. Beyond showing homologies at the level of distribution or in the area of theatrical exhibition, there are potentially other points of comparison between the festival system and the studio system (branding, the logo, the personality cults), which should make it even more difficult to speak of them in terms of a radical antagonism, however much this discourse still prevails in the press and among many film festivals' self-representation. On the other hand, to abandon the direct antagonism Europe-Hollywood does not mean to ignore differences, and instead, it allows one to put forward an argument for the structuring, actively interventionist role of festivals. Further points of comparison with respect to production will be dealt with in the final chapter on "World cinema", while the differences I want to highlight here focus on three sets of indicators - festivals as event, distinction and value addition, programming and agenda setting - that determine how festivals "work" and how they might be seen to reconfigure European cinema in the context of international art cinema, and also world cinema.

Festival as Event

What is a (film) festival? As annual gatherings, for the purpose of reflection and renewal, film festivals partake in the general function of festivals. Festivals are the moments of self-celebration of a community: they may inaugurate the New Year, honor a successful harvest, mark the end of fasting, or observe the return of a special date. Festivals require an occasion, a place and the physical presence of large numbers of people. The same is true of film festivals. Yet in their iterative aspect, their many covert and overt hierarchies and special codes, film festivals are also comparable to rituals and ceremonies. Given their occasional levels of excess - one thinks of the topless starlets of Cannes in the 1960s and 70s, the partying, the consumption of alcohol, and often the sheer number of films -they even have something of the unruliness of the carnival about them. In anthropology, what distinguishes festivals from ceremonies and rituals is, among other things, the relative/respective role of the spectators. The audience is more active if one thinks of film festivals as a carnival, more passive when one compares them to ceremonies. The exclusivity of certain film festivals aligns them closer to rituals, where the initiated are amongst themselves, and barriers cordon off the crowd: at the core, there is a performative act (if only of being seen - walking up the red carpet in Cannes, for instance) or the act of handing out the awards. Some film festivals include fans and encourage the presence of the public, others are for professionals only, and almost all of them follow elaborate and often arcane accreditation rules.

Daniel Dayan, a media scholar, was one of the first to look at film festivals from an anthropologist's perspective. In "In Quest of a Festival" he reported on the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford in 1991 and held annually in the Utah resort of Park City. What interested Dayan were two interrelated questions: how did different groups of spectators become an audience, and what were the inner dynamics of short temporary communities, such as they form at a film festival, in contrast to kinship groups' behavior at birthdays, reli gious holidays or funerals? Having previously studied large-scale media events, such as royal weddings, Olympic Games and the televising of the Watergate affair, Dayan assumed that film festivals were collective performances which either followed pre-established 'scripts' or evolved in such a way that everyone intuitively adjusted to the role they were expected to play. He soon realized that film festivals tolerated a much higher degree of divergence of scripts, that even at a relatively small festival, there were many more layers co-existing in parallel, or even contradicted each other, and finally, that film festivals are defined not so much by the films they show, but by the print they produce, which has the double function of performative self-confirmation and reflexive self-definition, creating "verbal architectures" that mold the event's sense of its own significance and sustain its self-importance.22

A slightly different perspective arises if one thinks of the film festival as an "event", and defines event with Jacques Derrida as a "disjunctive singularity" that can neither be explained nor predicted by the normative logic of its social context, because its occurrence necessarily changes that very context.23 This highlights and confirms, even more than Dayan, the recursive self-reference, by which a festival (re-)produces the place in which it occurs. Meaning can only emerge in the space between the iterative and the irruption - the twin poles of a festival's consistency as event, which explains the obsession with new-ness: empty signifier of the compromise struck at any festival between the same and the different, the expected and the expected surprise. The self-generating and self-reflexive dimension is what is generally meant by the "buzz" of a festival, fuelled by rumor, gossip and word-of-mouth, because only a part of the verbal architecture Dayan refers to finds its way into print. The hierarchized accreditation systems, regulated at most film festivals via badges with different color schemes, ensure another architecture: that of privileged access and zones of exclusion, more reminiscent of airports with security areas than either churches for ceremonies or marketplaces and trade fairs. Since varying degrees of access also means that participants are unevenly irrigated with information, the restrictions further contribute to the buzz. They create a permanent anxiety about missing something important by being out of the loop, which in turn encourages face to face exchanges with strangers. The "fragile equilibrium" of which Dayan speaks, as well the dispersive energy he notes is thus no accident, but part of a festival's very fabric. It allows dedicated cinéphiles to share the space with hard-boiled deal-makers, blasé critics to engage with anxious firstfilm directors, and the buying and selling of films to pass for the celebration of the seventh art.

Distinction and Value-Addition

But this "rhizomatic" view probably paints too vibrant a picture of anarchic self-organization. Many invisible hands steer and administer the chaos of a festival, making sure there is flow and interruption, and making visible yet another architecture: that articulated by the programming of the films in competition and built upon across the festival's different sections, special events, showcase attractions and sidebars.24 Cannes, besides the sections "In Competition" (for the Palme d'Or), "Out of Competition" (special invitation), "Un Certain regard" (world cinema), "Cannes classics" and "Cinéfondation" (short and medium length films from film schools) also know the "Quinzaine des réalisateurs" and the "Semaine internationale de la critique". Venice offers similar categories: "Official Selection", "Out of Competition", "Horizons" (world cinema), "International Critics' Week", "Venice Days", "Corto Cortissimo" (short films). Berlin has "Competition", "Panorama", "Forum", "Perspective German Cinema", "Retrospective/Homage", "Showcase", "Berlinale Special", "Short Films", "Children's Cinema." The effects of such a proliferation of sections are to accelerate the overall dynamics, but these extensions of choice do not happen without contradictions. Over the years, festivals, as we saw, were either forced by protests to add these new categories (Cannes, Venice during the 1970s), or they did so, in order to take account of the quantitative increase in independently produced films, as well as the swelling numbers of special interest groups wanting to be represented at film festivals. The rebels of Cannes were accommodated; counter-festivals, such as the Forum in Berlin, were incorporated; and emerging film nations were carefully nurtured, as in Rotterdam, which from its inception in the 1972 began specializing in New Asian cinemas.25

In the process, one of the key functions of the international festival becomes evident, namely to categorize, classify, sort and sift the world's annual film-production. The challenge lies in doing so not by weeding out and de-classifying, or of letting the box-office do its brutal work, but rather by supporting, selecting, celebrating and rewarding - in short, by adding value and cultural capital at the top, while acting more as a gentle gate-keeper than a bouncer at the bottom. A festival's professed commitment to artistic excellence and nothing else positively demands a reading in terms of Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of the social mechanisms behind taste and distinction.26 By broadening the palette of competitive and non-competitive sections festivals are not only democratizing access. New power-structures are introduced and other differentials operate: for instance, delegating the selection for certain sections to critics or to other bodies inevitably creates new forms of inclusion and exclusion, and above all new kinds of hierarchies, hidden perhaps to the spectators, but keenly felt by producers and makers:

If critical capital is accrued from being selected for a prestigious festival, further distinctions are determined through the film's placement within the festival structure. In the case of the non-competitive Toronto festival, the Opening Night Gala slot is often considered one of the prime slots of the festival, and programs such as Galas, Special Presentations, and Masters are eagerly sought by distributors, producers, and filmmakers for the positioning of their films. In this hierarchy, regionally defined programs such as Planet Africa and Perspective Canada are often perceived as ghettos for under-performing work.27

There is only so much cultural capital to go round even at a festival, but as we have seen, accumulating it, in the form of prizes, press-coverage or other windows of attention is a matter of life and death for a film. A film comes to a festival, in order to be catapulted beyond the festival. It wants to enter into distribution, critical discourse and the various exhibition outlets. They alone assure its maker of going on to produce another film, be it on the strength of the box office (rarely) or by attracting (national-governmental, international television co-production) subsidy. Films use the festival circuit as the muscle that pumps it through the larger system.28

However, value addition operates also as another form of self-reference. As Bourdieu might have put it: All the players at a festival are caught up in the "illusio" of the game. They have to believe it is worth playing and attend to it with seriousness. In so doing, they sustain it.29 With every prize it confers, a festival also confirms its own importance, which in turn increases the symbolic value of the prize. Cannes, for instance, is not only aware of the seal of excellence that its Palme d'Or bestows on a film thus distinguished. It also carefully controls the use of its logo in image and print, down to typeface, angle, color coding and the number of leaves in its palm branch oval.30 To vary the metaphor yet again: a festival is an apparatus that breathes oxygen into an individual film and the reputation of its director as potential auteur, but at the same time it breathes oxygen into the system of festivals as a whole, keeping the network buoyant and afloat. Film festivals act as multipliers and amplifiers on several levels: first, they provide a privileged public, the press, as arbiters and taste-makers. An ad-hoc stock exchange of reputations is set up, efficiently distributing information with a very short feedback delay. Secondly, with festivals that are open to the general public, such as Berlin and Rotterdam, Locarno or San Sebastian, audiences, whether tourists or locals, act as a control group for testing the films according to very diverse sets of parameters, ranging from cinephile expertise to sensual stimulation for a couple's night out and equally important for a film's eventual identity in the public's mind. Festival visitors, while perhaps not representative of general audiences, are valuable for the gathering of this sort of data, beyond boosting or deflating artistic egos when per forming before a "live" audience. Festivals act as classic sites for the evaluation of information, taking snapshot opinion polls and yielding a market research instrument.

Yet because festival audiences are not necessarily representative of the general public, their volatility and collective enthusiasm can also make the unexpected happen. As Chicago film guru Roger Ebert once pointed out, "You can go to Toronto with a film nobody has heard of and you can leave with a success on your hands."31 The same is true of Rotterdam, which carefully polls its spectators after each screening and publishes an "audience's choice" chart throughout the festival. The results often differ markedly from that of the critics and jurors. Festivals, finally have a crucial role of value addition for films from their own national production, notably in countries whose output does not always meet the international standards. With special sections, such as the "Perspective German Film" in Berlin, or the "Dutch Treats" at Rotterdam, festivals provide ambassadorial or extra-territorial showcases for domestic filmmakers' work. Offered to the gaze of the international press and visitors, whose response in turn can be fed back into the national public debate, in order to shape the perception a specific country has of its national cinema and standing "abroad," such films travel without leaving home. Finally, festivals act as multipliers in relation to each other: most B-festivals have films that are invited or scheduled because they have been to other festivals: the well-known tautology of "famous for being famous" applies here too, creating its own kind of amplification effect.

Programming and Agenda Setting

Festival directors, their artistic deputies and section programmers have to be political animals. They know about their power, but also about the fact that this power depends on a mutual act of faith: a festival director is king (queen) or pope only as long as the press believes in his/her infallibility, which is to say, a festival director is only too aware of how readily the press holds him personally responsible for the quality of the annual selection and even for the prize-giving juries, should their decisions fail to find favor. The complexity of a festival's politicization can be measured by the adamant insistence that the sole criterion applied is that of quality and artistic excellence: "For the rest [our aim is] always to place film at the centre of our acts. Generally, to take nothing into account other than the art of film and the pre-eminence of artistic talent."32

But film festivals are not like the Olympic Games, where the best may win according to agreed and measurable standards of achievement. Since 1972, when countries ceased to selected their own films like delegates to the United Nations, taste rules like the Sun King's "L'état c'est moi"(while disavowing the

Zeitgeist and fashion as his chief ministers of state). A festival director is deemed to have a vision - of what's what and who's who in world cinema, as well as a mission - for his/her country, city, and the festival itself. Each of his/her annual "editions" usually stands under a motto, which itself has to be a formula for a balancing act of competing agendas and thus has to be as attractively tautological as possible. The "pre-eminence of talent" then becomes the code word for taste-making and agenda-setting, and thus for (pre-)positioning one's own festival within the network, and among its patrons. These comprise the regular roster of star directors along with talents to be discovered. It also has to include the tastes of those that can most effectively give exposure to these talents: distributors, potential producers, journalists. When one is in the business of making new authors, then one author is a "discovery", two are the auspicious signs that announce a "new wave", and three new authors from the same country amount to a "new national cinema".33 Festivals then nurture these directors over their second (often disappointing) film, in the hope that the third will once again be a success, which then justifies the auteur's status, definitively confirmed by a retrospective. Such a long-term commitment to building up a particular auteur is typical of smaller festivals such as Rotterdam, Locarno, the "Viennale" or Toronto, preferably but not necessarily with a local/national connection. As Atom Egoyan, Canada's best-known independent director acknowledges: "While it may sound perverse, we benefit from not having a strong internal market. We don't compete with each other over box office share, gigantic fees or star treatment, because it's simply not an issue. This is both a blessing and a curse. As artists, it means that our survival is not set by public taste, but by the opinion of our peers — festival programmers (the most influential is actually called Piers!), art council juries, and even Telefilm."34

Art for art's sake suspends these prosaic considerations of cultural politics and national prestige, at the same time as it makes them possible. By re-introducing chance, the fortuitous encounter, the word-of-mouth hot tip, the "surprise winner", appealing to the aesthetic is also a way of neutralizing all the agendas that interested parties are keen to bring to the festival director's attention. The critic Ruby Rich, after serving on many a festival jury, once complained about what she called the "worship of taste" in the international festival discourse.35 But this is to underestimate the ritual, religious and quasi-magical elements necessary to make a festival into an "event". It requires an atmosphere where an almost Eucharistic transubstantiation can take place; a Spirit has to hover that can canonize a masterpiece or consecrate an auteur, which is why the notions of "quality" or "talent" have to be impervious to rational criteria or secondary elaborations. As Huub Bals, the first director of the Rotterdam Film Festival used to announce defiantly: "you watch films with your belly."36 Put differently, ineffability and the taste tautology are the twin guardians of a festival's claim to embody an essential, but annually renewable mystery.

Self-affirmation is thus one of the aspects a successful festival director has to keep on the festival's agenda. Yet as any programmer would rightly argue, a film festival has to be sensitive to quite different agendas as well, and be able to promote them, discreetly but efficiently. Yet the very existence of these agendas also breaks with any notion that a festival is a neutral mapping, a disinterested cartography of the world's cinema production and the different nations' film culture. Overt or hidden agendas remind us first of all of the history of festivals. Most film festivals, as we saw, began as counter-festivals, with a real or imagined opponent: Cannes had Venice, Berlin had the Communist East, Moscow and Karlovy-Vary the Capitalist West. All have Hollywood, and (since the 1970s) the commercial film industry, as both their "significant other" and their "bad object". The ritualized appeals are to originality, daring, experiment, diversity, defiance, critique, opposition - terms that imply as their negative foil the established order, the status quo, censorship, oppression, a world divided into "them" and "us". The boom in new film festivals, lest we forget, started in the 1970s. Many of the creative as well as critical impulses that drove festivals to devote themselves to non-commercial films, to the avant-garde and to independent filmmaking are owed to the post-'68 counter-culture of political protest and militant activism.37 Rotterdam, the Forum of the Young International Film, the Pesaro Festival, Telluride and many others were founded and run by people with political ideals and usually quite ecumenical cinematic tastes.

Thus while public discourses and prize-giving speeches may continue to reflect a commitment to art for art's sake, there are other voices and issues, also pointing beyond the historical moment of protest and rebellion. Film festivals have since the 1970s been extremely successful in becoming the platform for other causes, for minorities and pressure groups, for women's cinema, receptive to gay and queer cinema agendas, to ecological movements, underwriting political protest, thematizing cinema and drugs, or paying tribute to anti-imperialist struggles and partisan politics.38 Even Cannes, the fortress of the art of film and the kingdom of the auteur, has not remained unaffected. When Michael Moore in 2004 was awarded the Golden Palm for Fahrenheit 9/11, probably his weakest film, it would take the jury chair (fellow American) Quentin Tarantino all the blue-eyed boyish charm and ingénue guilelessness he could muster to reassure the festival audience that the decision had been by no means politically motivated and that the jury was in fact honoring a great work of cinema art.

Moore's triumph at Cannes confirmed a point already made by Daniel Dayan about Sundance: "Behind an auteur stands a constituency." Dayan alluded to the following that some directors have at festivals, like pop stars have their fans at a rock concert. But the point is a more general one. The emphasis on the author as the nominal currency of the film festival economy has proven a very useful shield behind which both the festival and its audiences have been able to negotiate different priorities and values. Film festivals thus have in effect created one of the most interesting public spheres available in the cultural field today: more lively and dynamic than the gallery-art and museum world, more articulate and militant than the pop music, rock concert and DJ-world, more international than the theatre, performance and dance world, more political and engaged than the world of literature or the academy. Needless to say, film festivals are more fun than party-political rallies, and at times they can attract public attention to issues that even NGOs find it hard to concentrate minds on. This has been the case in recent years especially with gender and family issues, women's rights, the AIDS crisis or civil wars. The fact that festivals are programmed events, rather than fixed rituals, together with their annual, recurring nature means that they can be responsive and quick in picking up topical issues, and put together a special thematic focus with half a dozen film titles, which may include putting together a retrospective. It sometimes takes no more than the coincidence of two films on a similar topic - the Rwanda genocide, for instance - for a festival, in this case Berlin 2005, to declare itself to be directing the spotlight on the issue, and thus to focus valuable journalists' attention not only on the films (whose artistic qualities sharply divided the critics), but create airtime and make column-space for the topic, the region, the country, the moral, political or human interest issue.

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  • jonatan
    How do festivals work?
    9 years ago

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