Recently I've been wondering: How have film festivals slowly changed in the last decade or two? And what are things that a good film festival ought to be doing?
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) kicks off in a couple of weeks. I've attended it continuously for the last twelve years. The festival has changed markedly over this time. The number of commercially high-profile "galas" and "special presentations" has shot up. The size of the "Masters" program -- where the festival puts its best, most highly regarded narrative art films -- has shrunk dramatically. Even more distressingly, programs devoted to retrospectives of single filmmakers or particular national cinemas have been more or less eliminated. In fact, the festival now shows almost only new films: anything that isn't contemporary, anything that lacks the sheen of novelty, has disappeared from the festival's horizon. The only exception to this gradually escalating corporatization of TIFF has been the avant-garde program Wavelengths, helmed by Andréa Picard, who has guided it from strength to strength in recent years.
I hasten to add: the festival still shows a healthy number of good films. It's the one week of the year that I look forward to the most. Nevertheless, there's no denying that the changes at TIFF have, over the years, weakened the festival in certain crucial ways.
The book Dekalog 3, edited by Richard Porton, is a valuable recent collection that takes film festivals as its subject. One of the pieces is a terrific conversation between James Quandt and veteran film curator and festival director Simon Field, who observes:
...Toronto, whether it likes it or not, has got caught up in marketing procedures, particularly of Hollywood but also of the independent American cinema machine. Some of the auteurist emphases of the older festival have begun to get lost [...] In the time I've been coming, it has become a much bigger machine, emphasizing more and more its premieres. It's become much more self-conscious about being one of the most important festivals in the world; it's more preoccupied with its own rhetoric, celebrating its rhetoric. [...]
In the Netherlands, there's what they call the 'sandwich process', how you use bigger films to get audiences to support your festival and its smaller -- but equally important -- films. [...] In Toronto it has begun to affect the tone of the festival and one of its roles, a role of which much is made here, to educate and inform, and the problem is how to maintain that balance when, for instance, all films are described as fabulous, and when some parts of the festival disappear beneath an overcrowded program. The noise of the 'upper' part of the festival [the more commercial part] drowns out other areas. When you get the feeling that rhetoric, and the marketers have taken over, you begin to be concerned that the marginal films aren't at the centre of anyone's interest.
Toronto's moving away from showing non-contemporary cinema and its reluctance to invest in bodies of work -- instead featuring strings of individual films -- are blatantly market-oriented moves. They bank on novelty, but also, they look to diversify financial risk, distributing it among a slate of disparate single films rather than showing groups of films, like an entire Kiyoshi Kurosawa retrospective or a Turkish cinema sidebar, both programs I enjoyed there several years ago, when the festival operated under a somewhat different economic model.
For me personally, a good film festival -- let alone one with a great, global reputation like Toronto -- should do much more than simply show a bunch of new films. A good film festival should also be an event that enriches film culture in substantive and imaginative ways, and provides educational opportunities for the public to deepen their appreciation of this prodigiously diverse and rich medium. In his remarks to Quandt, Simon Field adds:
Should festivals have a stronger educational role? If you have a Resnais, a Michael Mann, a Costa or Diaz, and you're showing a plurality of cinema, how are you backing that up with ways to help people understand it? When I did the Ernie Gehr focus at Rotterdam, he started off doing the standard American-style Q&A -- waiting for questions, and then he realized that a lot of people in the audience didn't have a clue about how to approach his films. I don't know what the answer to that is. There's a danger with a very plural festival that you'll never help people engage with that kind of cinema because you're too busy showing films [...] you also need to help people understand the films. That's becoming more difficult because there's just this mass of stuff.
So, if you were to design your dream film festival, what might it look like? Mine would include films old and new, packaged into stimulating, often counter-intuitive programs; panels, lectures and workshops featuring critics, scholars and filmmakers; and a keen curiosity about film and film culture from all eras and countries. True, that sounds utopian, but I also believe that it's not essential that all film festivals in the world follow the same economic model and be driven by the same objectives.
I'm curious to hear from you: How do you think film festivals are changing? Are there good models for film festivals out there, models that don't simply and unimaginatively enslave themselves to capitalist imperatives? Are there festivals with significant critical influence (like, for a period, the Buenos Aires festival under Quintin's leadership) that care not just about showing individual films but also about film culture, film discourse and education? Any other thoughts on the film festivals of yesterday and today? I'd love to hear them.