Festivals in the distribution of films… and ideas.
In the press conference to present his selection in 2006, the director of the Venice Film Festival, Marco Müller (PHOTO), drew on his cinephilia and his extensive experience as a director of other films festivals (Rotterdam, Locarno and Pesaro) to assess the role of international film festivals for the film industry, which always combines art with business:
‘The pessimism of reason should lead us to declare that the time for festivals is coming to an end. Whether we like it or not, we must accept the fact that we will see many festivals continuing to brood over their own touristic and promotional original sin, that of being a window display and launch pad for the most visible, often most showy part of film-making. A sin to be remitted by providing a temporary surrogate for lacunae, for the lacks in the distribution and information circuits. The optimism of willingness, on the other hand, leads us to focus on a fracture, which in the past has perhaps been knowingly overlooked, among the most usual idea-festivals and the philosophy in movement (it should constantly be undergoing redefinition) of an (international) Festival of (cinematographic) Art. Not all the attempts at renewal are destined to fail: without hypothesising a palingenesis (it is not yet time for that), this “non-festival” of ours, the Venice Festival, might finally find some autonomous space, ephemeral perhaps but truly autonomous, a moment marking a break with the balances crystallized by conformity, vested interests (and lack of), and by the vice of habit. A point of breakage of customs, a starting point for knowledge and investigation, the vision and discussion of manifestations of bradeyism [slow-earthquake], stirrings and ferments which still, at irregular intervals, manage to invest the various ways of making films to the North, South, East and West.’4
This remarkable lucidity on the role of film festivals, threatened by various economic interests (tourism and the commercialization of cinema), could have caused chaos at a time when the renewal of the director’s mandate was becoming an issue. The local correspondent of Variety wrote the following year: ‘Though not impossible, a second mandate would be a feat unprecedented in Venice’s recent history, which, since the 1970s, has seen Italy’s revolving-door governments and their pork-barrel pois tap a long list of bosses to head the Lido’s parent org, the Venice Biennale. Each Biennale prexy has, in turn, appointed a different Venice fest topper’ (Vivarelli 2007, A2).
In 2009, Müller denounced ‘market censorship’ and challenged the very idea of a festival:
‘Why continue to believe stubbornly in festivals, given that the formulas for these have so often taken the form of outdated concepts? They reduce, in essence, to only two options: the defense of whatever film-making would exist, for which the festival is window and launch-pad; or alternatively, the possibility of continuing (eternally?) to supply a willing surrogate for what is needed in the distribution-information circuit as a response to an even stronger market censorship.’ (Müller 2009, 13)
Besides this function, festivals offer a unique cosmopolitan stage for the reception of films. This is particularly important for young directors. Jean-Christophe Berjon, who heads the Critics’ Week in Cannes (where only first and second films are shown), stated a few weeks ago, when the recent Cannes Film Festival opened, that filmmakers often experience their first public screening on this occasion, an event that they will remember all their lives.
At a time when films are easily copied and distributed online, festivals definitely have a role to play, as a vector of value and trends that configure the field, and also in the shaping of identities.
Acknowledgment: This article was completed in the framework of research Grant No. 215747 of the 7FP Social Sciences and Humanities Programme of the European Communities for the project ‘Art Festivals and the European Public Culture’.
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