Why Do People Go to These Things?

In #EIFF, Commentary, Features, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Devin Karambelas

As Edinburgh’s International Film Festival launches today in its 70th year, I want to begin this piece on film festivals with André Bazin, a man equally amused and disheartened by them. Bazin—film critic, writer, Cahiers du Cinema editor and possibly the most important name in film theory—mocks and mourns the modern film festival, epitomized by Cannes, in his 1955 article ‘The Festival Viewed as a Religious Order’:

Having ‘done’ all of them since 1946 I have witnessed firsthand the gradual perfecting of the Festival phenomenon, the practical creation of its rituals and its inevitable establishment of hierarchies. Fully-fledged participation in The Festival is like being provisionally admitted to convent life.

In his short but characteristically vivid piece, Bazin sketches for his readers the “obligations and regularity” of the festival schedule stuck to obsessively by members of the press: there are early breakfasts, private screenings, strict dress codes, an absurd fetishization of the all-important festival pass, necessary seat reservations, after parties galore and a general acceptance of “functional discrimination.”

Though Bazin is far too eloquent to put it this way, by his account the most prestigious film festival in the world is by and large a circle jerk in haute couture. Above all else, he condemns the “sense of superiority” of the accredited press who are elitist, exclusive and—perhaps worst of all, in his estimation—conformist. This represents one idea of the film festival as something bureaucratic, industry-oriented and event-driven. In 2009, film writer Richard Porton references Bazin’s article in an insightful one of his own. He declares that film festivals are increasingly places for distributors, sales agents and a tiny group of favored filmmakers. By the end, Porton begins to wonder what the bloody point of it all is, if discovering and promoting quality film is no longer at the heart of a film festival. This brings up other associated questions: What is of value for audience members? Why spend the money on a ticket, or make time in one’s schedule to attend?

I found a good answer in the writing of Janet Harbord, whose book Film Cultures is an incredible read. In it, she conceptualizes the film festival as a “space-time” event (that is not nearly as heady as it sounds). Verbatim, Harbord writes that the task of the film festival is to make time matter. In the condensed structure of the festival, the “here and now” is what is most significant. As a live event, there is a singularity to the experience that makes the festival experience unknowable in advance and impossible to replicate precisely.

For all of Bazin’s and Porton’s skepticism, and much of it not unwarranted, festivals operating at the highest standards—be it in Edinburgh, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sydney, New York or Tokyo, but also in Glasgow, Providence, Reykjavik and Motovun and other places—deal in an art form that has always straddled the precipice of art and industry. Sales agents have to care if a film will sell, but programmers have the grave and exciting responsibility of declaring what, that year, deserves to be seen based on artistic merit.

As film curators, my colleagues and I regularly wonder what we can show to an audience that they probably won’t see anywhere else. What sort of film has evaded their gaze, and maybe even our own, that deserves to be made visible now? From music docs to skateboard videos, from lush moodpieces to genre-driven indie westerns and beyond, the festival space is one that has the power to pluck gems from obscurity, make visible the cultures that are so often not, and challenge a viewer’s notion of what “legitimate” film looks like.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s oldest continually running film festival and now celebrating its 70th year, is a festival that originally screened documentaries but has grown to include fiction features, shorts, music videos and animations. It has been acclaimed and critiqued in measure, but no one can deny that it has grown into something phenomenally exciting that brings a whole lot of culture and people to the small but world-class city of Edinburgh each summer. This year proves to be no different, with idiosyncrasies such as a spotlight on the cinema of Finland, and a showcase of specifically Scottish short films and gonzo journalism docs in addition to the premium features in contention for festival prizes.

I urge you to go and enjoy the special appearances from Kim Cattrall and Kevin Smith, and revel in the 30th anniversary of Highlander. After all, if a festival isn’t fun, why do it? But I also implore you to commit yourself to checking out one screening, side bar or presentation that seems unfamiliar. It was sitting in the dark during the closing credits of an independent Brazilian feature that I discovered the beauty of discovery in the film festival setting. This was two years ago, mind, and my exposure to foreign film had been mostly nil. My reaction to this one was so strong that I felt nearly choked by it, even though I could not articulate why at the time. Ah, I remember thinking to myself. I get it. This is why people go to these things.

Bazin was right: at its best and worst, there is something religious in the film festival experience after all.

Devin Karambelas

Devin Karambelas is a Film, Exhibition & Curation MSc student at the University of Edinburgh and a trainee at the American film distribution company Film Movement. She has programmed films for leading festivals based in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Tuscany, Glasgow and Rhode Island.

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Bazin, André. “The Festival Viewed As Religious Order.” Cahiers du Cinema, June 1955. 

Porton, Richard. “The Festival Whirl.” Moving Image Source.com, posted September 8, 2009. 

Harbord, Janet. Film Cultures. London: Sage Publications, 2002.

Image: Edinburgh International Film Festival.