By Abby Sun
If the only thing I read in 2020 were film criticism, I would get a very skewed understanding of the pandemic era. Depending on the film review, there might be references to sheltering in place, quarantines, and virtual existence. There might be a news piece or two about “new” forms of online distribution, theater closings and bankruptcies, and racial diversity initiatives. If I looked more, I might find rehashed press releases about how festivals pivoted online and some descriptions of their VR/XR social offerings. In contrast to this written record, festivals have in fact offered enormously varied, contradictory, and revealing material for making sense of leisure and work during the pandemic. The film criticism that I’ve encountered is predictably proceeding by focusing on film-as-content. There may be grumblings about the quality and breadth of reduced film lineups, but the phenomenon of festivals and their seismic re-ordering of the systems that produce and disseminate films remain underexamined.
This is a gap that film criticism has needed to close even before the industry-shifting pandemic. The development of film festivals was noted early on: in his Cahiers du Cinéma report on the 1955 edition of Cannes, André Bazin excoriated “the practical creation of its rituals and its inevitable establishment of hierarchies,” comparable “to the foundation of a religious Order.” Festivals haven’t much progressed since then. In more recent and positive terms, in 1994 scholar Bill Nichols positioned festivals as a necessary antidote to globalized film production. In Nichols’s retelling of their proliferation in the ’90s, festivals escaped the primitivist trappings of world cinema as a category through an event-based “prosthetic aura.” While this reading is overly simplistic, it’s representative of the sense of promise placed in festivals that led to a world-wide explosion in their numbers; aside from the A-list festivals, regional, niche, and non-competitive festivals now form their own media ecosystems. Corporations, NGOs, independent theaters, digital platforms like YouTube, and universities have since adopted the festival moniker to describe screening series or branded events, many of which, even before COVID-19 lockdowns, were entirely digital.
Some film institutions, such as the Flaherty Seminar, founded in the same year as Bazin’s “Film Festival as Religious Order” essay, have contended with the increasing influence of festivals. The Flaherty, like an academic conference, or Berlin Critics’ Week, places films, their filmmakers, and discussants in conversation with each other. Unlike a film festival and its attendant stakeholders—from state funders to corporate sponsors to influential board members, all of whom have a desire to see ticket sales rise year after year—these festivals and screenings encourage non-commercial curatorial and consumption impulses. But in the United States, where I have lived my whole life, such interventions remain few and far between. Before Sundance (or, more accurately, the U.S./Utah Film Festival in 1978, which focused its small competition on low-budget U.S. independent fiction films and otherwise programmed repertory titles), the landscape was dominated by the “festival of festivals” model. Now, with multiple tiers of premiere-hungry festivals, most regional festivals derive their value from being the first to present fare from top U.S. or international festivals to their local audience along with a semi-fun party or two. They also give filmmakers a chance to tour with their films, since festivals are now a form of distribution, though filmmakers often contribute their own time and money to do so. The lack of public funding of the arts doesn’t help matters. In response to the paucity of financial support, ever more festivals have adopted the models of Sundance and the Berlinale to create their own labs, pitch forums, grants, and artist development programs. Far from creating alternatives to the festival circuit, these activities further solidify its centrality.
During COVID-19, though many virtual film festivals kept markers of their physical presence like ticket caps matching the seat-count of their IRL venues, some very interesting things have happened in the meantime. More festivals are revenue-sharing with filmmakers. More curators are putting on VOD repertory series outside of brick-and-mortar institutions. Even as theaters slowly reopen (and re-close), the peculiar American invention of the virtual theatrical release in concert with arthouse cinemas seems set as an addition to day-and-date releases strategies. To be clear, this isn’t a complete leveling in geographic inequities in access to screens. As before COVID-19, film festivals are equally sites of inclusion and exclusion, of abundance and scarcity. In fact, they thrive off these paradoxes.
Pandemic conditions have covered up some deleterious developments. Many festivals are taking the opportunity to exploit filmmakers for increased submission fees and to induce workers to volunteer their time. And many film institutions, dependent on outside funding and more interested in paying for parties and galas than workers’ salaries in a “normal” year, have laid off programmers, education staff, projectionists, and the contract workers who create the infrastructure of a physical festival. Festivals and arthouse cinemas were issuing statements that “Black Lives Matter” during the George Floyd uprisings while laying off Black staff. This disaster capitalism should be a wake-up call for us to care about the collective health of our industry and its systems.
Behind closed doors, there are many groups strategizing for the filmmakers and workers whom film festivals depend on. This has come in the form of regular support groups, letter-writing, and panels, meetings, and talks with and at festivals to fight for a holistic rethinking of the film business. Much of this isn’t possible without collective models, as workers and filmmakers are afraid to individually criticize long-established institutions for fear of retribution. Personally, I’ve also tried to turn to film festival studies to help me understand what is happening and how that might have already been conveyed to the public. The scholarship does a good job at outlining the power dynamics between state, industry, filmmaker, and audience stakeholders. It’s also animated by an abiding interest in examining the state and NGO funding apparatuses of world cinema as a useful lens for tracing the contestation of nationalist identity and filmic cultural production. But the research, like general film writing, focuses on the film objects, their selection, and their subsequent theatrical screenings (or lack thereof), and imbue the singular gatekeeping curator or the rockstar filmmaker with the power to enact change.
As a former film festival worker, none of this writing satisfactorily described the pressures or the pleasures of working at a festival, conveyed the scarcity logic that guided so much of our unspoken decisions, or even accurately described the labor of festivals. Further, for our digital era, very little of the writing examined the effects that virtual platforms, cultures, and infrastructure exert on the Nicholsian “prosthetic aura” of festivals. For instance, we often think of certain festivals as the brave final holdouts of big screen culture against streaming dominance. Before Netflix started streaming films in 2007, however, festival markets like IDFA’s Docs for Sale offered digital industry libraries and the Cannes Marché du Film (cannesmarket.com, now known as Cinando) created their own industry-specific streaming services while the festivals themselves adopted digital submissions systems. The pressure on festival programmers and screeners to watch films that are thus submitted in the aggregate is enormous, and is equally a programmatic and a labor issue. Festivals aren’t merely reacting to social conditions, they are often the primary creators of them. If we start to seriously consider the art workers who populate the festival circuit’s selection committees, organize its print traffic and delivery, throw its parties, and produce its private meeting spaces within film criticism, the recursive effects that individual agents exert on festivals and thus the wider industry becomes clear.
I now consider festivals as a form of media, with their activities to be read like media productions. They are not only amorphous nodes serving the media production and dissemination of films (and increasingly emerging media like VR/XR/AR). Festivals are producers in a cultural and political economy—the media artifacts of festivals include things as disparate as program guides, pre-film trailers, meeting spaces, the narratives that filmmakers fashion around their projects in development meetings, the fast-forward settings on computers in industry screening rooms, and the data given to publicists and sales agents about who watched their films. Individual agents like workers, managers, and funders all play an active role in the maintenance and recreation of these festival schemas. We could all learn much from remembering the “slippery social nature of labor practices,” as described by Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John Caldwell in their introduction to Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (2009). That is, to employ a healthy skepticism towards the textual press releases, conferences, and interviews granted by decision-makers, who, as a global professional managerial class, are now all highly credentialed.
Film festivals are but one story in the rise of transnational corporate structures in media production, but they are still marked by this turn. Parallel to the rise of international co-productions and international film markets is the transnational flow of labor through festivals. Aside from filmmakers, sales agents, critics, and audiences, major festivals have been adding managing director and managing producer roles, and most have split the festival director roles into artistic and executive classes. The new managerial class supervises the proliferation of institutes and artist development programs along with the festivals. The recent development is of industry-focused programs that occur not only in schools in the form of curatorial and arts management degrees or in studios with executive training, but, prominently, at film festivals. Locarno’s Industry and Critics Academies and the Berlinale Talent Forum are franchised around the world (I myself was a participant at the Film at Lincoln Center’s 2019 Industry Academy during New Directors/New Films). Its many spinoffs and predecessors include curatorial fellowships at the Flaherty Seminar and IFFR, diversity programs for emerging critics at Sundance and TIFF, and DOC NYC’s and Screen International’s lists of emerging professionals. This is not a critique of any one program but a recognition that these programs are funded and classified as such to help and, also, to claim the labor produced by recipients and future success.
As someone who has served on funding panels and grant reviews since I started programming films at festivals, I know that this labor stretches far beyond surface-level gatekeeping. Aside from end-of-year awards committees, it is often programmers who advise organizations on what risks they should take in and what projects they support. For all the calls to diversify grant recipients, and all the work that is done on the backend to try to meet these lofty goals, the selection logics of these organizations mandate evaluation based on projects and artists who can best articulate a clear vision. On nonfiction films specifically, I’ve encountered conflicts over whether collaborative methods are a symptom or solution to unequal power dynamics, how representational politics can (or should) be used to evaluate the artistic merit, and whether the form of mediating reality should trend towards the simplistic or the complex. For process-oriented work like experimental or nonfiction films, however, this strikes me as an inherently backwards approach, and I suspect partially explains the rising popularity of the essay film in experimental sections of festivals, as these films often represent a clearer speaking position. But the developing relationship between filmmakers and participants should dictate the form of the film, not vice versa.
Festivals also spend a lot of time managing their surface-level appearances. The labor of BIPOC professionals crucially extends to helping institutions enact diversity initiatives, whether actively through bringing in projects and filmmakers or passively through the commodification of our faciality in festival and industry spaces without a real change in how institutions make decisions. It’s a discomfort that U.K. curator and writer Jemma Desai described as the gap between “‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ movements (wide-reaching projects with limited outcomes) that privileged someone else’s vision of change” versus an “‘inch-wide, mile-deep’ movement (a smaller, more contained undertaking that aspires to deeper transformation) sprung from my own imagination.”
As festivals come to critical junctions, my understanding of the deep-rooted implications of the festival apparatus now drives my decisions about what I personally write about in festival dispatches and film reviews. I can’t separate this industrial focus from the way I encounter films. Critiques of individual films can also benefit from being mindful of festival structures. I’d not given much thought to the sly way Sandi Tan’s Shirkers contends with the “perpetual foreigner” stigma that haunts Asian Americans before I noticed that Sundance placed the film in the “World Cinema Documentary Competition” as opposed to the U.S. competition. Though the first half of the film takes place in Singapore as Tan and her classmates were introduced to filmmaking and shot a feature as teenagers, the documentary switches to an American road trip mystery for the second half as Tan hunts down the lost film, decades later. Shirkers was entirely produced and funded by U.S.-based entities, and Tan has lived in the U.S. for decades. Aside from questions of the validity of nation-state categories in the first place, I never saw the friction between its categorization, its formally fluid narrative, or the political dimensions of American soft-power questioned or remarked upon.
As my film programming has given me entry into closed-door spaces where decisions about categorizing films are contested, I have come to see my public-facing writing as a place where I can record my sense of changes in festivals and other film institutions. Aside from a techno-authoritarian future, festivals continue to contend with the merging of streaming into broadcast and theatrical space, social movements resulting in 50/50 by 2020 pledges, efforts in nonfiction to (again) focus on decoloniality, hybrid virtual-physical festival editions, and how institutions respond to or ignore #metoo allegations against predatory festival programmers and consultants. Historically, festivals have gone through all this before—multiculturalism and the politics of difference was all the rage in the 1980s and ’90s, to give one example, but those inroads fell out of favor. If now, as then, the changes remain purely within the film programs without institutional accountability, after the crisis passes we will once again further entrench ourselves on a path where only the very few can sustain themselves.
To return to Bazin: in 1955, “journalists relish their distinction from the common horde” via access to a separate, clear-sightlined seating area while occupying the same theater. But he didn’t pay attention beyond gently mocking the indifference of said journalists, because ultimately his perspective was all in service of the movies. More than seven decades on, critics now have advance digital screeners, press screenings, and so forth to further distinguish ourselves from a general audience. Yet despite often greater industrial knowledge of production, our curiosity almost never extends towards distribution and exhibition outside of fundamentally uncritical trade reporting. When we position the individual critique of films without illuminating their systemic context, no matter how sycophantic or antagonistic, across the world, the festival report and film review will remain an extension of festival marketing and film publicity.