The first installment of Infinite Fest, a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the recent “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals
The first film festival I ever attended was the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 1998. I was there, improbably, as a bonus from my retail job as a manager at Video Americain, Baltimore’s late, great rental shop immortalized in John Waters’ Serial Mom. With me was the manager of another Video Americain location, Sean Williams (perhaps now better known as the cinematographer of films like Queen of Earth and Good Time).
It was a whirlwind trip on a tight budget: a frighteningly compact puddle-jumper from Delaware to Buffalo; a rental-car jaunt across the border; two days, one night in Toronto.
I was young, glum, and fond of Scum, and a consuming passion for cinema had only recently unseated music as my primary pursuit. In this critical window of wide-eyed receptivity, TIFF was, without hyperbole, life-changing. Knowing we’d be in town for less than 48 hours, Sean and I hit the ground running. We took in the maximum-possible 6 films the first day, exiting a Midnight Madness screening well after 2 a.m. and lining up for a morning screening at the break of dawn to launch a second 6-movie day. The only sleep I remember getting was in theater seats before the lights went down, and I remember being borderline-ecstatic every second.
My cinephilia was not yet fully formed. Looking back today at TIFF’s 400+ page program guide from that year, I kick myself for missing, among many others, Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, two titles that would just months later become favorites on VHS—as well as Donna Deitch’s Angel on My Shoulder, which I still haven’t seen. But I did catch formative-for-me films like Celebration and Happiness. Importantly, I had never before seen a major filmmaker present their own work (nor guest-host-presented vintage films by Powell/Pressburger or Satyajit Ray); I had never even suspected that was a thing… or at least a thing that I could access.
And if on that first TIFF pilgrimage I didn’t avail myself of the full breadth of its lineup, I learned the lay of the land and vowed to attend each year of my life with more of a global view. I was blown away by the elegance of the (stacked!) Elgin and Winter Garden theaters, by the blend of locals and world travelers I met in line who made TIFF their vacation each year, by the way in which the festival pleasantly charged the air with a cinematic electricity across the metropolis. And even though I wasn’t paying, I certainly took notice that tickets came in around $10 Canadian (at a time when U.S. travelers still enjoyed a favorable exchange rate), not to mention the vendors on seemingly every corner slinging vegan dogs for less than a toonie. This was not just a paradise, but an affordable one.
Back in Baltimore, I began augmenting my video-store paychecks reviewing films for a free weekly, and two new film festivals entered my life. MicroCineFest founder Skizz Cyzyk had kindly invited me to join the screening committee for his proudly DIY event, which spotlighted underground and psychotronic films à la Todd Rohal. And as a film scribe, I began reviewing titles from the recently launched Maryland Film Festival lineup each May—also, by this point, co-programmed by Skizz (a pivotal figure in Baltimore’s subcultural life of the last 30+ years).
“If these are the films that got in,” I distinctly remember thinking after the quality of one of my first assignments chagrined me, “what could the films that didn’t get in the festival possibly be like?”
As fate would have it, I was to find out—over and over and over again. I joined the Maryland programming team alongside Skizz in 2007. Together we rolled out an adventurous lineup of work such as Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, Anna Biller’s Viva, Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, and a repertory screening of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. It was a challenging change in tone for the festival, which in prior years had, with more programming input from the festival’s founder, chased more of the groomed-for-distribution subset of Sundance repeats, but audiences responded enthusiastically.
Attending film festivals now took on a professional aspect for me. With Maryland announcing our lineups in early April, TIFF in September and South by Southwest (SXSW) in March bookended our programming process. Each offered mind-blowing experiences over the years: TIFF, unforgettable screenings of Trouble Every Day, Bamako, and Liverpool; SXSW, U.S. indie premieres of personal-canon essentials like Sun Don’t Shine, Medicine for Melancholy, Boone, The Blood Is at the Doorstep, and The Mend. To be sure, we kept an eye on Sundance, Cannes, and many other festival lineups, but on a Baltimore budget, SXSW and TIFF were the two treks I could count on for beyond-virtual access annually.
Gradually, my view of these festivals changed. A cynicism began to creep in—perhaps inevitable to a degree when one takes a passionate hobby and makes it their profession, with all the inurement and disillusioning behind-the-curtains peeks that leap requires. But I also became aware of some changes in these festivals—alongside a greater understanding of some functions they’ve always served.
At TIFF, to state the obvious: you can’t buy a movie ticket with a few toonies any more. As I talk to locals these days, for many TIFF has become something they used to love that they see as aimed at interlopers with deep pockets. And most importantly: the programming has shifted. In almost every section, films seem to have a mandate to chase that coveted People’s Choice Award, a Best Picture-prognosticating tool that makes TIFF each year more of a bastion for industry types, red carpets, and selfie-seekers.
If in previous years at TIFF, it was easy to identify and set aside the pat prestige pictures eyeing awards season, it does feel like now the pressure to please crowds has bled over into the rest of the slate. In 2017, I still found 30 highly rewarding picks like I Am Not a Witch, Of Sheep and Men, and Cocote (thanks to outstanding programmers like Kiva Reardon and Andréa Picard). But many features that once would’ve screened prominently within the Masters, Discoveries, or Contemporary World Cinema section now find themselves sequestered within the Wavelengths program (formerly a section primarily highlighting non-narrative experimental/avant-garde shorts). Last year, for the first time I’m aware of, the festival reduced the size of its lineup substantially—disturbing, given the apparent pressure to devote more real estate to Oscar bait.
Meanwhile, my experience with SXSW has also evolved. After eleven years of programming Maryland, I understand better the (self-imposed?) challenge of delivering nearly 100 feature premieres roughly 6 weeks after Sundance and Slamdance—and how prioritizing premieres so heavily on that timeline can result in lineups of wildly varying quality, both within a single year and from year to year. To be sure, incredible discoveries are made: to name just two, SXSW world-premiered the first features by major voices like Barry Jenkins and Lena Dunham (don’t @ me). But I don’t think I’m blowing too many minds by saying I have also sat through some of the worst films I’ve seen in a professionally curated setting there. We can applaud the risk-taking discoveries while also lamenting that sometimes they’re buried under a mountain of underwhelming and/or amateurish misfires (and also wishing SXSW’s promotional materials went into more descriptive detail about the films so we can better cull the plums from the turds).
Even coming after Sundance and SXSW, and usually either overlapping with or falling a week after Tribeca, we were able to debut some exciting films at Maryland. We offered audiences world premieres of features by Eugene Kotlyarenko, Stephen Cone, Josephine Decker, and Josh Crockett, and U.S. premieres of important Canadian works like Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf and Hugh Gibson’s The Stairs. More often, however, we were the second, third, or sixteenth stop for features that premiered elsewhere. These included filmmakers who made a major mark with subsequent work, like Desiree Akhavan, Barry Jenkins, and the Safdies, as well as visionary films that deserve more discussion like Boone, Koza, The Mend, Porfirio, A Useful Life, Sun Don’t Shine, Evolution of a Criminal, and Blind Loves.
As a festivalgoer, I’ve decided not to give a fuck about premieres any more. And after quitting MdFF this February for reasons I’ve discussed on Twitter and in my Filmmaker piece “Why I Am Hopeful,” I do very much want to make it to the next TIFF and SXSW this year, and each subsequent year—but those are not the festivals I’ll prioritize for pleasure.
Partially on my own dwindling supply of dimes, this March I went to the dreamy, documentary-focused True/False in Missouri, my favorite film festival in the world two incredible years in a row. There, attending a festival for fun and fun alone for the first time in a decade, I basked in vital, diverse emerging films like América; Black Mother; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Pumpkin Movie, and Playing Men—as well a mind-expanding slate of repertory films from the Black Audio Film Collective (track down Twilight City if you can!). Just one month after exiting a toxic film workplace, each edifying viewing experience confirmed that film culture still emphatically remains the love of my life. I think many of these films were having their world or U.S. premieres at T/F, but I didn’t check, and I don’t need to. It was the experience, the revitalizing inhalation of film culture with like-minded seekers far from any industry center that enriched me.
This holds true professionally as well. I did some programming consulting for Dallas’ young, scrappy Oak Cliff Film Festival this year, and for a great five days this June got more pleasure seeing enthusiastic and adventurous cinephile crowds for films like Maison du Bonheur, I Am Not a Witch, Winter Brothers, and Black Mother than I have elsewhere welcoming packed houses to known quantities.
That’s where the fight for film culture is right now—across the country, audience by audience. Premiere status is, by and large, a pissing match between a handful of industry festivals, pitched to crowds where celebrity, fame, marketability, and buzz matter more than sustaining cinema with moving, and sometimes challenging, individual experiences. Industry festivals launch some important work of all shapes and sizes—but too many of the smaller titles get lost in the shuffle after this initial high fades.
Everyone who loves cinema can play a role in keeping these films alive. Absolutely, every regional and specialty festival in the ecosystem needs to comb through their call for entries and say “yes” to the most exciting work there. But believe me, as someone who’s taken that responsibility very seriously, doing so will always leave ample slots in your lineup to also bring films that other festivals have already screened. And within that pool, our choice as programmers is: do we trumpet the usual suspects of hipster rom-coms, cute docs, and costume dramas, or do we fight to sustain the lives of, and find audiences for, an intimate documentary like Distant Constellation and a wild curveball like Fraud?
Critics: do you really need to see the next Leisure Seeker, Exotic Marigold Hotel, or even a new Almodóvar film a month early? And, for those of you who quite reasonably answer “yes,” as your outlet’s editor and readership expect it—can you do more to work in nods to other worthy festival films into your piece?
Festival-goers: you don’t look only to major labels, established artists, and industry buzz in choosing the music you consume; tackle film-fest lineups as you might a music festival or record bin, digging for emerging voices and work you might not be able to access elsewhere.
Festivals like True/False and Oak Cliff are managing to sell tickets (I rarely saw an empty seat at T/F at any sized venue, at time of day!) while challenging rather than placating their audiences. Moreover, they share many other qualities with what I consider the best years of Maryland (before bean counters and board members began making uninformed gouges into what made us special), which can be summed up as: rigorous programming in a relaxed environment that prioritizes experience.
What do I mean by experience? Short answer: they take me back to TIFF 20 years ago, in the best possible ways. Both fests have anchor venues where they facilitate group hangs and conversation; use at least one historic auditorium; group all their venues in a walking-distance campus; travel in as many filmmakers as possible; extend remarkable hospitality to their guests (a relaxed and happy filmmaker almost always results in a better Q&A); take special care presenting short films and work that defies easy classification; create program books and parallel online content that honor their artistic mission with their specific programmers’ voices rather than relying on press kits and PR speak; create ancillary spaces that facilitate a feeling that film culture matters beyond their theaters’ exit doors; and encourage visitors to experience their city as locals would, with an emphasis on neighborhood and small businesses. In short: they give today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings great films, great filmmakers, great Q&As—and point them to the right place to talk over coffee, breakfast tacos, and $2 vegan dogs.
Microcinemas and alternative exhibitors that look beyond the corporately-curated hits of the indie world have the opportunity to create these feelings year round—but not every city has such a venue.
But so many cities do have a film festival (or three). And those film festivals have a choice regarding what their lineup looks like, and what sort of experiences they prioritize.
While at industry fests, let’s make sure to do the work to make own cinephilic festival within their lineup, to find the cinematic air within the maelstrom. And in 2019, make a point to get to True/False, Oak Cliff, or another young festival fighting the good fight. I’d be shocked if you didn’t walk away from those experiences more energized and excited than you have from any industry fest in years.