|The cowardice of martinets are hidden behind|
policy, process and/or committee decisions.
When Good Film Festivals Make Stupid
(and boy, do I mean STUPID) Decisions
Commentary By Greg Klymkiw
Spring is in the air. There are two ways I know this. First of all, my ponies are being extra rambunctious. It's a beautiful sight. Secondly, though, and perhaps most importantly (in my world), it's the beginning of a whole new season of film festivals. The fall flurry of flagship events is a distant memory, the winter blues reflecting the importance of avant-garde and/or dour social exposes has just passed and now, we're about to plunge into the best time to see movies in the dark - when it becomes warm and sunny.
Film festivals have always held a high degree of importance in the world of cinema; celebrating and positioning new motion picture product to springboard into larger arenas of adulation (or in some cases, belly-flopping into quagmires of rank forgetfulness). During the past quarter-century, however, film festivals are becoming the primary venue for the exposure of many great films that will only be seen on big screens within that context. This doesn't mean the films are bad, but that the traditional exhibition and distribution industry as a whole has become incredibly lazy, greedy and bereft of vision. (It didn't happen overnight, either. One can easily trace the decimation of theatrical exhibition from the early 80s onwards.)
In many ways, it is the film industry itself that has placed so many pictures into what might once have been perceived as the ghetto of film festival exhibition, but is now, more often than not, the most important theatrical venue for many fine films to enjoy a shared experience initially and often only in film festivals.
Film Festivals, in this respect, must not make blatantly stupid decisions with respect to inclusion of product, but most importantly, with the omission of said product.
Some might argue that to err is human. That's all well and good, but a film festival in not human and as such should not err. Then again, like any first-rate computer, a film festival can only be as good as its programmers and in recent years, this is where I'm seeing some of the most egregious, abominable and downright boneheaded decisions/inclusions/omissions.
To that, some argue that the selection of motion picture product, especially within the context of a film festival, boils down to subjectivity.
To this I say, in my best John Huston impersonation, "BALLS!"
I expect film festival programmers to be beyond subjectivity. They are there to present product which, within the context of their festival (or section of the festival), is of supreme advancement of the art of cinema. As such, they might even need to include product they aren't especially fond of. This kind of inclusion (even if I as a viewer might also not be fond of said product) is, to a certain extent understandable, if not downright acceptable.
What's not acceptable, I think, are some of the omissions. The problem is that festivals set up expectations by their very hype. They hammer home the idea that they are presenting the best work, and as such, are the infallible arbiters of what's important in cinema. Far too many scribes, industry insiders and audiences fall for this nonsense.
The worst form of film festival puffery are the announcements from grinning festival directors, programmers and (ugh!) curators, which make a point of how many films were submitted for inclusion in their festival, how much hard work went into making their final selection and how the bevy of product on offer represents the highest level of cinema excellence.
To this I say, in my best John Huston impersonation, "BALLS!"
We all know there will be shitty, godawful films in the mix. We also know there are probably films - good and even great films - that were, for whatever moronic reasons, not invited to participate. Eventually, these "rejects", if they're truly good or great, find a way into the festival world and get seen.
Speaking from personal experience, one film I produced was rejected by a major film festival for some of the most moronic reasons imaginable. The bottom line is that politics and political correctness reared their ugly heads here. The happy ending was that the film was invited into an even more prestigious film festival in Europe, won a Best Feature Film Award there, then was invited to close to 200 film festivals worldwide, won even more awards and garnered to-die-for critical notices, substantial theatrical playoff in foreign (though not domestic) territories and numerous prestigious broadcast berths.
Why did it bug me, then, that one film festival chose to reject it? Well, I knew the film had already been invited to this other European Film Festival, buoyed by the kind of words of praise from the festival director that made me realize that he/she not only loved the movie, BUT, most importantly, that they "got it!"
"Getting it" is all important in the game and what concerns me is that now, more than ever, there has been a slow erosion of standards over a 20-year-or-so period wherein more and more film festivals just DON'T "get it". Sure, there are always going to be people who don't like certain films and like others, BUT, one always assumes that these arbiters of cinematic importance know their shit. What's almost intolerable ARE those who know their shit, but for whatever boneheadedly petty reasons, refuse to acknowledge the importance of certain films (whether they like them or not).
Ah, but here's the worst thing - arbiters of cinematic importance (and excellence) who DON'T know their shit. This is happening more and more. I'll be having a conversation with one of them (and yes, they're usually younger than I am, but THAT is no excuse, really) and upon my mentioning the work of a specific filmmaker, they're looking at me with the sort of blank eyes one finds attached to a cow chewing its cud. I usually resist going apoplectic - not an easy thing for me to do, either. I am, after all, a Ukrainian with the blood of Cossacks coursing through my veins, ready to plunge my sword into anyone and anything that stands in the way of my supremacy. Resist, though, I do, in spite of how infuriating and depressing it is.
Excuses that festival types come up with that I especially hate are those in which they acknowledge the submitted film is very good, but that the competition was extremely fierce that year and that there was simply no room to accommodate a screening of said rejected title.
Too fucking bad, loser! MAKE ROOM!
In fact, there was one time where I had a film rejected by a major festival under the guise of there not being enough room, in spite of the fact that the programmer acknowledged the picture was just fine. Here, I was NOT going to accept this as an answer. I went above the head of the aforementioned arbiter of cinematic excellence and explained the situation to the Festival Director. The director in question, looked at the film, assessed the reasons for its exclusion, then decided that room HAD to be made for the picture.
This, is what I call a mensch.
Alas, there are others who will not sully themselves with such matters. They set up a military-government-corporate-style chain of command within their organization so they don't have to deal with issues which might upset their hallowed apple-cart.
These, I call cowards. They hide behind the bureaucracy they've created. They will use "policy" and "process" as their buffer of weasel-like protectionism. Sometimes, they won't even taint their process with needing to provide ANY reason at all.
To this I say, yet again, in my best John Huston impersonation, "BALLS!"
I have no use or respect for "policy" and "process" since it is the very thing that justifies cowardice.
I have no use or respect for martinets who hide behind "policy" and "process".
I especially have no respect for "policy" and "process" that hides behind committee decisions. It's been proven time and time again that good movies cannot be made by committee and frankly, the same goes for pretty much anything and everything. Committees are fraught with compromise. They're also a smokescreen for the real decision-makers to cower behind if and when the going gets really tough.
Now, I will say that I'm being especially harsh with film festivals and it's incumbent upon me now to declare that my aforementioned criticisms extend to virtually every nook and cranny of the film world. (In fact, this pretty much goes for any bureaucracy - government or corporate. They'll come up with some bullshit reason so they don't have to tell you the truth and/or risk betraying their ignorance - or worse, risk exposing that they're wrong. A bullshit excuse pretty much masks all that.)
It's sickening, really.
But here's the thing about festivals - I hold film festivals far above the standards applied by other segments of the film business. I expect them to be perched upon a pedestal, towering over studios, distributors, exhibitors, financiers, government investment/funding/production entities, industry awards and yes, even film critics (mainstream and alternative film criticism has become especially horrendous in respect to "knowing its shit"). I expect - nay, I DEMAND higher standards from festivals, especially now that they have become the manner in which alternative visions will be seen and celebrated by the world at large.
When good festivals make stupid decisions based on politics, lack of available space and NOT KNOWING THEIR SHIT, when they hide behind policy, process and committees to avoid admitting their cowardice (and/or stupidity), then I really and truly look upon this as yet another nail in the coffin of civilization.
The decline, ladies and gentlemen, is not imminent.
It's already upon us.
As Edward Albee placed, as a chant of despair during the final act of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf":
"…sad, sad, sad."