As a follow-up to the post below… here is a personal essay that I wrote for an academic book on festivals. It did not fit in, so here it is for you, a reflection on what is written on documentary festivals from outside and inside – promotion, reports but real critique on the festivals, does that exist? Hope it is interesting for you. (Photo from this year’s ZagrebDox).
But first some film-biographical stuff: You need to know a bit about my background as a festival visitor, organiser and reporter/critic. Yes, I have a close relationship to the world of documentary film festivals. I have been privileged to cooperate with colleagues in Denmark to set up and conduct several national and international festivals in my own country. One of them changed my film life, the Balticum Film & TV Festival on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. It came to life as a consequence of the fall of Soviet Union and ran from 1990-2000, when the Danish support to the independence of the Baltic countries around 1990 made it possible to start the festival with financing from our government,. Voilá, we started a festival for the countries around the Baltic Sea. Many of
the filmmakers from the Baltic countries travelled for the first time abroad to meet colleagues from the West – and Russian colleagues as well. It created a forum for debate on film language and issues to be dealt with. A new way of talking about documentary films. A stream of new stories were presented to us. Stories that could not be told during the USSR.
… the festival was very well received by the Danish press, and I dare say that several of the Danish critics got their documentary ”education” through this festival, including myself, who saw films by Herz Frank, Juris Podnieks, Mark Soosaar, Audrius Stonys, Arunas Matelis, Sergey Dvortsevoy, Viktor Kossakovski, all from the Baltic countries and Russia, as well as films by Swedish and Finnish masters like Roy Andersson, Jan Troell and Pirjo Honkasalo. It was a big inspiration to try to communicate about documentary films differently. It meant a lot for the level of writing about documentaries. For many it moved the way of looking at documentaries away from the understanding of the genre as ”just” a kind of journalism.
It also gave me the chance to meet brilliant critics from Russia. I was at the Riga Documentary Symposium where Soviet educated academic critics had quite different, impressive analytical skills, when it came to debate the films shown. At that time in the big empire, at least, there were film magazines, which were supported by the state and which published longer and deeper articles from festivals or meetings like the one in Latvia.
Later on I have been co-programming the Magnificent7 festival in Belgrade (7 films, high informational/promotional level) for 10 years, I have been advising the Message2Man in St. Petersburg and I am a programmer for the DocsBarcelona. My work has brought me to the two big festivals for documentaries, idfa in Amsterdam and DOKLeipzig for the last couple of decades.
I have been writing for Danish newspapers, for the DOX Magazine and now, for seven years, www.filmkommentaren.dk has been my, almost daily documentary writing ”location”, in different styles. Most of the time in the journalistic genre, sometimes also longer and deeper, if I may say so myself!
Festival Reporting or Critique
This is a classical question that all editors and reporters have put to themselves: How to cover a festival? I have written dozens of texts from festivals and I have always been doubtful on which road to take. Have to admit that I have frequently ended up making reports that are full of title-dropping and on-the-spot anecdotes because you expect that the reader wants to have the full picture to know about the repertory. They want words about the films chosen by the festival. The intention has been to be able to make an overall evaluation of the festival and its programming competence. The result however has quite often been a text that is very compact and boring to read…
… because you can’t give all films the same treatment so the compromise is that you highlight some films, the winners or those you think should have won, and then you list the rest with one or two words attached.
This is normal film journalism that you can find in newspapers or in film magazines or on websites/blogs.
When it comes to going-deeper film critique you very seldom see that in connection with festivals, and festival critique is an even more rarely genre to find.
A popular genre of reporting from a festival is the more personal, anecdotal more or less, born out of new journalism, where the reporter writes in first person and tries to convey an atmosphere. I have done that again and again especially in connection with the Magnificent7 festival in Belgrade that this year celebrated its 10th edition. Here is an example from that edition:
”The morning after the opening of the 10th edition of Magnificent 7 Festival in Belgrade. The sky is clear but the wind outside is close to become a hurricane. A constant sound of wind enters the hotel room and is mixed in my head with the sound of ”Leviathan”, the first film of the 2014 selection, a film that brought an almost physical experience to many of us, who felt like ”being there” (as Richard Leacock always said was his ambition with his films) in this case on board a boat where fish of all kind end their lives, a drama it is, conveyed in a visual language that sometimes takes your mind away from the boat into surrealistic paintings and back again with a sound track that sits in you the whole way through this interpretation of Death.” (http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/2624/)
In other words: Kilroy was here, he had an experience to share with the reader.
Back to festival criticism = a look upon and an assessment of the anatomy of a festival The way it is constructed, the focus, the awards, the jury system if any, the uniqueness compared to other festivals. Let me give an example from a festival that launches itself pretty much with superlatives, Sheffield Doc/Fest. I looked at their programme for the festival (2011) part and wrote this:
”Stunning film programme? I checked the film list, and if you hope for a wide spread of quality documentaries from all over the world, you will get disappointed. There are no films from Latin America, there are no films from a leading European documentary country like Austria, there is one 10 minutes film from Russia, some insignificant films from Denmark, nothing from Czech Republic… but if you search for UK and US films you will have loads to choose from. Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Broomfield, Eugene Jarecki, Steve James. Stunning, no, international, no, if the organisers think so, one can only say that the selection is lousy, the festival is still totally dominated by English/American language films. Fair enough but do not market it differently!”
I could by the way write the same for the 2014 edition, again I checked the countries represented and saw one film from Poland, one film from Hungary, one from Russia, the rest of Eastern Europe is not in the programme… It’s basically anglo-saxon, Martin Scorcese and the rest of the gang. Why do they call it ”international”?
This is an area to be much more looked into. Festivals are growing like mushrooms, and documentary ones even more as the documentary film experiences a golden age in terms of innovation and interest from an audience. For those writing and those editing there is a responsibility to evaluate the selection and get the most interesting festivals up front.
If you – as many – consider a film festival as an exhibition of that special art as is the documentary film, it would be natural that it is reviewed as such which is much more the case for visual art exhibitions than for film festivals.
The question in that respect is of course if your point of view comes from you as a critic (focus on film selection, competition programmes etc.), or you put yourself in as a visitor, who expects to be serviced – information about the films, tickets available, prices, quality of Q&A, sectioning of the films… etc.
Professional or not, it is not easy to go to the big festivals. What to choose? I do not remember a festival visit during the last 10 years, where I did not meet friends, who said: Please, give me some tips, what should I see? Veeery difficult question to answer, there is a lot of vonhörensagen that I can pass on, there are directors whose work I know, there are film descriptions that appeal to me… but how to advice if there are 100 or 200 or 300 films offered? Plunge into the ocean of titles and hope for a good swim!
The festivals recognise the problem and have started on their sites to have the staff – or others – come up with some recommendations, and another ”modern” tool is being used: If you have seen this film, you could also watch… Is that the right service ot should the festival rather limit their number of films to be shown?
For the documentary film festivals right now, and they are really many, if you talk about an international programme selection, I would mention idfa Amsterdam, DOKLeipzig, Visions du Réel Nyon, Cinéma du Réel, cph:dox – all of these come up with new films, well they mostly demand world premieres, whereas many other fine festivals like ZagrebDox, DocLisboa, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival visit the above mentioned to pick the best for their profile to have a selection to be praised for the focus on Quality.
All of them have websites which are informative, some more than others – I have for years been impressed by the way the press-conferences in Thessaloniki are covered, long in-depth summaries of what was said by the directors. Very giving, if you are not able to be there yourself.
Festival Journalism and Critique
The festivals do a lot themselves for their audiences to add to what the visitor/viewer/spectator can find in the catalogue or on the website of the festival. The publishing of video interviews from Q&A-sessions are more and more done, and is good to learn from. Furthermore it creates a culture of film enthusiasm and seriousness around the festival, the same goes for the ”journal of the day” as we see it at idfa, just to mention one example.
Another one is the one published by Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, in many ways a festival with its own, original profile created by the director Marek Hovorka. Their DOKRevue
aims at being of high-quality with theoretical articles, deeper interview, reviews, mostly with a focus on Czech and Slovak works.
However, apart from the mentioned DOKRevue, you have to remember that these journalistic texts and videos are made by journalists, who are employed by the festival so the aim is to give valuable, intelligent background material to the reader before/after he/she has seen the film in question. The starting point, in other words, is promotion. Not critique.
To sum up I am afraid it is not really possible to say that an independent film festival critique exists. The one that comes from ”inside” = the festivals themselves is more promotion than critique but can absolutely be of fine informational quality like those written by the journalistic staff of idfa, always with a signature. The DOX magazine that I had the privilege to be one of the founders of, has published its number 100, and refrains from having too many festival reports. Rather the tendency is that films that have been seen at bigger festivals are being reviewed in DOX. No objections to that.