Why Film Festivals Matter

One of the best things about winter in New Zealand is the Film Festival, and its always a lottery as to whether I’m flat out working at the time & have to juggle schedules to catch movies, or I’m between projects & can enjoy one of life’s pleasures of going to movies during the day. There is something fantastic about wandering out into daylight after spending a couple of hours in the dark, with the psychological residue of the film still floating around in your mind… I guess it brings back the feeling of childhood & going to matinee screenings of films during the day too…. But Film Festivals serve many purposes aside from the pure entertainment of seeing movies & I figured its maybe poignant to consider the significance of these other parallel functions…

Embassy Theatre photo credit here

The first aspect is a cultural one. I consider art to be a fundamental part of a nations identity, and cinema is a place where this is especially apparent: we get to see & hear other culture’s stories as well as our own. Relatedly I have always admired the French for the way they protect their culture. In New Zealand American culture can at times feel all pervasive, such is the marketing might of Hollywood. But at Film Festivals there is a level playing field: no matter the scale or budget of each film, they are billed equally. Quoting from a relevant article, this is also a timely reminder that a good story transcends budget. Accordingly one of the joys of Film Festivals is finding the unexpected gems; a good example would be a film I saw at the Film Festival a few years ago called 3 Iron which I went to solely on the basis that the film apparently had less than a dozen lines of dialogue… I loved the film & after the festival proceeded to check out the other films the director Kim Ki-duk had made as well as a number of other Korean directors…

The second aspect is professional. As someone who works in the film industry I think there is an inherent incentive to experience as many relevant films as possible, if for no other reason than to increase your exposure to a broad variety of film making. I’m always silently appalled when I ask someone who works in the industry what was their favourite film at the Festival & they reply, ‘none, I didn’t go to any.’ But then I’ve always been aware there are two types of people who work in the film industry; there are those who do it for the creative passion & then there are those for whom it is a job. I personally don’t understand how you can work in such a creatively demanding industry without having a desire to experience great works of art, for pleasure & as references, but I guess it takes all sorts…
An additional bonus at Festivals is that some directors travel with their films & I remember last year being incredibly impressed with the young Chinese director of a documentary called Up the Yanghtze who took part in a lengthy Q&A after the screening. It was enlightening to learn just what was involved in making a documentary such as this; both physically – the time & resources involved, but even more so, culturally. He shared much insight & it was amazing how a lot of hugely memorable scenes from the film took on even more resonance as he explained the context in which they were shot.

A third, unique aspect revolves around the kinds of films that are often only ever seen at festivals (or otherwise in ghastly pixelated low resolution forms online) An immediate example is short films – its always a safe bet going to screenings of short films as there are bound to be some you like, and if you don’t like them all well at least you don’t have to suffer for long! But I enjoy watching short films for the same reasons I like working on them; they employ all the techniques of feature films but the duration requires a clarity of vision that can be profound. Similarly experimental techniques can work in short form that may be insufferable over longer durations, but as always it is the idea & the narrative that succeeds… At the end of each Film Festival if I reflect on the personal highlights having been to a dozen or more screenings, it is usually a couple of feature films and a couple of short films that stay with me permanently. And that says a lot about the perceptual value of short films.

Another unique form of screenings I have enjoyed at previous festivals & have already tagged to attend at the upcoming festival is the live film event. Now film is film ie its already been shot & is being projected so there are obviously limits to how ‘live’ a screening can be visually, but the concept of a live soundtrack obviously dates back to the birth of film & it is fantastic to experience a contemporary take on it. At the upcoming NZ FIlm Festival there are screenings with live soundtracks happening in Auckland, Wellington & Dunedin, thanks to conductor/composer Timothy Brock and pianist/composer Neil Brand.
In Auckland Tim Brock will be conducting the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as they perform a newly restored score for Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Gold Rush. Tim Brock will also be providing piano accompaniment for the Fritz Lang film Spies. In Wellington Tim Brock will conduct the Vector orchestra as they perform Neil Brands ‘haunted house’ score for the 1927 silent classic, The Cat and the Canary & note: Neil will be performing on Theremin! And in both Wellington & Dunedin there will be live accompaniment for the Douglas Fairbanks film The Black Pirate.
In both Auckland & Wellington there will also be a live presentation of Neil Brand’s The Silent Pianist Speaks – quoting from the press release: ‘Neil Brand: Actor, writer and teacher, is also one of the finest exponents of improvised silent film accompaniment in the world. It’s that particular talent that he discusses and demonstrates in this funny, illuminating and entertainingly interactive show which he originally devised for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s a great primer on the ways music can direct our responses, but even seasoned musicians-for-film stand to learn something from the way Brand responds to a movie. The show culminates in a performance for footage he hasn’t seen, with him talking through the scoring process as he plays and struggles to make some sense of the film. His enthusiastic, generous and laconically unpretentious introduction reveals an artistry that’s much more extraordinary than he appears to realise.’

Another aspect of Film Festivals that may not be readily apparent to the average movie goer is that film festivals help films get made. This might seem like backwards logic, but a crucial part of securing funding for a film is about distribution and it is often via festivals that important distribution rights can be secured. This is obviously more prevalent in big market festivals like Cannes or Berlin, Toronto, Sundance etc but even in New Zealand achieving a screening can help films on their way to finding their audience. Variety magazine had an article about this very subject that is worth a read, especially the relevance to indie film makers.

And the last crucial aspect of attending Film Festivals I will leave for David Lynch to remind us of:

So book your tickets!

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