Why film festivals survive, explains Melbourne fest chief

Thiruvananthapuram, Dec 10 (IANS) The “tension between purists and popularists” always seems to bring in a sophisticated and dedicated audience to watch “unknown and dangerous” movies at film festivals regardless of their commercial success, according to Claire Dobbin, chair of the Melbourne film festival.

“Film festivals offer a very different viewing experience, focussed on bringing the best of new world cinema, rather than box office hits, to audiences,” Dobbin, a script advisor and editor in Australia, said at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).

Dobbin, who works with development agencies and filmmakers in Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Abu Dhabi, Yemen, India, Britain and France, said film festivals were “portals of new talent and predictors of new directions in cinema”.

She was also the chief mentor at an IFFK workshop for young film professionals.

Recalling an incident at the Melbourne film fest in 2009, she said: “Only a film festival can screen films with dangerous ideas, and controversial international events.”

“We were completely unprepared for the response we got for screening a documentary on Uyghur activists in northwest China in 2009.

“Our ticketing website was hacked, and all the Chinese filmmakers withdrew from the festival,” said Dobbin, who has worked in Australian films like “Candy”, “Mallboy”, “Road to Nhill”, “Small Treasures”, “Rabbit Proof Fence”, “Japanese Story”, “Blame” and “Hermano”.

But she said the organisers did not back down and the audience queued up for hours to watch the films showcased there.

“The attempt to close us down backfired and we received global support for our spirited response and our freedom to choose the films that we wanted to screen.

“The story of the website hacking went global. It was in the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, CNN… It put the film festival in the midst of a political and media maelstrom,” Dobbin said.

Tracing the history and evolution of film festivals and the global political, cultural and economic impact that they leave, Dobbin spoke about the survival of festivals in the age of digitalization.

“And while the rise of digital cinema came as a threat to festivals, the shared cinema experience that the latter offers cannot be substituted.”

“Film festivals announce new work, new talent. There are a lot of career-making opportunities at a film festival… sales agents, distributors. A film festival is not only a predictor but a creator of success,” said Dobbin, who is also a senior script executive at the Australian Film Commission.

She presented the example of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that was presented at the Sundance film festival and was later nominated for an Oscar.

On Oscar winner for best film “Slumdog Millionaire”, she said that after it won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, the makers avoided the “going straight to DVD” option.

“The movie launched at the Toronto festival brought in a lot of international distributors and sales agents,” she said, and also congratulated Kerala’s “very own” Resul Pookutty, who won the Oscar for best sound mixing for the film.

“This also proves how a film launched at a festival can lead to awards and recognition,” she said.

This, however, does not mean that a film festival is away from controversies.

“Film festivals have quasi-political status in some countries. Controversies emerge about film selection, juries, awards etc. Festivals have become a mixture of art and politics, plus art and commerce.”

Mussolini had launched “film clubs” during his regime, but they were used to portray his “thinly disguised political propaganda”, she said.

A “blasphemous” film by a Spanish filmmaker at a festival once led the Vatican to call up the Spanish government that led to the sacking of a minister.

Dobbin also spoke about “Battle of Algiers”, a film on the French occupation of Algeria that could not be screened in Cannes.

“It was screened at the Venice film festival, and also awarded, which led to a walkout by the French delegation,” she said.

Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard were once in favour of shutting down Cannes to protest the “commercial attitude” of the film festival. Roman Polanski also withdrew his film from the festival.

“There will always be tension between purists and popularists, and that’s why audiences flock to film festivals to look at unknown and dangerous films. That’s why film festivals survive. Long may they prosper,” she said.

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