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Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made

In The Independent, Stephen Kessler’s exuberant and occasionally hilarious new send-up of downscale filmmaking, Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a schlockmeister who has never allowed deficiencies in funding or taste to deter him from making a movie. When theaters refuse to show Fineman’s work, he applies to film festivals. Though he is rejected by 100 festivals, he finally finds one willing, for a price, to showcase his oeuvre–an event called the High Desert Film Festival held in a small Nevada town whose main industry is legalized prostitution.

Not all filmmakers are whores, nor are all festivals brothels. But the world is replete with so many of both that a desert tribute to a desperate director is not implausible. As surely as deserts disappear and shopping malls take their place, film festivals are proliferating throughout the planet. Their number now exceeds the annual production of feature films in the United States. If you attended a different festival every day, you could not hit them all, even during leap year. For a life spent flitting into and out of screening rooms on every continent, all it takes is time, money, and Murine. Between Miami in February and Brussels in March, you could still catch a flick on the plane. Running the Hawaii International Film Festival every November is probably only slightly less complicated than directing Pearl Harbor–or the bombing of the military base. But movies are portable and compact, and film festivals do not require nearly as much capital or staff as arts events with opera companies and theater troupes. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a film festival!” is what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might shout if they were babes in arms today (or if they were civic leaders eager to put their town on the same circuit as Hong Kong, Seattle, Munich, Sydney, and Guadalajara).

Attending film festivals is part of the job for Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times. He admits that battling through throngs to see five films a day on deadline is not an undiluted pleasure. Besides, the variety of cinematic offerings available to Turan on an ordinary day in Los Angeles already makes his city, as well as New York and Paris, seem like a perpetual film festival that people living elsewhere (say, south Texas) would be willing to travel long distances to attend. But Turan has been around the globe a few times, and in Sundance to Sarajevo he shares his lively observations about several particular film festivals as well as about the species.

The book’s twelve chapters each concentrate on a different festival, and, although he starts with Cannes, Turan does not include many of the other major venues such as New York, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin. He makes brief reference to the Austin Film Festival’s focus on screenwriting but no mention at all of Austin’s larger and more influential South By Southwest Film Festival or of any other event in Texas, such as WorldFest Houston or CineFestival, San Antonio’s festival of Latino film. Turan’s choices–Cannes, Sundance, ShoWest, FESPACO, Havana, Sarajevo, Midnight Sun, Pordenone, Lone Pine, Telluride, Acapulco, and Montreal–reflect a wide range in the setting, function, and personality of film festivals. While primarily an account of Turan’s experiences at one specific festival, each chapter also offers discussion of the festival’s history and its relationship to its location. The chapter on Sarajevo, for example, not only describes the dramatic genesis of a festival in the midst of siege and combat but it also describes the extraordinary role that film has played in restoring the morale of isolated, war-weary Bosnians. The chapter on FESPACO, the Festival Pan-Africaine du Cinéma de Ouagadougou held in the capital of Burkina Faso, one of Africa’s poorest nations, offers Turan the opportunity to discuss production on that continent as well as the great importance of cinema to Africans, who, outside of this popular festival, almost never get to see films made by Africans. The chapter on Havana examines economic hardships that have forced closure of half of Cuba’s theaters and political pressures that have forced filmmakers to be wary. The book’s final chapter, an account of Turan’s experience as a juror at the Montreal World Film Festival, explains the proudly cosmopolitan character of that festival in terms of francophone Quebec’s resistance to English hegemony.

Most festivals are competitions–both within themselves (which is the fairest of this year’s features?) and among themselves (which of the hundreds of festivals offers the best films or the best time?). Festivals resound to the drone of promotional buzz. Turan himself succumbs to the kind of hyperbolic prose common to publicists for festivals and the films they exhibit. Almost every festival he chooses to spotlight is described in superlatives, sometimes inaccurately. It may be true that Montreal is “the largest publicly attended film festival in the Western world,” that Telluride is “the most respected small festival in the world,” and, because most other festivals offer screenings at night, that ShowWest is “the most fascinating, even the most significant dawn-to-dusk movie event in the country.” It may even be true that, as Turan claims, Montreal offers “the world’s best bagels” and even, as he suggests without affirming, that the Midnight Sun Festival in Sodankyla, Finland, offers the world’s best reindeer sausage sandwiches. However, the Super Bowl and the Oscars challenge Turan’s assertion that Cannes is “the world’s largest yearly media event.” He calls the Lone Pine Festival, whose entries are restricted to films–including High Sierra, Gunga Dun, Bad Day at Black Rock, Star Trek V, and hundreds of obscure Westerns–shot in the craggy landscape of the Alabama Hills in the eastern Sierras, “the most focused movie event in the world.” But is Cracow, which will not show a movie longer than thirty minutes, or Kiev’s Golden Knight Slavonic Film Festival, where entries are selected to promote Slavic brotherhood and Orthodox Christian values, any less focused? With attendance of about 40,000, FESPACO, insists Turan, “has become the preeminent African cultural event of any kind.” But the festival of all the arts held annually in Grahamstown, South Africa, is, with attendance of about 50,000, second in size on any continent only to Edinburgh.

Sundance, the Park City, Utah, launching pad for independent features, provided first exposure to Clerks, The Brothers McMullen, sex, lies and videotape, The Blair Witch Project, Big Night, The Usual Suspects, Crumb, and Hoop Dreams. Anticipation of additional discoveries has made Sundance what Turan calls “America’s preeminent film event.” From Sundance to Sarajevo evokes the heightened excitement each January in the overpopulated ski town, where satellite festivals–including Slamdance, Slamdunk, Lapdance, and No Dance–simultaneously screen works rejected for Sundance’s extremely competitive program. Yet while celebrating the “shaggy, countercultural” spirit of the place, Turan is critical of what, without providing definition or documentation, he calls its “unmistakable anticommercial bias.” Selecting films that will not be popular to a mass audience is, he contends, “a counterproductive exercise in artistic elitism that does the independent movement no good at all.”

It is a complaint he makes as well about Telluride, a festival held each Labor Day weekend in a magnificent old Colorado mining town. Film for film, Telluride, which lasts only four days, might present the strongest roster in the world. An invitation from the highly selective directors of Telluride, which conducts no competition, is itself a prize, and although the identity of each year’s offerings remains secret until the screenings begin, cinephiles travel long distances confident that the premieres that they view amid the alpine splendors of Telluride will justify the journey. Though prices for its passes have soared beyond the comfort level of middle-class patrons unassisted by expense accounts, Telluride has for most of its twenty-five years been a democracy of bleary eyes, in which celebrities mingled with everyone else in the ticket line and no one, not even critics, received special perks. Yet Turan grumbles about how the festival has become “exclusive,” “precious,” “claustrophobic,” and “elitist.” Would Telluride have been more egalitarian if, instead of introducing Stranger Than Paradise, Blue Velvet, Roger and Me, and El Norte, it had screened Independence Day, Police Academy, Lethal Weapon, and Pearl Harbor? The discerning crowds at Telluride would not have been pleased.

The most spirited chapter in Turan’s book is devoted to ShoWest, which is less a film festival than a trade extravaganza designed to acquaint theater managers with the latest products in their business, including candies, movies and toilet partitions. Held, appropriately, in Las Vegas, ShoWest celebrates commercialism. But so, too, does every multiplex in every shopping mall in America. The best of the festivals offer an alternative, the chance to discover uncommon work that might never be seen again outside the vital circuit from Sundance to Sarajevo.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is author of The Translingual Imagination.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST