4 April 2009
Centre for Film Studies (CFS),
University of St Andrews, Scotland

This workshop was a knowledge-transfer and outreach event, part of Dynamics of World Cinema: Transnational Channels of Global Film Distribution, a Leverhulme Trust sponsored project led by Prof. of Film Studies Dina Iordanova at the University of St Andrews.

The CFS and the Department of Film Studies at St Andrews, leaders in Film Studies in the UK and Europe, are interested and involved in discussing Film Festivals for three main reasons:

  • Film Festivals have been proliferating around the world for at least two decades
  • There is a growing scholarly interest in these events, and yet
  • Film Festivals as a subject matter remains a neglected field of study

In this line of thought, St Andrews’ own research context for Dynamics of World Cinema tries to look at all channels of distribution and exhibition of diverse cinematic material traditionally neglected, including diasporic channels and Internet-enabled distribution. Of course, Film Festivals constitute one of these channels, and the project wishes to investigate and highlight it more.

After a few words of warm welcome, Dina Iordanova opened the workshop by reiterating its objective, i.e. to come up with ideas conducive to furthering work on Film Festivals. There were no formal presentations, and ideas coming from the audience were as much valued as those of the thirteen, mostly high-profile, panel members. A selection of articles, to be published as The Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit (Centre for Film Studies/University of St Andrews, May 2009), had been sent to selected participants prior to the workshop, this reviewer included. This is credit to Iordanova’s style of leadership and conception of the workshop, i.e. to not compromise on excellence but to also welcome everyone’s contribution: distinguished scholars, students, journalists, critics and Film Festival directors and casual staff.

The International Film Festival WorkshopThe Workshop was divided into three inter-connected sessions, moderated each by two panel members:

1. The Field of Film Festival Studies – Dina Iordanova and Richard Porton (Editor of Cineaste magazine, USA)

2. Festivals as Distribution and Exhibition Networks – Stuart Cunningham (Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology, Australia) and Nick Roddick (Sight & Sound magazine, UK)

3. New Directions in Festivals and Festival Studies – Michael Gubbins (Screen International) and Ruby Cheung (Associate Researcher, Dynamics of World Cinema, University of St Andrews)

The aim of this report is to summarise and evaluate critically each of the workshop’s sessions. It will also offer theoretical reflections in connection to articles circulated prior to the event.

The Field of Film Festival Studies

This session focused on challenges facing scholarly research on festivals, with an accent on research methodologies (for example, case studies vs meta-analysis) and the crossover potential between scholars, journalists and professionals.

Marijke de Valck, Richard Porton and Dina Iordanova

If Film Festivals over-proliferate and the term “International” is a prerequisite for boosting any festival, then Richard Porton asked pertinent questions: “What is the contribution of Film Festivals to film culture? Why has the Film Festival become important or may be important in the future?” Porton’s questions were deflected by Marijke de Valck (University of Amsterdam) and Skadi Loist (Universität Hamburg) who cautioned that it might be too early to talk about “studies” in relation to “the many-headed monster called film festival”, (1) and that sketching out a framework, before moving on to conduct more focused research, might be a better methodological approach. Porton queried whether or not the connection between cinephilia and film festivals is a contemporary trend, and de Valck and Loist agreed by pointing out that reception studies and interdisciplinary approaches are central to studying Film Festivals. Yet Porton asked whether or not these can include anthropological studies of festivals or the idea of “dystopian festival”. Not only did de Valck agree with Porton, she argued as well for the need to go back to thinkers like Émile Durkheim. Given that de Valck and Loist’s above-mentioned article takes “the idea of festivals as sites of intersecting discourses and practices as [a] conceptual starting point”, it is bound to offer axes and categories, as was Durkheim’s classification and interpretation of hierarchies. (2)

However, because Durkheim’s model and legacy granted European scholars, mainly in England and France, the illusionary responsibility to shape Africans’ knowledge, is there a risk that the field of Film Festival Studies becomes Durkheimian? I would think not because Iordanova noted that de Valck and Loist’s useful bibliography is faced with a hypertext-type of challenge since they present an axis/vertical and category/horizontal model, while there are already many overlaps between Film Festival Studies and other areas like Management theory, Creative Industries, Anthropology, Cultural Policy, and International Relations.

Iordanova’s ensuing argument that Film Festival Studies needed “discourse” analysis more than interdisciplinarity allowed David Slocum (Steinbeis University, Germany) to warn against a disciplinary sectioning of the expansive concept of Film Festivals which, as a field, need not be defined either. Slocum’s contribution to the Film Festival Yearbook 1 (3) is useful in this respect, particularly its exploration of “how an annual or bi-annual event … can be approached as a site where common meanings and understandings are communicated and explored and also viewed as an alternative to the various and expanding array of distribution practices for commercial films in Africa”. Slocum’s economic-cultural angle is echoed in Nick Roddick’s who suggests we look carefully at Film Festivals’ economic structure or function. Michael Gubbins followed this up by invoking the digital change as both a metaphor for “I want access” and a way of defining the Film Festival.

This “intertextual spectacle”, intertextual because many people experience Film Festivals through TV, according to Lucy Mazdon (University of Southampton), accents the notion of mediation. Mediation is nonetheless useless when basic data on Film Festivals is inexistent. Thus, to argue like Stuart Cunningham that “every basic parameter we can understand in order to study Film Festivals is inexistent” may mean taking an extreme view on this mushrooming field. Simultaneously, however, such a view combines well with what precedes to signal that Film Festivals will never be a homogenous field. In fact, Iordanova’s closing summary for this session, “networks or types of festivals”, or “A list of various parallel circuits”, (4) corroborated this fact. Classificatory categories Iordanova identified include “networks of type … festivals of local survey … diasporic festivals … or even events following their own idiosyncratic agenda, like [the] one in the tiny sardine-factory town of Douarnenez in Brittany, France, which has persisted over more than three decades with its interest in minority cultures from around the world”, (5) to name a few.

Festivals as Distribution and Exhibition Networks

Session Two was premised on the following key questions: are festivals independent distributors or spaces for commercial distributors? What was the impact of festivals on digital distribution? How does the festival as exhibition space connect to other alternative exhibition formats as well as the growth of Hollywood and corporate-owned venues?

Stuart Cunningham and Nick Roddick

Nick Roddick explained that smaller festivals have to pay screening fees of up to $2,000 and that exhibition needed to be differentiated from distribution which, at its most basic, is “the commercial handling of the film on commercial markets”. Today, Roddick added, distribution means that a distributor pays money to distribute a film in a single territory (not country), an obsolete strategy due to the internet and similar media.

The point is that digital distribution has an impact on alternative distribution channels and, therefore, on Film Festivals. That impact, Stuart Cunningham suggested, is part of the conceptual and theoretical framing of Film Festival Studies. Cunningham’s next point, working around the spatial disposition of Film Festivals, brought the question of “liveness” or when events are organised for human beings to come together and observe each other. This liveness-through-film idea linked up well with Janet Harbord’s (Goldsmith’s College, University of London) thoughts on “Time”, particularly the time of the then (the film’s) and the time of the now (the festival’s): how do festivals produce and re-invent time? After all, the festival is primarily an exhibition circuit because, as Cunningham argued, the festival circuit/service differs from other types like “repertory TV” and film archives, and we should be looking at how they relate to one another.

Instrumental in bringing certain films to our attention, festivals and the people involved in running them are not static. Moreover, the festival’s audience is mobile, if not nomadic, and it makes sense to argue that films circulate because people circulate. In this line of thought, Lucy Mazdon suggested that we should introduce a historical dimension in the discussion of distribution and exhibition. Thus, we would be in a position to answer the question “exhibition from whom to whom, and for what?” as well as consider “people as the circuit” (Mazdon).

It follows that, we should consider the impact of festivals in relation to which films are s(cr)een(ed), an important question because, as Irene Bignardi (Film Italia) strongly argued, film festivals are like publishing houses, i.e. there are big ones and small ones. Size and nature matter, and so does the understanding that too much circulation in the festival circuit can kill a film. Will Brown (University of St Andrews) asked if the film festival as liveness is an extension of the DVD we study? De Valck answered that the festival screening, although in a public space, is a “normal screening”, “an individual experience”, even if the spectator is there as part of a festival audience (not at the movies). This was an important distinction to make for Núria Triana Toribio (University of Manchester) who thinks that the cinephilic-collective experience around the festival film screening, e.g. when buying tickets, is more rewarding than the film screening per se.

New Directions in Festivals and Festival Studies

Ruby Cheung and Michael Gubbins

The last session probed issues around new work being produced on festivals; how new developments in festival management and academic research relate; and the issue of developing spaces within festival research that are conducive to dialogue.

At the very start, the session gave a sense that “methodologies” is inescapable when Michael Gubbins pointed out how important it is to consider the ethical nature of studying Film Festivals (a point echoed by other discussants) while Ruby Cheung raised the issue of boundaries: how, from an academic/Film Studies point of view, is the field of Film Festival Studies going to be narrowed down or broadened?

The ensuing discussion elected to widen rather than narrow down issues around new directions. Lindiwe Dovey (SOAS, University of London) wondered if we can call Film Festival Studies a “field” when festivals are organised around race, sexuality, gender and class, to name a few. Toribio went further by pointing out her interest in “just” Film Festivals as an area, not in “disciplines” and, in the same process, raised the crucial methodological question of how one gets into Film Festival Studies. Toribio’s own trajectory went through National and Transnational Cinema Studies (Spanish and Latin American), hence her being well placed to highlight the Anglocentric bias at play in the mapping of Film Festival Studies because a lot of materials are not translated.

Similarly, Iordanova gave the example of the 1970s Tashkent Film Festival that many Third World/African filmmakers attended. Research on anti-colonialism and African cinema, Iordanova went on to argue, is out there and Film Festival researchers should make efforts to bring it together. To do this would be a political act akin to Slocum’s suggestion that, as ideological constructs, Film Festival Studies need to rethink the relationship between culture and politics: “what political work are film festivals doing?”, asked Slocum.

For Mazdon, interdisciplinary case studies are “a way forward” before one can begin to consider methodological issues. However, the debate was already moving towards the question of mapping out a field for Film Festival Studies. Indeed, Stuart Cunningham suggested that such a mapping is both a material and an ideation issue. In other words, the lateral axis is as important as the vertical axis (cultural memory and political matters, for example), and the field of Film Festival Studies is bound to ask questions not specific to Film Studies. Iordanova agreed that the work could not be done without the industry’s practitioners.

What then would the new directions for Film Festival Studies be? Irene Bignardi suggested that the next gathering should be about what festivals do, i.e. financing, jury formation, relation with the press, catalogues, programming, cultural attitudes and the future of festivals, while Iordanova observed that both general approaches and case studies needed to be discussed further in a two-day event. However, how could one map out a way forward for Film Festival Studies without considering the fact that funding is a major problem and has become much more conditional? It certainly is a big issue for the London African Film Festival, an event that may not happen annually because of funding issues (money always comes “with strings attached”, according to Rosa Abidi). Consequently, a new direction of Film Festivals may well be “amateur or vernacular festivals” such as Anime, according to Janet Harbord. Alternatively, in order to survive, Film Festivals can be merged/have merged with music festivals. In the meantime, Richard Porton argued that more journalistic and academic writing on Film Festivals is required because the latter’s communiqués cannot be trusted and, from Cineaste’s point of view at least, promoting the distribution of films “that may not otherwise get one”.

Concluding Thoughts

As a way of ending this report, I would like to offer thoughts based on the workshop’s proceedings:

• Film Festival Studies are more likely to become a field than a discipline.

• The International Film Festival Workshop and the Dynamics of World Cinema project are, in content and perspective, non-Anglocentric, hence their potential to lead current debates in the field of Film Festival Studies.

• Dina Iordanova suggests that, “In a context of decreasing importance of theatrical distribution, with the introduction of further technological developments, and the ongoing shift of cultural consumption into the ‘Long Tail’ domain (Anderson, 2006), it is possible that festivals as well will be reinvented in some new viable alternative forms”. (6) I would add that Iordanova and her research associates (Ragan Rhyne, Ruby Cheung and Thomas Gertenmeyer), journalists and other academics who attended the International Film Festival Workshop are re-inventing how we perceive Film Festivals. Given that the well-attended, successful 4th April event asked more questions than it could begin to answer, more similar gatherings need to be arranged so that burning issues facing Film Festival Studies like ideology, hybridity, digital distribution can be explored further.

International Film Festival Workshop website: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/scfvs/index.php/events/34-conferences/68-festworkshop

Endnotes

  1. From Loist and de Valck’s “Film Festival Studies: An Overview of a Burgeoning Field”, published in Dina Iordanova and Ragan Rhyne (eds), The Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit (Centre for Film Studies/University of St Andrews, May 2009) ©
  2. Durkheim’s work, especially on so-called primitive societies, is epistemologically and ideologically problematic in terms of classifying and interpreting hierarchies. Durkheim and his legacy contribute ‘philosophical interpretations about a hierarchy of civilizations’ (Mudimbe 1988: 69) only to justify, on biological and cultural grounds, Europe’s superiority vis-à-vis Africa (and other so called primitive societies). For further details, refer to Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse/The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Paris: Aclan, 1912) and V. Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
  3. Title: “Film and/as Culture: Imagining Communities and Markets at African Film Festivals” ©
  4. As it is called in her article “The Film Festival Circuit”, published in Dina Iordanova and Ragan Rhyne (eds), The Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit (Centre for Film Studies/University of St Andrews, May 2009) ©
  5. From “The Film Festival Circuit” © Dina Iordanova
  6. From “The Film Festival Circuit”, © Dina Iordanova

About The Author

Dr Saër Maty Bâ is a Teaching Fellow of Film at the University of St Andrews where he convenes modules in Film History, World Cinema, and Film Theory.

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