I have recently been dabbling in the relatively new area of Film Festival Research. Surprisingly, given that film festivals have been such a central part of cinema culture around the world for so long, there has been alarmingly little study of how they function as complex, social institutions — not just as showcases for this or that bunch of films, which is how they are almost always reviewed by critics.
So, a researcher goes looking for archives, traces. Of course, as with every institution, the history of a film festival is obscured: the arguments, pressures and multiple factors leading to any single decision remain largely secret. Even cracking open the old storage boxes containing minutes from internal board meetings is not necessarily going to unearth the mother lode. Much of the real history is going to be 'word of mouth' — and thus open to every distortion that individual memory and passion apply to the past and its record.
What we do sometimes have — and it is indeed valuable, even as just a symptom — is the official image that a festival gives of its (usually fabulous!) history. A growing number of festivals are using on-line platforms to display past catalogues, interviews with participants, essays and notes. This resource is to be welcomed. But beware: this 'official history' is going to hide many micro-stories, evidence of intense combats waged over the selection and meaning of particular films.
Let's take a case I happen to know something about. The Melbourne International Film Festival has established an excellent on-line archive. For each year, there is an introductory narrative, and a selection of major screenings — with a link to the original catalogue entries. In 1979, the 28th MIFF screened (only four years late) Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The unsigned catalogue essay, rather stiffly written, warbles on airily about "space and time", but does admit that this is "one of the most important works of modern cinema". Melbourne knew it had something great, right?
Here's the behind-the-scenes story: I wrote that catalogue entry, at age 19 (my first professional gig). I had not seen the film — which is hardly a new position for festival catalogue writers. MIFF Director of '79, the hallowed Erwin Rado, handed me a page from Variety to follow closely in my plot synopsis. Gulp! And he taunted me, as only Erwin could: he hated the film, had decided it was something only "pretentious, academic cinephiles" (he meant: people like me) could possibly like, and informed me he would "probably not screen it, after all". Even though the 35mm print was already sitting in the next room!
So I had to start begging — this was Erwin's sadistic mind-game — and I promised him a captive audience of film students, feminists, teachers, artists... in fact, the entire Melbourne élite! He gave in, eventually, and programmed a single screening — at 9 am on a cold, Sunday morning. Such was the glorious 'prime time' entry of Chantal Akerman into Australian film culture.
Vindication: it was a full house for Jeanne Dielman that Sunday at MIFF; my gamble proved correct. And Mr Rado was more than a little surprised at its success. Score One for the cinephile horde! But this was just one skirmish in a long, cultural war (which kept on going in Melbourne) — the kind of battle which marks the secret history of probably thousands of film festivals.
Rado (pictured bottom right with Iranian director Darius Mehrjui in 1973) — a remarkable person in many ways, and a crucial figure in the history of making Melbourne a cosmopolitan, cultured city — was, for instance, never a huge fan of the Nouvelle Vague (the rise of Godard greatly troubled him!). For him, Akerman was doubtless just another post-NV echo — as well as a sign of something new and avant-garde on the horizon that he could only dimly grasp. At least he had the good sense to finally screen Jeanne Dielman. How many other secret film festival stories are there, worldwide, about the films never projected?