A moment of true cognitive dissonance: at the same time as I attend the vast Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference in New Orleans — where numerous panels attest to the growing scholarly interest in the international phenomenon of Film Festivals — I begin to see, on-line and in print, the first (and probably only) reports to be filed on this year's Rotterdam Film Festival, which I also attended.
We have all probably had this disconcerting experience: reading a report of a Festival you were at, and wondering incredulously, 'did this author go to the same event?' For me, Rotterdam, although it was not a 'peak performance' year, was nonetheless its usual treasure-chest of unknown, fascinating, odd and compelling discoveries — some of the best of which were to be found in the XL art/film installations spread diligently throughout the city.
Film Festival reportage, even in the best and most intelligent magazines, tends not to reflect such curious, wandering-through experiences. Coverage of Festivals is almost always brief, cursory, predictable, grudging. A handful of Competition films are evaluated, mention is made of key Retrospectives, a general thumbs-up-or-down comment is volunteered — plus, there may be a colourful touristic comment on the city where the festival takes place. 500 to 750 words, and it's all wrapped up.
For the editors and publishers of cinema magazines, Film Festival coverage is an irritating obligation. It is tied to 'news value' — and if an event like Rotterdam doesn't have a dozen amazing premiere presentations, forget it. This is why magazines slavishly follow the brutal hierarchy of the Festival circuit: Cannes gets all the space, Berlin and Venice a little less, Rotterdam and Locarno and Pusan less still... and then, way down the list, Melbourne, Jeonju or Thessaloniki will be lucky to get a few summary paragraphs — which will often, these days, be shoved into the veritable ghetto of the 'on-line exclusive' leftover bin.
It was not always like this. In key moments of the history of film-critical publishing, we find magazines such as Filmnews (Australia) and Framework (UK) in the 1980s, or Cinema Scope (Canada) consistently since the late '90s, taking on this cultural mission and delving deeply into festivals big and small, conservative and progressive, speedily cosmopolitan and fiercely local. On-line-only film sites should have followed the model of these historic examples but, in the majority of cases, they have not. A month after any Festival is over, it registers as 'old news' worthy only of a Variety-style instant salute or put-down.
One of the problems of Film Festival coverage is that it tends to be written by jet-setting types with short attention spans, only a few days to take in the event, and a restless hunger for the 'new thing' in global terms. What is forgotten in this speedy mania is the Festival as a unique experience for many different kinds of local or out-of-town viewers: what did it mean for Dutch cinephiles to see, for instance, the amazing FJ Ossang retrospective this year in Rotterdam?
Festivals need to be covered from many angles, in a cubistic mosaic. Retrospectives and special events (such as the XL exhibition) deserve special, extended, reflective essays — not just press-release previews. Critics should be on the lookout for the strange, small, unlikely-to-travel new films, not just the limelight premieres. Coverage needs to recapture the long-lost sense of personal discovery — and drop the blasé, been-there-done-that, world-weary tone.