Tonight let’s all curate a movie

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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SNOW, winner of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique (curated by French critics) and shown at IFFR

Curating a programme and being a critic are two very different animals. Keep the critics out of curating and vice versa. It will only be to the benefit of all involved, pleads Austrian film critic Claudia Siefen.

It has become an undeniable fact, or let me say a sort of undeniable naughtiness, that for financial reasons film critics feel forced to resort to a second mainstay. Film festivals and film museums worldwide rub their hands, because the situation is to their benefit. Institutions like these no longer feel the need to hire full-time curators for their programming and save themselves the regular salary that goes with it.
But this situation is getting out of control. It has been accepted too easily by critics themselves: a reliable film critic is of course well-versed in film history and should be able to assemble an interesting and relevant programme. In their daily work they are close to the audience, so a programme curated by a film critic is an almost guaranteed success. But where will it lead festivals and museums if they are no longer willing to give their programme a golden thread? It’s a double-edged sword: it is a film critic’s job to analyze the contemporary film market, armed with a knowledge that needs to grow over time. Not the least important duty of the critic is to inform the audience in the most independent way.
Based on that hopefully tremendous knowledge, curating should become an exciting thing, as his know-how assures a programme that reflects its time, history and the debates going on around it in society. The reality, however, looks different. Most film critics work freelance and keeping up to date with filmmakers’ development requires financial effort. Yes, you need money to travel to festivals and a few articles and interviews hardly cover these expenses.
Then there is the fact that most critics rely on the same festivals to find new and fresh cinema, but strolling around Berlin, Cannes and Venice is fine as long a critic knows what he is talking and writing about. Finding a fresh cinema too often means having to explain a certain filmmaker’s work to a museum or to another festival’s director. And I guess I don’t have to talk about the awkward experience of having to explain the basics of film history or contemporary cinema to someone who runs a film festival. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved in conducting a festival or running a museum all year round, which leaves little room for idealism.

Rough market
We should never lose focus of what these festivals are all about: the movies. So it seems that what is screened during the next season has become a matter of personal taste, and not only of what has been produced for the screen in the previous months. Some critics have a circle of befriended directors, so they will be always informed about a new work immediately. Too often, we can sense those friendships from watching a programme and finding out who curated it. It is a rough market where everyone needs to fight hard for survival. I don’t have a problem with that. But as long as you find festival organizers who don’t feel the need to keep themselves familiar with critics who have something to say, it seems needed. Just strolling around festivals shouldn’t be enough. I know a few critics, for example, who are at home in the Italian film scene, and spend several months out of the year in Italy. They possess reliable specialist knowledge that avoids a pure rumination of other programmes seen during the previous year. But this is taking too much of a risk, I guess.
Which brings me back to the point that curating and being a critic are two very different animals! Keep the critics out of curating and vice versa. It will only be to the benefit of all involved. Festivals and museums will start to realize that curating is a hard job that requires working close to the audience but in an academic fashion. And that it is a job that deserves to be paid regularly and not just as a one-off for a single film or programme. This will also ensure the independence of film critics, the way it should be. It may surprise some people, but under these conditions a high-quality programme is almost guaranteed. I say it again: if writing film criticism and curating were jobs that were paid properly, they would automatically create reliable professionals. We have to take the popular view of cinema, which means an elevated sense of responsibility toward the audience. Festivals and programmes should not become the playground of a select group of eccentric busybodies and their personal matters. The audience deserves better. Cinema deserves better.
It is never too late.

Claudia Siefen

Claudia Siefen, based in Vienna, Austria, works as a film critic and catalogue editor. Most of her work deals with film history and is also grounded on her work as a film editor.