From the Mind of Mikel

A University of Worcester Film Studies Blog

Archive for the category “Film Festivals”

Film Festivals as Spaces of Meaning: Researching Festival Audiences as Producers of Meaning

This is a paper I wrote a number of years ago. It appeared in Worcester Papers in English and Cultural Studies 6 (2008): 43-60.  I’m putting up here on the blog because I’m collating some readings for a module which looks at Film Festivals and I thought this would be a more accessible format for my students. I originally wrote this piece almost 10 years ago, so much more has been written on film festivals since; but the paradigms outlined haven’t developed, nor has the ethnographic study of film festivals. And maybe this piece, published on a blog, might generate a bit of discussion (which I always encourage).

MJK, 06-09-13


The “film festival” is a global phenomenon. According to Julian Stringer, there are over five hundred film festivals around the world in any given year (Stringer: 137). Some of these festivals are mammoth, star-studded gala events that are widely covered by the international press, like the Cannes film festival, while others like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn or The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, barely register on the global market. To experience either of these extremities, by attending or watching the media coverage of such events, is to experience two very different kinds of events; different in terms of status, wealth, visibility, but more importantly differently organized for very different purposes. This is not to suggest that Dead by Dawn should be more like Cannes, or Cannes like Dead by Dawn; I am not arguing for any single form of ideal festival form, but need to recognize, at the outset of this survey, that the term “film festival” is a generic term given to a variety of media events, and whose similarities are superficial. In order to understand what film festivals are, we need to go beyond the designated kind of event (film festival) and attempt to understand what the event itself actually is. I will propose, towards the conclusion of this paper, standard media, film and audience researches into film festivals do not begin to understand the film festival as an event in its own right.

This paper is designed as a critical survey of the existing literature on film festivals; not only to take stock of the work so far produced on this cultural phenomenon, but also to attempt to identify where that research has been found wanting. Finally I propose, if not a new methodology for studying film festivals, one which has not been utilized sufficiently, the ethnographic approach.


The Festival Report

The single most prevalent form of discourse around film festivals is the festival report; a journalistic “review” of a specific film festival, noting the significant films screened and hypothesizing what new trends in world cinema are thus observable. Robert Sklar, in a report on Cannes in 1999, succinctly summarizes not only what he sees as the critic’s job at a film festival, but furthermore lays down the critical template most festival reports follow:

… the critic’s most important task is to identify good films and do whatever can be done to help as many people as possible to see them. … My experience of Cannes after attending the festival for the past four years is that, year in and year out, there are always half a dozen or more films that merit the kind of critical support that can make a difference in their finding an audience (Sklar 1999: 27).

At a film festival, in a concentrated form, one can consume a significant amount of contemporary cinema in a relatively short space of time. This can lead to, what film critic David Sterritt refers to as “Festival Overload Syndrome” (FOS), where, deprived of any time to reflect and think about the films one has seen, festival films tend to blend into one another, and at best one can no longer tell what occurred in what film, while at worst one can no longer even stay awake (B9). Sterritt makes explicit the essentialness of risking FOS for the professional critic; as the role requires an extensive knowledge of the current developments within world cinema in order to comment on specific films (B9). But, and there is only anecdotal evidence to support this at the present, many festival audiences also overload on films at festival-time in order to experience films which in all likelihood, due to the corporate nature of cinema exhibition, they will never get the opportunity to see again. (Sterritt also notes this: B9). Therefore, like the professional critic, many film festival audience members attempt to recast themselves as experts within World Cinema by glutting themselves on films that in all likelihood, this will be the singular opportunity to view. This desire for the obscure, leads to a kind of “festival elitism”, wherein the popular is actively eschewed by some audiences, and the festival itself helps create this culture of vernacular film criticism.


Cinematic Tourism

The critical literature on film festivals is not extensive; even writings by established scholars who make reference to the film festival context, interrogate less the festival event, and tend to focus, like Bill Nichols, on the context as a means into a national cinema (1994a & 1994b). For Nichols, the Toronto International Film Festival acts as a conduit into an unfamiliar national cinema, in this case post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. Where Nichols does address the context of the festival itself is in recognizing the frame in which he first encounters this national cinema. Nichols articles attempts, “like the anthropological fieldworker” (1994a: 17), to witness a small and representative corpus of (truly) foreign films (i.e. films from a culture the critic knows little about) by a variety of contemporary filmmakers as access into the culture of Iran itself. He uses these films as nativistic expressions of cultural authority and authenticity, through “submergence” into the voice of the colonized Other (1994b: 73). Nichols refers to this as cinematically “going native” (1994a: 17), extending his anthropological metaphor further. The film festival, for Nichols, constructs its audience as “cinematic tourists” wherein one is taken on (again, assumedly, nativisitic and authentic) travels through cultures our Western-biased cinemas do not tend to recognize. As Nichols notes, “Like the tourist, we hope to go behind appearances, to grasp the meaning or things as those who present them would, to step outside our (inescapable) status as outsiders and diagnosticians to attain a more intimate, more authentic form of experience” (1994a: 19).

Despite the immediate objections to such idealized and certainly naive assumptions Nichols makes about bringing these “authentic” insights into the colonized Other’s culture, certain aspects implicit within Nichols work needs enumerating, since they reflect various a priori assumptions made about film festivals. Firstly, within Nichols’ articles, beyond the filmic text itself, he is dependent upon the Toronto International Film Festival’s Programme Book to establish the context for seeing these films. Each year, among the various other categories and programmes the festival offers, the “Contemporary World Cinema” series, the largest single category within the festival, offering a miscellany of world cinema made, usually, within the last twelve to eighteen months – from Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North and South America. But there are also frequently spotlight series, separate from the “Contemporary World Cinema” programme, highlighting the past decade or so in a single nation’s cinema production, and the choice of which country to spotlight privileges those for whom their “national cinema” may not be known on the International (that is, Western) Cinema stages.  This is the context – within one of these “spotlight” series – that Nichols first encountered Iranian cinema.

As an indirect challenge to Nichols, Julian Stringer notes, this explicitly Colonialist game that some film scholars engage in: “As so many of the non-Western films that Western audiences are likely to be familiar with emerged as festival entries, scholars tend to approach them through the nostalgic invocation of those moments when non-Western industries were ‘discovered’ – that is, discovered by Westerners – at major international competitions” (Stringer: 134-135). Stinger takes this position even further, suggesting that these international cinemas do not get included within a World Cinema canon until they are (Colonially) discovered by the West, again usually through these film festivals (Stringer: 135).


In talking about a much smaller, more vernacular film festival, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, A. G. Basoli, notes explicitly the difference between those Iranian films shown at the Human Rights Watch festival and those screened in big International film festivals like that in Toronto. The recent Human Rights Watch festival which Basoli is reporting on (like the festival reports noted previously) noted the screening of two political satires from Iran. Basoli notes that these films “marked a stark departure from the elegiac, official fare from the Iranian Board-of-Censors-approved filmmakers like Kiarostami, Majidi, or Makhmalbaf” (Basoli: 35), filmmakers which Nichols earlier had declared as “authentically” Iranian. Nichols agenda in his pieces on “discovering” Iranian cinema through the Toronto festival is to highlight that beyond perceived differences in culture and ideology, a pan-humanism emerges when filmmakers from different ideological camps can share in each other’s cinema:

the political will be refracted not only by our own repertoire of theories, methods, assumptions, and values, but also by our limited knowledge of corresponding concepts in other cultures to which we attend. (To want to know of foreign cinemas, for example, of their indebtedness to state control often betrays our own ideology of the free market and artistic license. We ask more to gain reassurance that this is a cinema like the one we imagine our own to be than to explore the intricacies of the relationship between culture, ideology, and the state) (Nichols, 1994a: 19).

By focusing on how, for example, Iranian cinema is different from Hollywood cinema, we not only see alternative ways of cinematic storytelling, but also those basic human traits Westerners and Iranians share. In addition, for Nichols, exposure to World Cinemas also calls into question our own taken-for-granted assumptions about artistic freedom. This, despite those films Nichols is basing this on, are exactly those films which Basoli characterize as culpable within the political climate of Iran. But whether or not we agree with either Nichols or Basoli, in either case, the nativistic insights into a culture we are presented with, like that of Iranian culture, are chosen and mediated by the Western agencies of International film festivals. Basoli continues noting one film in particular, Seven Days in Tehran, which was screened during the Human Rights Watch festival, when it was screened during the International Film Festival in Tehran, was presented as a French film, not an Iranian one, to avoid state censorship (Basoli: 35).  Less significant for this project is the extent of artistic repression in Iran; rather more significantly for our purposes is, as Basoli notes, there is an international film festival in Tehran. Reports on this festival are hard to come by, but at least we now know there is such a film festival.  So, at this first level of investigation, scholarship on film festivals use these events as useful starting grounds to begin insights into foreign and unfamiliar national cinema discussions. Regardless of whether the films being looked at are state-sanctioned or counter-hegemonic, both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival are used as a kind of cinematic tourism wherein we are presented with the nativistic and assumedly “authentic” voices and images of the colonialized Other.

Perhaps it is worth noting parenthetically, that in informally talking to people attending the Toronto International Film Festival one also sees these cinematic tourists – although they may not refer to themselves as such. This kind of tourism enables people to have the illusion of these authentic cultural experiences while not leaving the comfort of Toronto, or incurring the costs of travelling. That being said, and again anecdotally, these Toronto cinematic tourists do tend to travel widely, and seemingly use a combination of the virtual and the first-hand experiences of other cultures to understand the world they live within, although one tends to inform the other; basing their acceptance of a filmic representation on their own experiences travelling in that region, while also travelling to areas they have seen on screen. However, these observations are currently merely anecdotal, and much more research needs to be done to develop this idea more.


Industrial Conferences

The film festival is also a site for marginalized filmmakers to come together. Both the work of Diawara and Gamson, although addressing very different concerns, see the festival as a space for filmmakers to display their work to each other. Diawara in particular, responding to the dynamic so advocated by Nichols previously, challenges Western film festivals proclivity towards cultural tourism in the display, if not fetishization, of cinema from the African continent. The focus of Diawara’s study is the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) as a place where the interests of African filmmakers are directly addressed. Although recognizing the increased interest in the West, predominantly through events such as international film festivals, for African cinema, Diawara relates African filmmakers’ concerns that increasingly African cinema is courting these festivals excessively, making Western friendly cinema, at the expense of addressing their own cultural concerns.

Since the best African films are screened at these European and American festivals … filmmakers no longer look to FESPACO for the premiere of their films. These European and American film festivals also contribute to the ‘ghettoization’ of African films, because they only use them for the purposes of multiculturalism as required by their own citizens (Diawara: 386).

At the heart of Diawara’s concern is again the issue of cultural authenticity, regardless how it is presented. Western film festivals, the author concludes, and these festivals’ audiences, are less interested in the development of an authentic pan-African film industry, than having sufficient “ethnic” cinema to display in the spirit of a Western sense of “multi-culturalism”. Like Nichols’ naïve insights into Iranian cinema, Diawara is highly critical of how Western film festivals tend toward a fetishizing of the exotic text, rather than interesting themselves with the problems in countering Hollywood hegemony within African cinemas. This comes to the fore as Diawara discusses the concerns African filmmakers have about bringing their films to the West:

They do not want their films or themselves to be used for causes they do not understand or support. They are used to that, in France, Italy, and Canada, where people create well-paid jobs for themselves in the name of African film festivals. They have also seen their films disappear, or promises made to them withdrawn after the screening of their films. In other words, these festivals have served more to ghettoize their films than to open markets for them (Diawara: 396).

Unlike Nichols, Diawara sees the festival space as the site for filmmakers to interact with each other, meet filmmakers who work within similar circumstances (African cinema) and to engage in industrial related workshops. As Diawara notes,

[FESPACO] is only the film festival devoted to Pan-African cinema, a festival that takes seriously the task of nurturing, publicizing and celebrating African films. Ouagadougou is the place to meet filmmakers from other countries, compare notes on films, and exchange information on funding sources. FESPACO is also a homecoming and a family reunion for filmmakers, a chance to meet old friends in the same bars or restaurants and talk about the good old days. Finally, filmmakers come to Ouagadougou to discuss strategies for the decolonization of African screens, and the creation of an ever-elusive African film-industry” (Diawara: 386-387).

In addition to a celebration of African cinema, Diawara puts the emphasis on FESPACO as more of an industrial conference; the films themselves, their display, the generation of an African audience for African cinema (which is supposedly a strength Diawara sees in FESPACO over the display of African cinema in Western festivals) becomes secondary to the forum of mutual support for the impoverished African cinema.

However, within Diawara’s report on FESPACO, he notes the festival market which springs up alongside the film festival, but is not directly related to the event itself. This description is worth quoting at length:

La Rue Marchande is a discovery for many festival goers. Shaped in much the same way as the New York Book Fair, La Rue Marchande consists of several blocks closed off to traffic for one week, allowing vendors to set up their shops and pedestrians to fill the streets from sunup to sundown. La Rue Marchande is principally two streets intersecting each other, each approximately five blocks long, and crowded with more than five hundred vending stands, thousands of shoppers, and performance artists. There are millet beer vendors, tourist art merchants, vendors of original textiles from Burkina Faso …, condom stands, T-shirt stands, fruit stands, fashions from neighbouring countries and from France, musical instruments, lottery ticket booths, advertisement agencies, and booths for radio stations and political parties … La Rue Marchande is a metaphor for the market that has so far eluded African cinema and many industrial prospects on the continent. For one week, La Rue Marchande bustles with buyers and all varieties of merchandise. At the end of the week, the buyers disappear and the market with them. Similarly, African cinema realizes its dream of African audiences during the week of FESPACO. During that time, the crowd gathers in front of movie theatres, the international press talks about the films, and the streets are animated with discussions of individual films. At the end of the festival, the tourists go back home, Western and Kung Fu films resume their monopoly of the movie houses, and African cinema waits for two more years to be celebrated again (Diawara: 389-390).

Despite Diawara seeing this market place as a metaphor for the African film industry (a lovely metaphor, to be sure), he misses the significance of the Rue Marchande market in seeing FESPACO as a proper festive event, discussed below.


Festivals and Tourism

Janet Harbord’s chapter in her Film Cultures is one of two serious attempts at understanding the film festival as an event in its own right, rather than as a discursive context for other issues (i.e. new trends in World Cinema or the post-Colonial fight for recognition in Third Cinema). Recognizing the film festival as a multidimensional film exhibition context, Harbord identifies four central discourses: 1) like Diawara above, as a conference for independent filmmakers (Harbord: 60); 2) as a marketplace for film producers, distributors, and exhibitors (Harbord: 60); 3) like Sklar and others, as a preview for noteworthy upcoming films and the early identification of potential new trends in world cinema (Harbord: 60); and finally 4) as a cite of civic discourse on the public presentation of the city hosting the festival itself, providing “an intertext between the filmic event and the location” (Harbord: 60). It is this final discourse that Harbord focuses on with her eye, historically, on the development within Europe of a post-War cultural capital. In this respect, Harbord’s chapter has much in common with Marla Stone’s work on the Venice Biennale in the Fascist period. Both authors explore how by studying a specific film festival, a self-portrait emerges of how the official culture of the hosting society chooses to see itself (Stone: 294). As Harbord notes: “There is no doubt that film continues to be a significant cultural product for the nation in terms of representation, a production economy, tourism and as a symbolic asset” (Harbord: 72), and the film festival is the locus of that representation. Granted that Stone’s work is historical, reconstructing the image of cultural perception in the late Italian Fascist period, while Harbord’s is much more contemporary, but not much seems to have changed. Stone notes, referring to the organization of the Biennale: “Internationally staffed juries awarded prizes in the tense and staged ceremonies; the Festival’s premieres and closings were carefully orchestrated, and the whole of the event was tied to the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood” (Stone: 295). While Stone describes the festival as evidence of a Fascist aesthetic, her description sounds not unlike contemporary descriptions of Cannes or the Toronto festival.

Julian Stringer takes this idea even further: not only are film festivals post-War (European) re-inventions of the geographical/urban/modern self, but through a complex “festival circuit”, these festivals, and therefore these cities/spaces/selves, become ranked in importance (Stringer: 138). “Inequality is thus built into the very structure of the international film festival circuit” (Stringer: 138). The assumption here is that previously, film cultures were predicated upon the importance of the national film industries (American, French, Italian, German, etc), but that within those national contexts, local interests, based, as Harbord argues, on the relative strengths of the local tourist boards (Harbord: 68), shifted this nexus to a list of specific urban centres (New York, Toronto, Cannes, Edinburgh).  Stringer continues:

My argument is that it is cities which now act as the nodal points on this circuit, not national film industries. In short, I am asking that we pay as much attention to the spatial logics of the historical and contemporary festival circuit as we do to the films it exhibits. The circuit exists as an allegorization of space and its power relationships; it operates through the transfer of value between and within distinct geographic localities (Stringer: 138).

This battle for recognition, Stringer recognizes, is a fusion between the festival itself and the host city’s own self-image (often heavily mediated through the agency of the local tourist board and civil leadership infrastructures) (Stringer: 140).

But Stringer, like Harbord, are dealing with the large festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin – and despite the applicability of their discourses to smaller city-based festivals (Edinburgh, London)  and their relative places within the festival circuit’s pecking order, this is not the whole picture. Stringer refers to a specific class of film festivals as “universal festivals”, large(ish) film festivals which exhibit a cross-section of contemporary world cinema to appeal to the widest possible audience, with the added attraction of the promise of celebrity attendance (Stringer: 141). The differences between the Toronto, Edinburgh, Cannes and Venice film festivals is really one of scale, based on where it appears in the circuit’s ranking of similar festivals. Our interest, however, lies less in these “universal festivals”, than in the smaller, community based film-festivals (we refer to these as “vernacular film festivals”, as they tend to emerge out of the hosting community itself), which Stringer more or less dismisses as handling a “specialized audience” (Stringer:141).


An Ethnographic Approach

Beyond Stringer’s “universal festivals” are those vernacular events which reflect the cultural interest in specific genres (i.e. horror film festivals, like Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn), ethnic groups (like the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, cf. Koven, 1999), political groups (like the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, cf. Basoli), and sexual identity groups (like the Lesbian and Gay film festivals, cf. Gamson) to name but a few examples. The discourses on the “universal festivals” remain unsatisfactory in applicability to these more vernacular festivals. And yet, the scholarship on these other festivals often falls into the same intellectual paradigms as set-up by the discourse on the “universal festivals”. For example, Basoli’s article, like Skar on Cannes or Nichols on Toronto, explores those films the critic has identified as particularly significant within the context of the festival. Gamson, like Stone and Harbord (more so than Stringer), while situating the context within a larger discourse of collective identity (Gamson: 526), the article itself is more historical, chronicling the development of these festivals with the lesbian and gay communities of New York. Van Extergem, on the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF), despite noting the participatory culture of the BIFFF as symptomatic of the kind of audience who attend fantasy films, situates the festival as a forum for the emerging respectability of the genre films themselves, rather than a study of the festival itself (Van Extergem: 216-217).

For me, the main failing of most studies on the film festival, “universal” or vernacular, has to do with a lack of engagement with the film festival “as festival”. In Koven’s work on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (1999), he attempted to identify how film festivals, like more traditional festival celebrations (based on the anthropological definitions), were liminal experiences, and rooted within a sacred experience (of sorts) for the community to celebrate itself.

Van Extergem offers, however, a similar insight into the study of the film festival indirectly (much as Diawara did above). Van Extergem notes:

In large measure, every film is conditioned by ritual since it takes place as a communal act, partitioned from everyday life. A film festival, as compared to a regular movie screening, is even more detached from the everyday experience: it takes place but once a year, it presents films ‘for the first time’ and has extras such as the presence of guests (‘stars’) and the creating of a more communal, more festive and, in many ways, more significant context by way of animation, presentation and the simulation of a certain ‘ambience’ (Van Extergem: 224).

Although Van Extergem does not expand on this observation, there are several factors which need highlighting: 1) cinema going is communal, and regardless of any aesthetic appreciation of the filmic text, to watch a film with other people creates an ‘event’ and that event needs to be understood within the community is occurs within; 2) unlike normal cinema going, film festivals as annual events are not only more detached as special events, but they are “calendricised” – they become part of that community’s calendar and the event is anticipated each year, meaning we need to consider the festival within the cultural context of a community’s calendar of celebration; and 3) the inclusion of celebrity guests operates on two different cultural registers: on the one hand, as Van Extergem notes, it marks the event as “more special”, more outside of the everyday, since these guests’ presence partially erases the distinction between their on-screen illusion and the material reality of their being there, but also, particularly within the context of the vernacular festivals, underlines the shared commonality with the celebrity guest – that both the audience member and guest are Jews, or Lesbian, or horror fans, etc. and their presence at the festival enforces that commonality. Perhaps even with some of the “universal festivals”, the shared commonality for the local residents who attend these events, has a similar function, of having big-name celebrities in one’s home town.

What does Van Extergem mean when he refers to this sense of BIFFF feeling more “communal, more festive” and therefore “more significant”? How do we understand the communal and the festive? In the longer version of the paper Koven published on the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which was a chapter from his doctoral thesis, he outlined how that particular festival could be seen as a “proper festival”, based on the folkloristic and anthropological definitions of such. Alessandro Falassi’s definition of “festival” is useful to understand film festivals, in particular, and the relationship between cinema and community in general.  Falassi defined “festival” as “a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, participate [sic.] directly or indirectly and to various degrees, all members of a whole community, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and sharing a worldview” (Falassi: 2).

Can film festivals be seen in this folkloristic/anthropological way? Some anthropologists shy away from viewing festivals that celebrate popular culture, seeing instead a commercialization factor as replacing the expression of community itself (Stoeltje: 261-262; Abrahams: 171, and this is a point raised Stringer and Harbord too). Beverly Stoeltje noted “those events that do have festival in their titles are generally contemporary modern constructions, employing festival characteristics but serving the commercial, ideological, or political purposes of self-interested authorities or entrepreneurs” (Stoeltje, 1992: 261-262). At one level Stoeltje is correct, particularly with the larger festivals (Toronto, Cannes, BIFFF), but the more vernacular festivals tend to be more rooted within the lived experiences of the communities which host them. On the other hand, Stoeltje is perhaps too quick to dismiss the larger festivals, since, depending on how one approaches the bigger “universal festivals”, these too can be seen as rooted within an alternative perception of the community (FESPACO, for example, or the relationship between the host cities of Berlin, Toronto, Cannes or Edinburgh and how the local residents view the presence of the festival).

According to Stoeltje, a festival is made up of six types of acts: an opening ceremony, rituals, dramas and contests, feasts, dance and music, and finally a concluding event (Stoeltje, 1992: 264-265).  Although this morphology is considered descriptive, rather than prescriptive, a certain ordering of these acts and their respective inclusion is by design and self-conscious.  But what Stoeltje does raise is that ethnographic investigation into any kind of festival is essential in understanding its relation to the community who produce it, regardless of how that community is delineated. To ethnographically study a film festival, as I suggest to do with Dead by Dawn, is, to begin with, an attempt to identify some application of Stoeltje’s festival morphology: specifically what constitutes the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies? What delineates the opening of the festival and what marks its conclusion? As special events, of any kind, something must demarcate these poles, so how is that demarcation made special?  And then how does that demarcation reflect the cultural beliefs of the group?

Ritual, while rarely evident in the explicit religious conotation of the term, also needs noting. Van Extergem already noted what he referred to as the ritual aspect of going to a film festival film. Beyond that, however, Falassi, while like Stoeltje, categorically not referring to film festivals, expanded on the different kinds of ritual activities indicative of festival behaviours. For example, part of the opening ceremonies, for Falassi, are “rite of purification” where they cleanse the festival  space “… by means of fire, water, or air, or centered around the solemn expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the ‘evil’ and ‘negative’ out of the community” (Falassi: 4).  Although, I am unaware of any such scapegoating rituals at any of the film festivals I have attended, certain kinds of cleaning and organization is required in immediate preparation for the event. At larger festivals, where opening night gala presentations require special guests requiring special treatment, red carpets are sometimes laid “ceremoniously”. Or the posters in the lobby will be changed to those more relevant to the event. Despite the seeming banality of these “rites of purification” they do underline that the event is somehow different to the everyday operation of the space wherein which the event will be occurring and the metamorphosis of the space is a highly symbolic gesture underlining the “sacred” nature of the festival. Part of the ethnographic project, of course, is not only to make the strange familiar, but also to make the familiar strange; and we need to problematize the assumptions we make about the special activities involved in ritualized preparations. These spaces of course are regularly purified through a ritualistic application of water, called “cleaning” (one hopes). What is the act of cleaning, but a ritual of purification?

230957_4596143340_9414_nFalassi also refers to various rites of competition (Falassi: 5), and any film festival which has films in competition falls into this activity. The sacredness of the awards given, while clearly of material value (in terms of increased box office, status, distribution deals) also evoke their sacred worth by their names – the “palme d’or”, “the golden bear”, etc. Even with the more vernacular festivals, like Dead by Dawn, which still grant “best films” awards, but instead of an elite jury who are separate from the main festival participants, the awards are granted by the public attending/celebrating themselves. Surely who is included in granting these “golden awards” is significant in reflecting who can lay claim to being part of these communities? And what about those festivals who do not have any competition amongst their films? What kinds of competitions exist amongst the festival participants?

The inclusion of the celebrity guests and the variety of consumable wears on display can be seen as functioning akin to Falassi’s rites of “conspicuous display,” which the author noted as “permit[ing] the most symbolic elements of the community to be seen, touched, adored, or worshiped; their communicative function [being] “phatic”; of contact” (Falassi: 4). The nature of the festival determines the phatic degree of the display of those “sacred elements” for that community: while the festival participant might be able to see (from a distance) or perhaps photograph a celebrity in attendance at the “universal festivals” like Cannes or Toronto, at the vernacular festivals like Dead by Dawn, the guests circulate among the audience themselves, thereby enhancing the sense of communitas. But these sacred relics of the community can also manifest itself, as Diawara seemingly unaware points out regarding the La Rue Marchande marketplace. Rather than seeing these market stalls as prima facie evidence of the commercialization of the event, we need to look more ethnographically at the function and actual use of these market spaces for the community itself. Falassi further notes that such “rites of conspicuous consumption” in addition to “conspicuous display” is equally a marker of festival behaviour (Falassi: 5).224092_4596148340_307_n

Finally, and probably most significantly, there must also be some kind of “rite of reversal”, which according to most scholars is the litmus test for a “real” festival.  Falassi notes that this rite “through symbolic inversion, drastically represents the mutability of people, culture, and of life itself” (Falassi: 4, emphasis added). As Bakhtin noted,

… all the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities.  We find here a characteristic logic, peculiar logic of the “inside out”, of the “turnabout”, of a continual shift from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings” (Bakhtin: 11).

Likewise did Falassi note this, and in turn, began to point towards meaning in this reversal: “if we consider that the primary and most general function of the festival is to renounce and then to announce culture, to renew periodically the lifestream of a community by creating new energy, and to give sanction to its institutions, the symbolic means to achieve it is to represent the primordial chaos before creation, or the historical disorder before the establishment of the culture, society, or regime where the festival happens to take place” (Falassi: 3). Van Extergem already noted, in some respect, how different film festival going is to everyday media consumption, but surely this is not sufficient to be considered a rite of reversal. Again, at this stage in the research, anecdotal evidence must suffice: in an informal survey of the 2004 Dead by Dawn participants, one of the most frequently cited reasons for their attending was to be able to gorge themselves on horror cinema for a few days before returning to their normal everyday lives.  Instead of seeing one, or maybe two movies a week, they will attend dozens – feature length and shorts, from all over the world, and if we consider the “all-nighter”, which begins at midnight on the Saturday (after a full day and evening of screenings), and runs through until 11:00 or so Sunday morning, a pattern emerges of “specialized” film attendance – a reversal of the normal patterns of cinema attendance. Again, this is a casual and superficial observation requiring much more detailed and in-depth ethnographic investigation, but even cursorily film festivals “reverse” the norms of everyday cinema going.

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Conclusions: Proposing Future Study

A larger project, of which this is but a first step within, is to ethnographically explore the film festival. My question is put succinctly: how can film festivals be considered as “festivals”, at least as the anthropological literature understands them? Although one could conduct an ethnographic study of one of the major “universal festivals”, such as Cannes, Toronto, the BIFFF or even Edinburgh’s International Film Festival, it the smaller, vernacular festivals that hold the most interest, for it is at these events where the community itself is on display as a public recognition of its very existence. And it is in this spirit that further research needs to be done.


Film Festival Bibliography

Abrahams, Roger D (1987).   “An American Vocabulary of Celebrations”.  Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 173-183.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M (1968/1984). Rabelais and His World.  Helene Iswolsky trans.  Blooming­ton: IndianaUniversity Press.

Bangré, Sambolgo (1996). “African Cinema in the Tempest of Minor Festivals” in Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham eds. African Experiences of Cinema. London: BFI. 157-161.

Basoli, A. G. (2002). “Redefining Human Rights: The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival” Cineaste 27.4: 34-35.

Chin, Daryl and Larry Qualls (2001). “Open Circuits, Closed Markets: Festival and Expositions of Film and Video”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1: 33-47.

Christensen, Mads Egmont (2000). “Dogma and Marketing” p.o.v.: A Danish journal of Film Studies 10: Issue_10/section_4/ artc1A.html. Last accessed 04 January 2005.

Diawara, Manthia (1994). “On Tracking World Cinema: African Cinema at Film Festivals” Public Culture 6: 385-396.

Dwoskin, Stephen (1997). “Whose Festival?” in Ann Pointon with Chris Davies eds. Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. London: BFI. 222-223.

Falassi, Alessandro (1987). “Festival: Definition and Morphology.” Alessandro Falassi ed.  Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1-10.

Gamson, Joshua (1997). “The Organizational Shaping of Collective Identity: The Case of Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals in New York” in Martin Duberman ed. A Queer World: The Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: New YorkUniversity Press. 526 – 543.

Harbord, Janet (2002). Film Cultures: Production, Distribution and Consumption. London: Sage.

Koven, Mikel J. (1999). ‘”You Don’t Have to be Filmish”: The Toronto Jewish Film Festival’. Ethnologies 21.1: 115-132.

Kwon, Jae-Woong (2003). “[Interview with] Kwang Woo Noh, Coordinator of Korean Film Festival”. Asian Cinema Spring/Summer: 207 – 210.

Mendik, Xavier (2004). “The Fantastik Film Festival: An Overview and Interview with Magnus Paulsson” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 232 – 235.

Nichols, Bill (1994a). “Discovering Form, Inferring Meaning: New Cinemas and the Film Festival Circuit”. Film Quarterly 47.3: 16-30

Nichols, Bill (1994b). “Global Image Consumption in the Age of Late Capitalism”. East-West Film Journal 8.1: 68-85.

O’Regan, Tom (2002). “Australian Cinema as a National Cinema” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 89-136.

Riskala, Tuomas (2004). “The Espoo Ciné International Film Festival” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 228 – 231.

Scheighofer, Martin (2001). “Austrian Film between Festival Success and Market Constraints” in Willy Riemer ed. After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 55-61.

Schwartzman, Karen (1995). “National Cinema in Translation: The Politics of Film Exhibition Culture” Wide Angle 16.3: 66-99.

Sklar, Robert (1996). “Beyond Hoopla: The Cannes Film Festival and Cultural Significance”. Cineaste 22.3: 18-20.

Sklar, Robert (1999). “Snobs and Snubs at Cannes” Cineaste 24.4: 25-27.

Staiger, Janet (2002). “A Neo-Marxist Approach: World Film Trade and Global Culture Flows” in Alan Williams ed. Film and Nationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniversity Press, 230-248.

Sterritt, David (2000). “How ‘Festival Overload Syndrome’ Affects Critics”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 4 August: B9.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. (1992).   “Festival”.  Richard Bauman ed.  Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-Centered Handbook.  New York: OxfordUniversity Press. 261-271.

Stone, Marla (2002). “The Last Film Festival: The Venice Biennale Goes to War” in Jacqueline Reich and Piero Garofalo eds. Re-Viewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922-1943. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 293-314.

Stringer, Julian (2001). “Global Cities and the International Film Festival Economy” in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice eds. Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context. London: Blackwell. 134-144.

Van Extergem, Dirk (2004). “The Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema since 1945. London: Wallflower Press. 216 – 227.



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