2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: So, You’re Covering a Film Festival?


Covering a festival can be a daunting experience. The planning encompasses not only your work but traveling, packing and finally settling into your impermanent residence. If the festival happens to be sprawled across multiple locations, an understanding of how to get from one place to another should be the first thing you want to address (and how much time it will take). The functional logistics of festival coverage cannot be overestimated, as they will largely dictate what you will be able to cover and what won’t be possible. One of the best things you can do before heading to a new festival is to ask someone about their prior experience. What can they tell you that won’t be in the festival guest guide?

The focus of this article, however, lies in writing — the different approaches and considerations in festival coverage. Some writers devote their entire careers jumping from one fest to the next, while most of us are lucky enough to visit a handful a year (if that). As someone who enjoys reading festival reports from all over the world, there are clear dividing lines between writers that do it well and those that miss the mark. Of course, like most things related to criticism, this can be reduced to a matter of taste. But as a rule, most of the writers that do festival coverage well encompass far more than the films. The best festival writers understand the mandates, voices and the relationship to their setting and history.

Daily Coverage

When you set out to approach a festival, you will often work with your editor to establish what kind of coverage they are expecting. Depending on the length and scope, many editors opt for some kind of daily coverage, be it in the forms of reviews or daily dispatches. Both demand different engagement with the material.

Reviews are not so different than what you might be doing as a part of your regular critical work. The big difference might be that instead of filing just one review, you’ll be filing multiple reviews per day. More so than any other festival writing, reviews are most apt to be swayed by the so-called festival hype. For big premieres where the cast and crew may be present, it’s easy to get swept in by the fervor of excitement associated with seeing a film early. Compounded by the fact that you might be writing your review immediately after a cinematic experience, it’s often easier to get swept by emotions in order to meet your deadline and head out to the next film.

If you’ve never looked back at a review you wrote during a festival and cringed at the hyperbole, kudos, you might not have a problem. Most of us, at least once, have fallen into the hype bubble. There are are a number of techniques to counteract extreme reactions swaying in one direction or another. If you passionately love a film, sit for a moment and think if there were elements that don’t work and why. Similarly, without resorting to emotions or adjectives, what about the film does work, how do those techniques operate? Does the film show you something you’ve never seen before, or is it a fairly conventional film that successfully hits all the right beats? In order to better organize your thoughts, it doesn’t hurt to have a list of questions to ask yourself about any film you watch. Refrain, if you can, from calling anything the “best of,” as chances are it will come back to haunt you, later that week or later that year. 

Daily dispatches often encompass at least some element of reviewing, but usually offer more day to day context and news. Unlike dispatches, reviews have less room for establishing the festival identity, as they are often treated as writing that will transcend the festival. That doesn’t mean you can’t include tidbits about a revelatory moment in the introduction or Q&A, but if you are filing multiple reviews a day and continually calling back to festival elements, they will be redundant unless especially relevant to the reception of a given film.

Dispatches are a strange beast. Of all festival writing, they are the ones that seem most likely to reveal the bad habits of writers mistaking irrelevant anecdotes with establishing festival atmosphere. For critics who don’t normally do this kind of writing, it can feel like being trapped in a room, forced to reckon with yourself for the first time. Whereas so much of critical writing feels detached, dispatches require a certain amount of personal involvement.

It can help to read writers that do it well. From Sundance this year, Maggie Lange was able to cleverly evoke the chaotic survivalist atmosphere of the festival through comedy. Her dispatch “At Sundance, Selfie Sticks Are Weapons” breaks through the festival’s reputation as a sacred ground for independent American film by playing up the absurdity of selfie sticks and heated sidewalks. One may come to understand what being at Sundance is like, and how maybe it has diverted somewhat from its original mandate by way of Lange’s storytelling. She has a strong critical voice when it comes to discussing films as well.

Using a a different kind of dispatch approach, Anne Thompson translates strong journalistic experience and deep industry knowledge in finding a compelling story. Last year at Locarno, she wrote a piece on Michael Cimino, 6 Reasons Why Michael Cimino Will Never Work in Hollywood Again, exploring the controversial director’s presence at the Swiss fest. Thompson offers a unique skill set and insight, which many of us hope to eventually cater. But more integrally, two things become clear when reading her pieces: work towards your strength and consider your audience. While a list format might normally seem cheap, in this case, it works remarkably well. It helps to organize an argument and keep things simple for a reader who might not be familiar with Michael Cimino or his filmmaking.

The takeaway from these two different examples is to work towards your strengths. Don’t pretend to be someone or something you’re not. If you’re not comfortable with a personal voice, don’t use one. Ask yourself if what you’re writing about gives insight into the festival experience to readers who might have never been. A good way to frame a daily dispatch can often be framing it as a story, whether it’s the story of a day, or of a particular experience. What story can you tell that will be yours, and no one else’s?

Festival Reports

Unlike reviews or daily dispatches, most festival reports take place after a festival, or at least after your stay. They encompass a number of days, experiences and films. In a festival report, you are doing more than just finding the cinematic highlights by reflecting on the festival’s voice and the individuals behind it. Unlike most daily coverage as well, festival reports give you the benefit of some distance — use it to your advantage.

Like a festival dispatch, a festival report involves understanding your strengths and interests and working with them. There will always be an element of reporting, but ultimately, you will be reflecting your own experience by way of the choices you made to see certain films, to take in the environment and to attend certain events.

Festivals are a great place to meet people. Obviously, it can be an opportunity to meet fellow critics that you might have only met online or who you only get to see a few times a year. But more than that, it can be a great opportunity to meet and talk to programmers (as well as buyers, distributors and filmmakers). Festivals do not exist in a bubble, they don’t just appear out of the ether when you arrive and fade into nothingness when you leave. Most festivals are a year-round event for the people that put it together, and an understanding of the nature of their work (and the compromises involved) will only make you a better writer.

Festivals also usually have a mandate, so how do they fulfill it? How do certain organizers and programmers interpret it? A festival that has been around for decades will similarly have a different voice than one that just started. How does the festival you’re attending interact with its own history, and in what ways does it reflect the contemporary cinema landscape? Different festivals have various goals and demands — as a writer, you need to understand them.

Think of a festival that takes place in your own city. How does it transform or interact with the architecture and local community? Take that experience and transfer it to a festival you are attending abroad. Understanding the accessibility and intended audience can tell you a lot about a festival. If it’s in a language you understand, it’s often eye-opening to read how locals write about a festival versus the international press. Something like the Toronto International Film Festival, which can be dominated by the glamour of stars and high profile projects, will be treated very differently by the Canadian press. This might not end up being your personal approach, especially if you don’t understand the workings of the Canadian film industry, but understanding it as a question floating over the festival might inform your own analysis.

Writing about film highlights in a report will also be different than a dispatch. In this case, you will rarely mention everything you see. You will search for themes and strengths as a means of exploring some of the questions above. How do the films themselves interact, reflect or refute the festival identity? What films make this festival worth attending in the future?

Final Notes and Advice

  • Talk to the hospitality department if a festival has one. Some festivals offer discounts or offers on food (and other things) in the area, but you often need to ask.
  • Don’t overload your day. If you plan to watch more than three movies, it might be better to just skip one. At least one of those films won’t be getting a fair shake.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Bring snacks. Michael Pattison wrote a good festival prep that will likely be more helpful than mine, so check it out here. He recommends some useful fruits to carry with you, I also endorse bananas because of the innumerable benefits of potassium.
  • Be careful about planning too many interviews as well. It’s not unheard of that they will not be running 100% on schedule. It should also be noted (as obvious as it is) that if you will be working with a translator, cut down your questions in half.
  • Be flexible. Depending on how a festival operates, you might not be able to see everything you want to because of delays or being locked out of a high demand screenings. Don’t abuse this, but if you really need to see a specific film, consider asking the festival if there is a guest list to be put on. Some offer it, others don’t. Asking for every film you want to see is just bad form and doesn’t help garner future favors.
  • Try and check out at least one short film program. See at least a few films you’ve never heard of.
  • Be in communication with the press department. Ask them if they would like you to send them articles and reviews as they are published. Most festivals will be happy for you to do this and will only be beneficial to you.
  • Finally, try to have some fun, but remember that you’re also doing a job — take it seriously.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.