2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: The Tale of the Festival Film


At the end of last year, Indiewire compiled their list of “The 10 Best Undistributed Films of 2015” that included productions like The Academy of Muses, Schneider vs. Bax, Chevalier and Cosmos (a number of which have since found distribution). The films cover a wide range of countries and genres, and they all fit a criteria checklist that makes them palatable to non-festival audiences. These are films that are inevitably helped along by the festival circuit, gaining points and praise as more critics see them.

These films are the smokescreen that conceals the more representative festival films. Movies like Chevalier will never be a blockbuster hit but have enough intrigue, polish and prestige to break out into a moderate success. Films like Chevalier are the exception (not the rule) when it comes to most festival programming. When some critics use the term “festival film,” they are talking about a kind of branded adult-themed cinema that doesn’t push boundaries but has been competently made. “Festival films,” often used as a derogatory term, fill in programming gaps and are often instantly forgettable. Programming a festival has to be difficult, and some films reflect mandates or help establish relationships that the critic might not be aware of.

Frustratingly, such films rise above the bar, and while most rarely get any coverage at all, every once in a while a critic will declare one of them a “masterpiece.” And so, the hype train takes off. This atmosphere of being among the prescient critics to identify the future voice of a generation, or the breakout hit of the year, caters to these broad proclamations. In other words, the blunt force trauma of tweeted quick takes has eclipsed nuance in film journalism. Just one step away from the meme sound bytes that have corrupted political discourse, film criticism continues along the path of lowest common denominator of hot takes.

The other side of “festival films” are the movies that don’t comfortably cater to the capitalist structure. Through subject, length or technique, they are un-distributable (at least on a large scale) and festivals provide the platform in which they can be shown and experienced. Different festivals have various mandates and audiences, and those that cater to large swatches of the industry will always favour films that have a chance to appeal to distributors and buyers. As exciting as TIFF, Cannes and prestigious festivals may be (many of which do showcase innovative cinema), it’s often the smaller and more local festivals that will provide more humbling and groundbreaking films.

Medium sized festivals, like Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema, will have the luxury to provide for both. By focusing their mandate of new, forward-thinking cinema, they are able to bring in movies like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi as a means of both drawing in potential new audiences, but also to redefine how we think of film. While Life of Pi has often been discussed in relation to its novel and “award potential,” screening it in under the curatorial blanket of new cinema insinuates questions about the present and the future of the medium.

With a clearly outlined mandate that has been followed closely over the past 45 years, the curatorial efforts to reflect what new cinema means offers a direction for critics to think of cinema outside of economic conditions. Until you are faced, as a critic, with an eight hour Lav Diaz production or a 40-minute short, you might not be aware of the capitalist structures that limit the expansion of cinema. The presence of films like Life of Pi only serve to fuel the potential to showcase even more groundbreaking films, and just four years later, it seems (for the better) the Festival du Nouveau Cinema strives to showcase more anti-capitalist works rather than less of them, as they’ve found their new voice.

On the flip side, elitism finds a way to creep into this insular world as well. The slow filmic marathons of Lav Diaz have become the Marcel Proust of the new era as a measure of a viewer’s cultural worth. Not discounting that there are viewers who find Diaz’s work (and work like it) immensely rewarding, there happens to be little room for dissent on filmmakers that have established themselves as contemplative “artistes.” Rather than challenging censorship or dissent, the word “art” shelters certain films from actual critical engagement while maintaining an elitist gatekeeper culture. It also begs the question as to whether a film made with the intention of merely being “great art” can ever live up to that term.

There are many reasons why critics don’t focus on the big picture when attending a festival. The nightmarish cult of hype has a way of burrowing itself into the most logical and even-headed of critics, especially for those who are overworked and overtired. Certain festivals that aspire to showcase emerging filmmakers will often feature average movies that will make competent films appear better. The pressure for critics to be the first person to declare a film a future masterpiece also has a strange way of amplifying the worst declarative statements, as the pressures of staying employed means feeding into the clickbait culture that wears away at the integrity of criticism.

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.