MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Long Live the Film Festival

Film festivals are having a rough time of it lately. CineVegas is on hiatus this year, the specter of financial woes hung heavy over the recently concluded Palm Beach International Film Festival, and now Gen Art, after just concluding its New York festival a couple weeks ago, is shuttering completely after 16 years of art and parties. Given the state of things, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that my hometown fest, the Seattle International Film Festival, is gearing up for a strong fest in its 36th year.

SIFF is a mammoth fest which runs — no kidding — for 25 days each year in May and June (and that’s not counting the early press screenings, which start a month earlier). Aside from the SIFF being in what is surely one of the most beautiful cities anywhere, at the best time of year to be here, programming-wise, SIFF consistently has a strong slate of films. SIFF has opened with strong, interesting choices like Me and You and Everyone We Know, In the Loop, and this year’s opener, The Extra Man (pictured above), and has tirelessly promoted international films. OSS-117: Lost in Rio was last year’s closer, and the fest programmedOSS-117: Cairo, Nest of Spies way back in 2006 —  when OSS-117 wasn’t even on other fests’ radar. The fest also pioneered the Secret Film Fest, which countless other film festivals now imitate (hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?). SIFF, 36 years after its inception, is still going strong.

I’ve largely built the foundation of my writing about film through coverage of film festivals; the box of old press badges in my bedroom attests to hours spent in the dark watching movie after movie at fests, and more hours spent hunched over a laptop feverishly banging out reviews. I’ve covered fests both large and small, but at the end of the day, my coverage of fests like SIFF means as much to me, if not more, than the coverage I’ve done at Sundance, Toronto, or even Cannes.

Certainly SIFF lives on the same tier as fests like Tribeca, LAFF, and SXSW, yet the fest rarely garners the attention of the North American press the way those fests do, although programming-wise, I think it’s a stronger fest than any of those. SIFF has always been about unearthing quality films from all over to satisfy the varied and finicky appetites of the cinephile audience here in Seattle. And maybe that’s what most sets SIFF apart from other fests: SIFF is a cinephile’s fest as much as Cannes and Telluride, but whereas Cannes is a fest primarily for those who inhabit the film world and Telluride a cinephile’s dream, but so expensive to attend you have to be well-heeled (or well-funded by your outlet) to go there, SIFF is great equalizer: an affordable, top-notch fest for people who love film.

The team that runs SIFF understands who this fest is for, which is why they are able to fill theaters with butts in seats for 25 days of film festival craziness and over 400 films — and without the benefit of tens of thousands of out-of-towners flying in. SIFF attendees are mostly locals, and we Seattleites love us some movies. Seattle film lovers view SIFF as “their” festival in a way that I don’t think most folks in Park City or Toronto feel about their own fests.

Where’s my proof of that? In part, it lies in a dedicated group of fest supporters known as the “Fool Serious” (so called, rumor has it, because a member’s child couldn’t properly pronounce “Full Series,” and so the name stuck). The Fools are Seattle legend — serious filmlovers who make even the most hardy of film critics on the fest circuit look like 98-pound weaklings. There’s an informal competition among the Fools about who sees the most screenings — many of them save up their vacation for the festival and see 100 or more films during its run.

But if you’re a film buff and live in Seattle (or have a friend, as one guy I met in line last year does, who will let you crash on the couch in the family room for free for six weeks), you can get a lot of cinematic bang for your buck at SIFF. An early bird SIFF Full Series pass cost, I think, $475 this year. Even if you get it now, it’s only $750. That’s less than the cost of a pass for a weekend at Telluride, and for that you get not only 25 days of the festival, but access to the press screenings for a month beforehand.

I plan to be at all the Gala films at SIFF, of course, but what I’m really most interested in at this fest is the wide array of foreign films they program here, most of which I won’t even have heard of before I sit down to watch them. This fest has some great programming of Asian and Eastern European films, in particular — films that I’m unlikely to see at other fests. I’ve discovered some remarkable smaller films here in the past, some of which ended up with distribution, but many more that didn’t, and which I never would have seen were it not for SIFF.

The value of sites like MCN continuing to offer criticism and coverage of a great, often ignored fest like SIFF is not so much what we get out of it — I don’t think there’s really a model that says it makes a site like MCN money to give coverage to film fests generally. For me, it’s about what we give back to the film community: the more sites write about a fest, the more the fest can promote itself as having enough press to lure better films to play there. The better films that play at a fest, the more audiences will buy tickets and passes (and you need an audience to lure those all-important corporate sponsorships, don’t you?).

It’s art versus commerce. It costs money to run a fest, especially when you grow to the point that you can no longer run just on volunteer blood, sweat and tears alone, so you get dependent on corporate sponsorships to keep the bills paid. When those corporations start feeling the pinch themselves, sponsorships for non-essentials — especially artsy things like film festivals — are going to get cut.

What gets lost when a fest shutters? For a town like New York (or Chicago, where Gen Art had  expanded in recent years), there’s enough access to film year-round, festivals aside, to keep even the most ardent cinephile sated. But what about smaller regional fests, or a larger regional fest like SIFF? Even in a cinephile haven like Seattle, if SIFF ceased to exist (both as a festival and as an organization promoting film throughout the year), that absence would be keenly, painfully felt; in a city without much else in the way of independent cinema, it would be a death knell, in a way, for the idea of the art of film as having an intrinsic value.

It’s really the film festivals beyond the Big Three of SundanceCannes and Toronto that are the great equalizers, bringing the films to the people, offering a diverse range of cinema to audiences who might otherwise never be exposed to anything beyond what they’d see in their multiplex. The work festivals do in promoting and expanding cinema and in putting films in front of audiences is crucial to the cycle of film as an art form; for what is art of any kind without an audience to interact with and appreciate it?

RIP, Gen Art. SIFF, may you live long and prosper.

– by Kim Voynar

May 12 , 2010

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~ Hampton Fancher

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