What Are Film Festivals For?

in 79th Venice International Film Festival - Biennale di Venezia

by Luca Baroncini

A short trip to film festivals and what they represent today

The question arose with particular urgency on my return from the Venice Film Festival when the queries that friends and acquaintances have asked were not “Did you like Amelio’s film that is already in theatres?”, “What about the much-discussed The Whale?”, or, “What do you think of the winner?”, rather, “Have you seen Timothée Chalamet’s bare-back look?” and “Did Harry Styles really spit at Chris Pine?”

These days the comments are all of this tenor, the films seem to be an afterthought, a side dish, not what matters and around which everything revolves. But who is to blame for this debasement? The gossip-addicted public or the press that conveys only a certain type of information? Certainly, everything has become vulgar with the emergence of the internet and information that is increasingly slave to clicks, necessary to allow advertising engagements that are essential for survival. A modus operandi that has ended up using information as bait to draw in the reader, attract their attention at whatever cost, with the tendency to turn everything into news in a sensationalist race to see who screams the loudest. Even festivals have ended up in this media mincer where we talk less and less about films and more about everything that revolves around them, because it is easier to sell.

Therefore, considering the complexity of the period, the opening question arises: what are film festivals for? They are first and foremost a place to bring together, as physically as possible, the “insiders” of the world of cinema. Producers, distributors, directors, actors, critics, but also enthusiasts, the lifeblood for a constructive and profitable word of mouth. Films are obviously the central element, and it is from them that everything starts and to them that everything refers. A good festival not only basks in the past by celebrating the known, but is configured as a land of discovery for advancing new developments.

But, of course, there is no one simple recipe for every event. It depends on the size of the festival and its popularity. For the most famous – staying in Europe and therefore Venice, Cannes and Berlin – the greatest difficulty is to find a balance between the desire and the need to be talked about and the ability to capture a sensitivity that is in step with the times, both in its form and content. There have been years when it was difficult to find names in the official competitions that were not already more than established authors, confining the desire to dare to the fringe sections via approaches that were far from standardised and uncompromising.

 It is true – and useless to deny – that one looks with more curiosity at the latest work of a recognised director with a world premiere than that of an unknown with their debut, but it is also true that it is precisely one of the tasks of a festival to encourage new talent where it is found, perhaps by transforming a complete stranger into an author of the future. Never easy, of course, but today, in the sea of extra-cinematic conditioning that a festival director undergoes, more complex than ever.

It is rare, then, to find top awards given to debutants or near debutants.  The last one given in Venice is to Lorenzo Vigas for From Afar (Desde allá, 2015). With Berlin, excluding those who have gone from documentary to feature film, we have to go back to Grbavica – The Land of My dreams (Grbavica, 2006) by Jasmila Žbanić, while for the Cannes Palme d’Or we have to travel way back in time to 1989 and Sex, Lies, and Videotape by Steven Soderbergh.

It must be said that things fare better for second or third works, and moreover, it is certainly not to be taken for granted to find such dazzling artistic maturity in one’s first work, but analysis of the statistics serves to draw attention to the fact that festivals often risk becoming a self-referential celebration of the myth: either you are in, or you are out. Rather –  and we must not forget this – if some filmmakers have become reference points of world cinema and have managed to find an audience by breaking through boundaries that are not always easy, we owe it to festivals.

Think of the dissident Jafar Panahi, arrested again in Tehran in July 2022, where he participated in the protest to demand the release of his colleagues Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad. His artistic career began in Cannes where he won the Caméra d’Or (the prize for best first film) for The white Balloon (Badkonake sefid, 1995), and then received major awards everywhere, from Locarno [Golden Leopard for The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997)] to Venice [(Golden Lion for The Circle (Dayereh, 2000)] and Berlin [Golden Bear for Taxi Tehran (Taxi, 2015)]. In the Venice edition that has just ended, thanks to No Bears (Khers nist), he won the Special Jury Prize and not simply because he is in prison, but above all because it is a successful, engaging and communicative work, able to make us reflect on the contradictions of Iran. Panhai therefore continues to fight, thanks to the festivals that give him visibility, with the weapon of cinema.

Among the other Venice winners, the jury, chaired by Julianne Moore, awarded the Golden Lion to Laura Poitras, Oscar-winning director (in 2014 with Citizenfour) with little yet to prove, for the documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, dedicated to the artist and activist Nan Goldin. Luca Guadagnino, an author who owes everything to Venice, where he showed his first experimental film The Protagonists in 1999, finds definitive confirmation thanks to the successful combination of horror and tenderness of Bones and All, for which he wins the award for best direction and for emerging actress Taylor Russell.

A similar speech for Martin McDonagh, already winner in 2017 in Venice for the screenplay of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and again awarded for the masterful script of The Banshees of Inisherin, a perfect allegory of the Irish civil war, also awarded with the Coppa Volpi for the best male performance given to Colin Farrell. The award for best actress recognised the monumental performance offered by Cate Blanchett as a controversial conductor in Todd Field’s TÁR. The jury then awarded Alice Diop’s Saint Omer with the Grand Prix for best first film, even if in reality Diop is a debutant in the feature film but has already won various prizes for her documentaries and short films focusing on cultural diversity. In any case, an important recognition for a filmmaker for the near future.

The opening question on the usefulness of festivals therefore becomes: will these films, together with the others presented in competition and in the collateral sections, be able to give a definitive meaning to the festival by resisting the test of time to settle in our collective memory? Will they also be able to reach an audience considering that communication passes more and more through screens that are not necessarily those of the cinema and the emptiness of content is disguised as information? Are the communicative urgency, the mastery of the cinematographic medium, the beauty, still able to reach us, wherever we are? It is impossible to find an answer that is not consoling, pessimistic or a gamble, because we are experiencing the change.

The direction is still unclear and consequently everyone experiences every festival in their own way, as an essential appointment or in total indifference; as a digression from everyday life or as a dream in which to get lost; as a cultural enhancement or as leisure, with all the myriad of variables that exist. But one thing is certain: films can be seen everywhere, but the theatrical experience is only in the cinema. And that is where the festivals will continue to navigate the present while also imagining the future.

Luca Baroncini
Edited by Mark Adams