Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


Now that all three major capital city film festivals are over for another year, a new debate is emerging: what’s the function of a film festival as arthouse films are becoming more and more popular? Are these festivals just advance previews of films that are lining up for commercial release? ANDREW L. URBAN enters the debate.

Dateline: Sydney/Melbourne/Brisbane, August 1997: Brassed Off, Gridlock’d, The Full Monty, Albino Alligator, The Van, Libertarias and Ulysses’ Gaze are just some of the non-Australian films which were on the programs of either the Sydney, Melbourne and/or Brisbane film festivals over the recent weeks, all with a commercial release pending or already in train.

Adrian Martin, film critic at The Age in Melbourne, found it "disconcerting to see so many films this year supplied by local distributors … also slated for imminent release."

Why? What’s the problem?

Like Martin, there are those who believe that a film festival - especially if non competitive - should be a platform for films that audiences will NOT be able to see in general release. Or as Martin puts it in respect of Melbourne, "the festival lacked a really challenging cutting edge and lost sight of its evangelistic, educational function." A festival, the argument goes, has no raison d’être if all it does is preview films that will be coming out, like some advance screening program.

And the reason for that is that any film that has commercial potential is somehow ‘safer’ (Duller? Takes less risks? Predictable?) than the films we want to see in a festival. Festivals are for those patrons willing to take bigger risks with their admission money and their available time, in pursuit of their inherent interest in cinema, rather than merely going to movies for odd hours of entertainment.

As Martin and others recognise, the festivals do indeed also program films that will never be seen again. The question is why program the others, except perhaps Australian films, which are rightly launched and introduced at such festivals. (As a special benefit to subscribers, so they see local works first.)

One answer might be found in the popularisation of a festival, which in Melbourne’s case is evident, with a 20 % rise in attendance. Critics of this policy say that it is precisely this factor which is turning festivals into preview screenings. Popularity is the domain of mainstream commercial films, not of festival fare.

But arthouse films, which is a generalised description for festival fare, now enjoy a growing popularity. The term refers to the independent cinemas that show these less populist, more ‘artistic’ films, often made for little money but with lots of creative passion and experimentation, with substantive themes and subject matter, and often with an edge.

Questions also arise about the fewer number of short films that Melbourne showed this year; about the drive to commercialise festivals with populist - albeit important and interesting - ‘attractions’ like the Sergio Leone retrospective and the Kevin Spacey presentations. This, some say, is driven in the case of Melbourne, by its move to the city and the need to make it something more than a film culture event - more grandiose, more politically effective, more financially sparkling.

There are no clear, irrefutable positions on these issues, because, after all, what’s wrong with getting a wider audience for quality films. (In this context, you can read ‘quality’ for films that do not rely on superficial ingredients to be appealing.) What’s wrong with mixing a program to allow for some cutting edge work, like the confronting Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, as well as some with more accessible elements, such as Brassed Off or Albino Alligator?

At least this gives those independent films an extra avenue for wider recognition, in what is an unequal fight for market placement alongside the major studio movies like Con Air, Conspiracy Theory, and Contact.

But this rationale sits at odds with the demand that festivals be the showcase for the more radical works of filmmakers, a place where the films are those that are made to test creative, not commercial boundaries.

One thing is sure: the debate needs to be rational and positive, thoughtful and genuine. Unless there is a clarification by consensus of the criteria for what sort of festival each city wants, nobody will be satisfied.

Me? I go for sharp, cutting edge, provocative cinema as the natural fare for festivals. The question is, how much am I prepared to pay for that?

BUT ALSO . . . David Edwards, our Brisbane correspondent, adds his own note: "Having just attended the Brisbane Fest, I can say that, in my view, the programming in the 1997 event was superior to previous years. There were a larger number of challenging films, particularly from Asia, which will probably never see a release in this country. The fact that these films are being shown here is gaining BIFF a reputation as an increasingly important showcase of Asia-Pacific film. This has been reinforced by having a number of Asian directors visit the Fest in recent years.

Of course, BIFF also has a responsibility to the people of Brisbane to show more commercial films which have, for some bizarre reason known only to distribution companies, by-passed Brisbane. Hence, the showing of films like Breaking the Waves, Mother Night and Daytrippers."

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What do you think? Your comments are welcome: andrewl@mpx.com.au

Albino Alligator. Are festivals pale imitations of their former selves?

Brassed Off. Some critics are a bit peeved . . .

Gridlock’d. Commercial considerations clash with cinema culture . . .

The Full Monty. Is naked commercialism creeping in?

Ulysses’ Gaze. The issues are looking for a debate

The Van. Where to now?

Con Air. High flying hit.

Conspiracy Theory. Formula no secret.

Contact. Ignition . . .lift off.

Suzaku - one of the films from Asia at Brisbane

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