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In a Year of 26 Festivals

What does it mean—and what is it like—to attend 26 film-festivals in a calendar year?

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

—Seamus Heaney, The Tollund Man


It ended, like all journeys do, in Solitude, a long way from any cinema. Solitude—or rather Zolitūde, in Latvian—is a suburb of Riga, four miles as the crow flies from the fancy Scandi-Gothic-Art Nouveau city centre; six miles on foot if the pedestrian avoids diversions. But by the time I reached Solitude on that cold December Saturday afternoon, however, my inadvertent divagations must have pushed the total to the ten-mile mark. I'd looked at maps prior to departing from my hotel, of course but deliberately didn't bring one along (not a fan); I don't have an iPhone (not a fan) so can't cheat via Google, so must rely on my natural sense of direction (normally pretty reliable) and the directions provided by strangers—which in this instance generally proved wildly wayward.

Perhaps the proudly independent Rigans didn't want a foreign visitor to see this particular residential district, built in 1984-91—i.e. the last seven years before Latvia broke free of the USSR—in the classic mega-blocky Stalinist-brutalist style favoured by Moscow planners. Solitude, its name emblazoned on many of the street-buses one sees around the capital, also now has tragic connotations across the country following the shopping-centre collapse in December last year which claimed 54 lives.

I plugged on and on—and on—as the darkness quickly fell, feeling an irrational sense of triumph once I eventually penetrated the district's dour, underpopulated but (for this hardy Sunderlander) un-forbidding precincts, noting the survival of some picturesque, pre-WW2, wooden-framed mini-dachas nestling incongruously alongside the tower-blocks' implacably geometry.  A squat bottle of dark beer Old Mill (Stary Melnik , €1.45 for 500ml)--brewed in Moscow by eastern conglomerate 'Pivovariya Moskva-Efes ZAO'--was my reward, supped at the bar of the unpretentiously cosy Ultra Violet pub (open 24 hours, supposedly) while I tried remember the names of all 26 film-festivals I'd been to over the course of 2014, scribbling them down via an improvised 5x5 grid in my notebook.

What does it mean to attend 26 film-festivals—for a minimum of three days apiece, usually twice and sometimes even thrice that length of time—in a calendar year? It meant that I've seen the northern lights in Tromsø, up above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway; felt Atlantic breezes in Lisbon, on Europe's western lip; put my hand in the tea-tepid Black Sea in Odessa and in the chillier Turkish Mediterranean in Antalya (same hand that would later warm itself on a sidestreet kebab...)

Perhaps it means nothing. As Wilfrid Thesiger wrote in Arabian Sands, "To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that."

***

Most professional film-journalists and festival-programmers attend perhaps 10-12 festivals a year, 15 at a push. 20 is regarded as freakish. To go beyond 25, though, and attend the equivalent of a festival a fortnight, every fortnight, over the course of 52 weeks... Are we in the realm of addiction? Pathological compulsion? Evidence that this resident of Sunderland—a long-impoverished, post-industrial, Thatcher-ravaged city—is afflicted by what Patrick Keiller (rephrasing Baudelaire) in Robinson In Space, calls the "horror of home"? Maybe a matter of simple escapism, then, a three-dimensional, continent-hopping re-interpretation of cinema's function as opiate and solace.

In sheer practical terms, of course, each jaunt was individually justifiable in terms of work. Since leaving my (relatively well-paid) job as a UK horse-racing official at the start of 2011, I've been a full-time film professional, combining journalism—mainly reviewing, for The Hollywood Reporter—and programming (main for the Bradford International Film Festival, whose Co-Director I became a few months after quitting the turf). And, notwithstanding the rise of Vimeo and Festival Scope, that effectively means a a lot of travel.

Of the 26, I work for six in either a paid capacity or as a pro bono consultant and/or member of the programming board, so I really have to be at those. Of the remaining 20 I wrote reviews for The Hollywood Reporter from 12, was Sight & Sound's representative for five and covered three for Indiewire (there are some overlaps). I performed dozens Q&A moderations, took part in a handful of on-stage panels/discussions, served on three juries: Odessa, Dokufest (Prizren, Kosovo) and Seville.

My records, as far as they can be trusted, indicate that at the 26 festivals I saw a total of 572 films, of which 319 were features or mid-length (i.e. 50 minutes or longer); and I also walked out of an additional 31. Those 31 included Satantango in Ljubjlana in November, a bail-out which—unexpectedly and bizarrely—resulted in me having a pint with Béla Tarr in a nearby bar while the picture was playing. I also note that I managed to inflict 17 significant hangovers upon myself, and slept in festival accommodation (or, occasionally, under the roof of some hospitable pal) on 170 nights. Add in travel-days and extra-curricular lingerings in foreign cities, and I was away from home for more than half the year.

Such an intensive, prolonged, geographically adventurously exposure to cinema should, needless to say (and without this sounding too much like a job-application), give me an eclectic and panoramic view of the contemporary film scene.  I went to generously-funded behemoths like the Berlinale, Rotterdam and San Sebastian, and shoestring-budgeted affairs in Slovenia (Kino Otok, Izola), Croatia (Liburnia Film Festival, Ičići) and Belgrade (Alternative Film Video)—those last two offering all screenings for free. I watched experimental shorts running a matter of seconds and I watched Wang Bing's 14-hour Crude Oil (2005), in two seven-hour chunks on consecutive days during March's A.V. Festival, projected in the draughty environs of the former Stephenson railway-works in Newcastle.

Venues, venues, venues. I saw films in Tromsø's 1916-vintage Verdensteatret; 19th century theatres in Seville and San Sebastian; The Passion of Joan of Arc in a thick-stone-walled room within Marseille's 16th-century Charité complex; in inescapably 21st-century shopping-malls in Antalya; in the basement of a church in Sibiu, Romania; in another (former) house of worship in Rotterdam (for 'Vertical Cinema') and in a Yugoslavia-era student cultural-centre in Belgrade whose environs are haunted by tail-wagging stray dogs.

But who needs a roof? Certainly not the Game of Thrones-style 'summer stage' in Palić, Serbia (where the English subtitles for Ceylan's Winter Sleep conked out at midnight, one hour still to go), nor Manzioli Square in the fishing-village of Izola, Slovenia (Europe-hopping road-movie TIR, aptly enough), nor the 'Lucica' screen at an even smaller north-Adriatic fishing village of Ičići, Croatia (where beer-guzzling fishermen happily viewed edgy documentaries from the sterns of their bobbing craft) nor the Potemkin Steps in Odessa (more of them anon).

Nor, indeed, any of the four crazily atmospheric al fresco venues used by Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo, including 'Lumbardhi,' a platform built out over the river (ideal spot to see the Slovenian cinephile travelogue Karpotrotter in the presence of its subject Karpo Godina), and  'Kalaja,' a wooden framework jutting out from the side of the ancient castle that surveys the city. Three-quarters of the way up, by the way, look out for a humble bar with a humble beer-garden, whose spectacular views me and my friend and colleague Michael Pattison drank in as we supped bottle after bottle of Peja beer as ocelot-like furry critters chased each other on the slopes behind us, and the sun went down, and the huge dark mountain in the distance—Albanian territory, yonder—vanished into total blackness.

Dokufest typified the year in other ways, in that the most remarkable new works I saw there were shorts (Manuel Abramovich's The Queen [2013], Jay Rosenblatt's The Claustrum [2014]). Viennale delivered Richard Tuohy's 16mm mind-blower Ginza Strip and, in the same kurzfilm-programme, the discombobulating double-whammy of William E Jones's Psychic Driving and Dietmar Brehm's Sun Stop. Manuel Knapp's V~ and Tina Frank's Colterrain bedazzled as examples of 'Vertical Cinema'. Belgrade offered up Mike Hoolboom's Buffalo Death Mask (2013) and Allan Brown's Seventh Submarine—not to be confused with Hlynur Pálmason's Seven Boats, sneak-previewed at CPH PIX in Copenhagen. Which new features could compare with such daring, such concision, such concentrated genius?

True, 2014 did yield a fourth big-screen viewing of the decade's greatest film, Stray Dogs by Tsai Ming-liang, which I'd seen the previous autumn at Venice (twice) and the Viennale. And I did discover (on my computer at home!) Claus Drexel's devastating, bizarrely under-appreciated documentary on Paris's homeless, On the Edge of the World (2013). But notwithstanding the outstanding merits of David Robert Mitchell's It Follows—and Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin (both seen in Wrocław, but at different festivals), Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy (Viennale and Ljubljana), Mike Leigh's Mr Turner (Seville), Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe (Palić), Jeremy Saulnier's (2013-premiere) Blue Ruin (Tromsø) and James Benning's magisterial, majuscule cloud-study FAROCKI (Viennale)—shorts seem to be where the real "action" is at nowadays.

Or maybe this has always been the case—thinking now of Henri Chomette's Games of Reflection and of Speed from 1926 (Berlinale); Ljubomir Šimunić's Gerdy, the Wicked Witch (1976) and Davorin Marc's Paura in citta (1984), both at Belgrade's Alternative Film Video; and Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley's Schmeerguntz (1966) in the Viennale's astonishing 16mm programme.

Plus, a little extra-curricularly, the four masterworks I caught in an Oberhausen tribute at Ljubljana on my way home from Izola: Heynowski and Scheumann's Fellow Citizens! (1974), Robert Sahakyants' animation The Button (1989), Ernest Abdyjaparov's Sparrows (1995) and, the most blindsiding of the lot, James Herbert's "pop video" from 1990, Low (R.E.M.). All bar Gerdy were projected from film, I'm satisfied to note as 2014 draws to a close.

Stubbornly waiting for 35mm/16mm showings when I could "cheat" and view certain films digitally can be a burdensome personal philosophy, but this year it did deliver Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973)—at Wrocław's New Horizons festival, same place that I saw Cosmatos' Cobra (1986) at a rock-the-house late-night 35mm screening, also Chester Novell Turner's see-it-believe-it-even-then-not-sure Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984) via suitably degraded VHS.

From the noisily absurd to the serenely sublime: the 16mm double-bill (which I organised!) of Benning's casting a glance and Deseret at Bradford in March,  a gloriously raddled print of Friedkin's The French Connection at Ljubljana in November; the likes of Stagecoach and Shanghai Express in a cinematography retrospective at the Berlinale; Spirit of the Beehive at Locarno in August. And there was the joy of unheralded discovery when I saw (on digital, alas) Artur Voytetsky's From Sheer Boredom (1968), a superb Maxim Gorky adaptation and a great railways picture that hardly anyone seems to have even heard of, at Odessa in July.

Oh yes, Odessa: the 12th of the 26, and the one that I may well forget the last. The initial queasy thrill of flying into a country enmeshed in a war with a giant neighbour; the oppressive daytime heat that sent sweat trickling down my back as I, feeling utterly daft, tried on a tuxedo on my first morning; the audience standing and singing the Ukrainian national anthem not once but twice during the national premiere of Sergei Loznitsa's Maidan; the Saturday night open-air screening of Hitchcock's Blackmail (silent version) on the Potemkin Steps, with full orchestra and a rapt crowd estimated at 10,000 (including your correspondent, half-dazed with drink and the sheer scale of the occasion).

I shot a short film, Tatra, at the gates of scruffy Preobrazhensky Park, on my final night; met Loznitsa on a Cannes-style yacht-trip around the harbour and into the Black Sea; emerged from a shorts screening to hear about the downing of flight MH-17;  paid my respects at the sombre, fire-blackened hulk of Trade Union House, the place where 42 people had, only weeks before, been burned or bludgeoned to death. I saw these things, and I did these things, only because I was in town for a film-festival. O, lucky man.

***

For me, part of the point of visiting film-festivals is—as Michael has himself remarked in print—to get away from the festival, at least for a few hours, and explore the city or town where it's taking place. As with my venture to Solitude, I prefer to do this on foot wherever possible (guilt for all those air-miles I've been totting-up over the years?) and, more than any film, my most valued memories of "the 26" generally don't involve cinema at all.

In Tromsø, I walked from the island on which the city is situated to the mainland, across a bridge whose span is almost exactly a kilometre and back. Not a marathon, by any means, but arduous enough in January when the gale whips up off the sound and the wind-chill makes you fear that your eyeballs are going to freeze in their sockets--not a happy prospect for a film-critic. A couple of weeks later myself, Michael and a third mate walked the ten miles from Rotterdam to Delft (we cheated and got the train back); during Bradford, Michael accompanied me on a cobweb-blasting plod of similar length to fog-enveloped Thornton Viaduct and back.

Later the two of us rambled around some obscure districts of Lisbon (economically-disadvantaged Meia Laranja), tracked down The French Connection locations in Marseille, trekked to the edge of town and beyond in Prizren (spotting the staff of one far-flung hotel watching Sean Penn's The Pledge on a public TV), did the 18-mile round-trip from central Vienna to the TARS-like concrete majesty of the 'Wotruba Church,' and crowned the year with an exhausting 26-mile circumnavigation of Ljubjana. Solo, I wandered from Belgrade's Western Gate (a double-pronged tower) to its Eastern Gate (three roughly triangular behemoths arranged in circular formation); and in Sibiu, Romania, three separate meanderings eventually brought me to the ex-industrial suburb Țiglari, where I found Lake Binder: an small urban body of water dubbed the "Lake of Death" by local media for its treacherous sub-surface temperature drops.

These unlikely explorations are for me the real substance of the year, festivals an elaborate pretext to set foot in places I'd never otherwise hear of: Țiglari, Meia Laranja, Popowicka in Wrocław, Mošćenice in Croatia, Dušanovac in Belgrade, the latter an old village now rudely bisected by the E-75 motorway. To get from one side to the other involves crossing a humble metal bridge upon which market-traders hawk their wares. It's an unpreposessing, graffiti-daubed structure which for some reason holds more magic and charm for me than any celebrated edifice in Berlin, Vienna or Edinburgh. This is partly because such bridges, such streets invariably seem to yield the most unlikely of delights: meals in little-visited eateries; drinks in obscure pubs, perhaps leading to conversations with random strangers; glimpses of the overlooked quotidian. 

It's a kind of an attempt to see how most people are actually living across Europe in 2014 (my only festival outside the continent was Antalya, Turkey), even if it can only be a superficial immersion, a clear-eyed flânerie. There's the knowledge that at least some effort is being made to go beyond. Sitting in the Ultra Violet in Riga—I was in the city not for a festival per se, but for the European Film Awards—I carried in my jacket-pocket Graham Greene's 1936 record of a trip to Liberia, Journey Without Maps. "One had crossed the boundary into country really strange; surely one had gone deep this time." That's always been part of the guiding principle, and I certainly felt it this year as the tally crept gradually up towards that final figure of 26.

But ultimately, I did it as an experiment—to see what would happen—and because I could do it, being young enough (just about) to have sufficient energy and drive, being in a job that facilitated it, and being the recipient of so many festivals' invitations. I reckon that with proper planning it should be do-able to reach 30 or even more (to paraphrase Citizen Kane, "it's no trick to go to 60 film-festivals in a year, if all you want to do is go to 60 film-festivals in a year.") And I wouldn't be surprised if Michael, still only 27, exceeds my annual tally within the near future—he topped out at a measly 24 this year, including an unparallelled-even-by-me eight on the bounce from October to December. I'm going to take it a bit easier now, and my first provisional schedule for 2015 suggests I'll be very lucky to break 20. Somehow, I'll survive.

In Odessa, hours after the awards ceremony, cashless and cardless (long story...) I walked the half-hour back to my hotel at dawn at 5am, in tuxedo with bow-tie in my pocket, through already-sunny streets, among industrious locals going about their Sunday-morning business, undoubtedly bemused by this unlikely saunterer, this very cut-price 007. Solitude of another kind. This great city has thousands of cats, mostly feral, nearly all snooty, but this morning one ginger tom proved an exception to the rule. He responded to my greeting, sat with me on a wall and happily consented to be stroked. When I eventually tore myself away, ginger fur clung all over the lap of my black tux-trousers: a good omen.

This is so great, Neil. I request a book-length version!
cheers Darren! If you know any wealthy publishers, or even any impoverished publishers, please feel free to point them in my direction.
apmje
Nice read! Lucky man, I wish I could afford the expense and time to do something like this.
thanks apmje. Regarding expense, it’s basically my job so I do try to break even — maybe even make a profit — from my various peregrinations. Let’s just say I made a bit more dosh when I was handicapping horses for a living (no, I didn’t use a hammer).

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