Infinite Fest is a column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
One daunting aspect of film programming is the unrelenting avalanche of Vimeo links. Trying to assess which among many hundreds of films will deliver your audience the best experiences can get blurry in a hurry when you’re pressing play from spreadsheet cells—and as long as your call for entries remains open, that spreadsheet grows faster than you and your team can chip away at it. Moreover, most festival programmers’ work falls pre-marketplace curation, and that’s a roll of the dice with very unfavorable odds, continually kissing the dice hoping this one won’t turn out to be a bro-y Tarantino knock-off (yes, they still make these) or a ponderous film student not yet disavowed of the notion that they’re the next Tarkovsky. Screener fatigue is especially real in situations where the programming team finds themselves under-staffed and under-resourced (so: in almost all situations). The fear of not getting everything viewed in time, let alone thoroughly evaluated (to say nothing of being enjoyed), can weigh heavily. To stay motivated, you have to remind yourself that plugging away at this mountain will ultimately yield a small but tidy pile of gems—and, perhaps once or twice in a career, an uncut chunk of black opal.
Eleven years programming Maryland Film Festival didn’t rob me of my passion for cinema, but at times confined it to a claustrophobic tunnel of increasingly compulsive work. One of the great pleasures I’ve reclaimed since is that of browsing a festival lineup. Browsing as an attendee, not binging as a programmer: taking it in at a pleasurable pace: taking note of not just each film’s director and cast, but also credits like screenwriter, editor, and especially DP; indulging my pet theories that every film from Uruguay is an unheralded jewel and the best emerging world cinema runs either under 80 minutes or over 140.
When scanning credits in a festival guide, factor in each film’s programmer. The best festivals will generate original program notes for each feature, often written by and credited to the programmer who advocated the most passionately for that film. Take note of those names! It pays to remember who signed off on Kaili Blues before Long Day’s Journey Into Night was even a gleam in Bi Gan’s eye, reserve comparisons to Claire Denis as a signifier of can’t-miss quality, and wield terms like “heartwarming” as dog whistles alerting cinephiles of soft films programmed in search of Slumdog Millionaire dollars.
I thoroughly enjoyed exploring two festival lineups of very different scopes and missions this fall—the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the flesh, and Maine’s Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) from my desk. Using some of the guidelines above, diving in to both lineups brought me a lot of joy—and left me with a lot to mull over regarding the state of film culture.
I almost filed a very different article.
As must be obvious by now, timeliness isn’t this column’s primary objective. I prefer not to file this column until I’ve sat with a festival and the films I took in long enough to find something larger to say. This time it took a few months for my hot-take to simmer. TIFF, I felt, had finally resolved a crucial identity struggle. In 2019, the lineup had struck a satisfying balance between the sometimes warring elements that have tugged the festival in too many different directions: galas are gonna gala, crowd-pleasers pleased crowds, but reverent cinema felt central, not sidelined. Everything felt very honest and clear.
Then came the news that TIFF had laid off 15 employees across all departments—news that made my column as written feel not only outdated, but borderline irresponsible. My extremely enjoyable experience there this September remains my experience, but the surrounding context has changed; I’m unable to simply report that all’s in perfect harmony at a festival that just left 15 workers abruptly unemployed as the holidays approach.
The most talked-about film in my TIFF circles was a Toronto-made narrative, Kazik Radwanski’s breakthrough third feature Anne at 13,000 Ft., undistributed at the time of its TIFF play but happily now forthcoming in the U.S. from Cinema Guild. The buzz is well-deserved. Building on the claustrophobically framed, hella-awkward character studies of prior works like How Heavy This Hammer (a dark comedy worthy of comparison to Todd Solondz’s best), Anne organically branches out into complex and visceral psychological drama. At its core is an intuitive performance from Deragh Campbell as a daycare worker with a compulsion for increasingly inappropriate, unnerving, and self-destructive behavior. Making use, as past films have, of his IRL neighborhood and community, Radwanski maps for us a Toronto that’s functional for some but a dismal morass for others. With Anne, Radwanski and Campbell conjure a personal spiral of chaos and confusion not a million miles away from Ronald Bronstein’s under-screened landmark of 21st century independent cinema, Frownland (2007).
Whenever I see a homegrown film this strong at TIFF, I flash back on the late 1990s when Canadian features were generally sequestered in their own slate, with any standouts integrated into other festival sections. I’m sure I missed my share of gems back then, but I also learned the hard way that many local films were being judged on a generous curve—perhaps to fulfil a quota dictated by funding, or perhaps with the knowledge that hometown films bring out big crowds of hometown friends and fam. Having waded through those blizzards of unremarkable indies some twenty years ago, it’s refreshing to take note of how many of the boldest films I’ve seen at TIFF this decade came from Canadian directors—as well as acknowledge the undeniable role TIFF has played in elevating Canadian filmmakers from across the country, and building a cinephilic infrastructure that can help their work thrive.
Heather Young’s first feature Murmur emphatically underscores how regional storytelling of intimate production scale points us to continually fertile cinematic territory. Indeed, the primary precedents that came to mind in considering this singular work were from fellow truly independent Canadians deeply concerned with regionality: Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf, and the films of Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (both their stark documentary The Patron Saints, and especially the tight portraiture and inner-life concerns of the Melissa Leo-starring Francine). Murmur keeps us closely pinned to a middle-aged woman doing community service at an animal shelter following a drunk-driving conviction. Rapidly, her concern for disabled and terminal animals becomes obsessive and threatens to tear down any semblance of healthy boundaries and balance in her life. Stark and methodical, this film knows what it wants to achieve, and more than gets there.
This TIFF more than any prior, I made my home base their press lounge, a bustling epicenter of coffee, power strips, and fairly stable wi-fi, in which, were a bomb to go off, a good two-thirds of English-language Film Twitter would be obliterated in a blink. You can’t compete with tweets sent as the credits roll at a world premiere for immediacy, and yet the 24-hour news cycle demands the critics here try, banging out capsule reviews in something approaching real time as they squint at the press-screening schedule grid with an eye to whether it would be possible to cram in a sixth or seventh feature tomorrow. In the lounge you also hear what’s really on their minds, which often their assignment: the filmmaker they wish their editor would let them interview, the little film from Chile they’ve heard is brilliant, the startling first feature no distributor will have the balls to take a chance on.
In the lounge I met with a longstanding TIFF employee who knew my work in the fields of criticism and dank meme-making. This new friendship sparked my first-ever tour into the guts of the festival’s headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, through a multi-level open-floor plan that compared agreeably to any in Silicon Valley. For my first few years at MdFF I worked crammed into a closet-sized space with my desk directly under a leaking ceiling (the landlord’s solution here: duct-taping a garbage bag under the leak, not anticipating that, within a day, it would accumulate enough water weight to pull a Humpty-Dumpty all over my work station). In this light, one finds it easier to appreciate the flow of money in and out of an organization like TIFF—not to mention the care with which, even in such a sprawling and modern space, many employees find ways to preserve and display artifacts from the organization’s history and personalize their spaces to demonstrate their relationship with cinema.
There were certainly no saggy wet garbage bags here. Since that informal tour, however, many desks have been cleared out altogether. While the 15 people TIFF fired after the 2019 edition is larger than the entire year-round staff at many festivals, TIFF is no average fest, but rather a behemoth of a year-round operation. Those 15 employees accounted for “just” an approximate 7% of their total staff—maybe even under 4%, if the cuts impacted part-time employees as well (my source here is a report ranking TIFF as one of greater Toronto’s employers for 2019).
Within a day of the news of these firings crossed my feed, I received a fundraising email from TIFF bearing the subject header “Nothing Beats A Film Community.” The little organizational speak I’ve seen from TIFF on these firings has read like a statement written by the efficiency experts from Office Space. Private sentiments expressed by several TIFF employees aside, that is. TIFF, like Johns Hopkins here in Baltimore, is a powerful many-headed hydra of culture and commerce that has its fingers in almost everything that gets done within what they see as their purview; from a distance one sees a unified whole, but as you approach you see a chaotic jumble of heads tentacling in different directions with different intentions.
While Canadian cinema gleamed particularly brightly this year (if I may describe films that intentionally plunge us deep into dreary existential puddles of experience this way), world cinema thrived as well. As I’ve expressed in this column before, I’ve long been troubled by the pressure red carpets and awards have applied. If bringing DiCaprio to town generates dinero that can be distributed across the festival’s lineup, I applaud this (even if you’re unlikely to see me clamoring for a selfie at the stanchions). Ditto if the People’s Choice Award turning into an industry-courted Best Picture prognosticator elevates the festival’s ability to access the films they want to show across the slate.
The problem comes when every potential film is measured by these yardsticks. Until the recent staffing news, at least, I’d never viewed TIFF as a festival where money called all the shots, even if dollars have clearly had an increasingly louder voice in the room with each passing year. From my own experience as a programmer, I know all too well the sort of false binaries money people raise, confusing films that sell tickets or bring celebs or win awards as inherently worth showing, and films that do none of these things as lemons programmers must be scolded for choosing. I know what those conversations sound like when cinema doesn’t have enough defenders in the room, and I know the destructive results. This year’s lineup benefited substantially from the increased influence of gifted programmers like Dorota Lech, Kiva Reardon, and Lydia Ogwang, all of whom have demonstrated a stellar ability to champion diverse visionary cinema that needs championing, while successfully navigating our increasingly slick and soundbite-oriented 21st century festival landscape.
Much has been written about Mati Diop’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Atlantics, which brought to my mind both Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch and the slow-cinema body-horror of Trouble Every Day (whose director, Claire Denis, cast Diop in arguably her most indelible role to date, as Josephine in 35 Shots of Rum); if these comparisons haven’t underscored it as a must-see, I’ve failed here. I also felt a strong engagement with Hlynur Pálmason’s brooding A White, White Day, although it had an impossible act to follow after Pálmason’s jaw-droppingly anarchic and assured Winter Brothers, perhaps the most fully formed feature debut of the 21st century.
Another fairly sure bet for me was Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger, a dark period comedy which turned off several of my colleagues, but delivered for me. Veiroj’s love of cinema is so deeply entrenched as to feel effortless, and while plotting and characters matter in his films, they’re not entirely the point, either. I’m glad I attended the public screening; star Daniel Handler grew up with Veiroj, but this marked their first time working together, and the old-friends ribbing they gave each other during the Q&A reinforced the joy I felt watching their walls-closing-in comedy, a sort of Crime and Punishment of the financial sector played for laughs.
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco wasn’t a film I heard a lot of people talking about, nor one on my initial TIFF shortlist. I added it to my schedule on impulse upon receipt of a press ticket offer from one of the many hardworking publicists pounding keyboards and pavement at TIFF. But Syversen’s film has lodged more firmly in my head than any other I saw in Toronto this year. Her portrait of a competitive dancer who’s fallen under the influence of a “cool” Christian youth leader gave me the most accurate depiction I’ve ever seen of the thin line between strict Christianity and mind-controlling cult. Disco shows us moral oppression enforced not through overt punishment and confinement, but rather by weaponized guilt and internalized self-policing. “Eric, with all the filth that’s on Twitter, do you feel Jesus would want you spending your time there? Maybe it’d be a healthy and cleansing step for you to put the phone away now.”
Vimeo links don’t have to crush a programmer’s soul. A tight little list of links you’ve requested from a festival lineup, watched in the order you choose and in an environment you’ve set up to your liking can feel divine.
It helps when the films are as striking as those highlighted by Camden International Film Festival, the forward-looking documentary festival in Maine I first attended and wrote about last year. A physical trip to CIFF wasn’t in the (credit) cards for me this year, but I ended up seeing a larger portion of their lineup remotely than I did last year in the flesh—and I might be even more impressed this time around.
The first link I clicked on, Egil Håskjold Larsen’s Where Man Returns, kicked things off exceptionally well, teleporting me to the mountains of northern Norway amidst enough frigid Nordic vistas to provide covers for 10,000 black metal albums. Here a man lives an ascetic existence alone with his dog, hunting and foraging to provide for them both. Not quite off the grid (he has a flip phone that can sometimes catch a signal), Where Man Returns nonetheless depicts a lifestyle as isolated as any I’ve seen on film, aware of the modern world and making use of some of its tools while simultaneously tacitly giving it the finger. As we absorb staggering compositions at a meditative pace, Larsen’s film at first feels outside time, but slowly a poignant narrative emerges. The best extant comparison I can bring to mind is Jessica Oreck’s Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys; as a leap of the imagination, I might also suggest picturing an episode of Planet Earth directed by Béla Tarr.
Equally powerful and quite devastating, Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss’ Lovemobil observes a tree-lined road in rural Germany outside a factory town, dotted with RVs out of which women live alone turning tricks. Largely from Eastern Europe and Africa, these sex workers pay rent daily to a madam who insists on collecting even when not a single customer has come calling since the last payment. The day-to-day downbeat reality here—even before something shattering happens—brings out incredible observations about race, class, gender, and sexuality, not to mention a depressingly vivid and frank assessment of how late capitalism makes us complicit in the greater miseries of those less fortunate. This isn’t J.T. LeRoy, and this film’s combination of compassion, access, and unflinching eye applied to real life made it an emphatic standout.
The film that’s lived on in my head the most from fall festivals, however, delivered laughs and a whiff of light mystery even as it stirred up some heavy emotions for me personally. Martha Shane’s Narrowsburg playfully unfurls the story of an outgoing couple who talked the titular tiny New York town into bankrolling both a film festival and a (bro-y Tarantino knock-off) narrative feature film with all-too-familiar promises of, respectively, creating a “Sundance of the East” and making residents movie stars. This film’s a ton of fun. I, however, watched the film ping-ponging between bursts of glee and anxiety; I even had to get up and pace around the room a few times. Narrowsburg asks us to interrogate our notion of what makes a fraud within the realm of indie film—or at least where we draw a line beyond which we can say without question we’ve been bamboozled.
I’ve learned too much about those who dance upon this line during my years in festivalland.
Film festivals make ideal breeding grounds for con artists, poseurs, opportunists, and everything in between. Most festivals barely break even (if they’re lucky), which can help a regional festival shake loose would-be profiteers. And yet, many festivals trade in other forms of currency: glitz, glamor, flights, rooms, perks, schwag, open bars, VIP sections. Within this sort of festival campus a social climber won’t lack for rungs.
It’s not just outright schemers and scammers we need to watch out for, though. Film festivals are catnip for rich people who know less about cinema than the average multiplex-goer. When these big fish become donors and board members in our small pond, it falls on staff to not only do their own jobs, but also run interference so their nominal bosses don’t reflect poorly on the organization as a whole. Narrowsburg will hit close to home for anyone else who's had to nod politely to the film-world equivalent of Trumpy rambles from this set.
The words “film festival” alone do not contain inherent value unless continually invested with taste, vision, hard work, and a willingness to evolve. For sure, beware of the outgoing stranger who wants your community to build him a monorail. But also be vigilant against the accountants, lawyers, and know-nothing barons of inherited wealth who drag a good festival in the wrong direction one cocktail party and war-profiteering, climate-destroying corporate sponsorship at a time.
Every festival, like every independent business, is one major disaster or a few mediocre years away from irrelevance or failure. The neighboring towns of Camden, Rockport, and Rockland, however, can breathe easy: the CIFF team has delivered at least two exceptional years running.
I don’t pretend to know what went down behind the scenes at TIFF after this year’s festival. But news like their recent cutbacks reaffirms the central thread in all my writing. Film festival culture needs to address an infection spreading at an alarming rate: the colonization of non-profit arts organizations by for-profit thinking. Film festivals need to position ticket sales, growth potential, exit surveys, donor courting, and branding opportunities as tools in the service of cultural experience; the moment they become your raison d’etre is the moment to consider putting in an application at Cinemark instead.
At its core, this requires smart, multi-dimensional team-building. There are accountants who collect Ozu Blu-rays, millionaires conversant in Varda, PR people still thinking about Zama, graphic designers whose favorite film is Killer of Sheep, and social media managers whose minds were blown by Hale County and The Human Surge. If you're not building this kind of team—and rallying them towards the same goals, using a common language—you're growing in the wrong direction.
I’m not saying festivals should avoid sound financial planning, nor that growth is inherently bad. I am saying that bean counters cannot become the primary caretakers of the arts, that the work and dedication of employees at arts organizations matters, and that film institutions can’t grow at the expense of their soul. I might also be saying that film organizations shouldn’t get into the condo business if they’re not quite fucking certain doing so will create long-term job stability for their core mission and workforce.