Infinite Fest is a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the recent “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
I didn’t go to Indie Memphis Film Festival last year, but I’m not going to let that stop me from calling it an important event. The festival, now headed into its 22nd year, has long been on my list to check out, up there with Sarasota, Cucalorus, and Sidewalk in terms of southern regional fests colleagues held in high regard that I haven't yet made it down for. I won't be repeating that mistake in 2019.
I’ve been addicted to film festivals, both as an attendee and programmer, for twenty-plus years—long enough to recognize, and filter accordingly, the post-coital glow one often encounters at festival’s end on social media. Perhaps ten to twelve times a year, we learn that we missed out on a dream come true—characterizations that, more often than not, fade into more reasonable “pretty great” experiential territory after a few weeks (or after another best-ever festival usurps those claims, whichever comes first).
This wasn’t only that. I’ve followed Miriam Bale’s work as a critic for several years, admired her informed and sometimes iconoclastic online voice, and suspected that an Indie Memphis programmed by Bale would feel very different than your average regional festival—perhaps even draw a line in the sand. The news, announced on the opening night of the festival, that Bale had already been promoted from senior programmer to artistic director, also felt like a significant show of institutional support for her vision. Post-festival online reactions like this one from Zia Anger, a filmmaker I know to have a healthy cynicism and limited tolerance for hyperbolic film-world buzz, convinced me that it was all that and then some.
The more I read about the festival, the more it felt like Bale and the Indie Memphis team delivered a watershed moment for film culture. Certainly, A-list guests like Barry Jenkins and Boots Riley set a high bar for what attendees could expect; but on paper, Indie Memphis’ lineup, doesn’t look that different from those of many regional festivals that programmed with a mindful approach to diversity and locality. No, the importance of Indie Memphis 2018 seemed evenly dispersed across and embedded into its every offering, an alternative vision of what a film festival can be—in quality, in diversity, in inclusion, in community, in audience, in regionality, in vision—in short, the sort of thing I’ve hoped was coming for film culture, but didn’t expect to see a festival realize so soon.
Many online commentators mentioned that this shift felt very natural, organic, almost effortless. Of course, after many years of festival programming myself, I know that experiential results that feel effortless for attendees took months of detail-oriented hard work to orchestrate.
But again, I wasn’t there. So I reached out to noted film-professional colleagues (and #FilmTwitter personalities) who were, all with many a festival under their belts, hto get their takes. As I hoped, they didn’t hold back. Far from mere hot takes, their words below strike me as imperatives for where we should be—need to be—headed.
Please note that each interview was conducted separately, not as a group in conversation. They’ve been edited together, as lightly as possible, with the goal of fleshing out this year’s Indie Memphis experience and what it can mean for film festivals, film curation, and independent film culture in your neck of the woods.
Zia Anger is a filmmaker who attended Indie Memphis to premiere a new performance, My First Film, and was a member of the festival’s Departures Jury.
Cristina Cacioppo is a film programmer for Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, and attended Indie Memphis as a jury member for IndieGrants.
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim is a film critic who covered Indie Memphis for Filmmaker Magazine, and also attended in support of her boyfriend Graham L. Carter's film, Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes.
Sophy Romvari is a filmmaker who directed two short films programmed in the festival, Pumpkin Movie and Norman Norman.
SOPHY ROMVARI: This was my first time attending Indie Memphis. I started to notice the hype leading up to the festival was particularly widespread, considering the size of the festival itself. The excitement built up more and more as the festival announced its bold and exceptionally diverse programming, including world premieres but also films that have made their way around the circuit that Indie Memphis was choosing to place much more emphasis on...
I was absolutely delighted to learn that they would be screening not 1 but 2 of my shorts. When the shorts lineup was announced, I was bowled over with just how many shorts programs and genres there were. There is obviously a real commitment to discovering talent right at the beginning of someone’s career, which is special, considering how little some other festivals seem to dedicate to this aspect of programming.
CRISTINA CACIOPPO: It is a very welcoming festival, and clearly filmmaker-focused. I found it very accessible and inviting. A change has been apparent in the past couple of years, where you can see programmers putting in more effort to diversify. Indie Memphis exemplified it in the most natural way; it was very inclusive.
KRISTEN YOONSOO KIM: At the Maryland Film Festival, even though the programming celebrated diverse filmmakers, the people in attendance didn't necessarily reflect that, and I don't know if it was because of the lack of means to travel and take off from work, or what. The filmmaker brunch I attended at Indie Memphis had a super diverse crowd, and I think it has a lot to do with Indie Memphis uplifting not just minority filmmakers but focusing on local ones too.
ROMVARI: [Diversity initiatives in programming] often feel forced, and like boxes are being checked off. In the case of Indie Memphis, it felt naturally occurring while also being in your face, which I thought was really bold. During my Q&A, someone from the audience pointed out how lovely it was that all of the filmmakers on stage appeared to be women. We all leaned forward and looked at one another and kind of shrugged, like "huh, whadya know." I honestly think it hadn't occurred to any of us the company we were in, we just felt like a bunch of filmmakers.
ZIA ANGER: My experience with gender parity and diversity measures in film programming has largely just been watching programmers pat themselves on the back because they hit a quota. They like to say, "oh, here we programmed this percentage of women, or people of color, or queer people." They never frame it the other way around. No programmer ever says, "actually, 80% of our films have a colonial gaze, or 50% of our films were made by white men." That's because it sounds bad… because it is bad.
Quotas are bogus because it doesn't force these programmers (often white, often male) to consider anything other than a number, and then they put all the "good" numbers in every press release, but they are never forced to reckon with anything other than numbers.
Indie Memphis was incomparable. I mean, first you have Miriam Bale come out and say her and the other programmers' aim was to decolonize Indie Memphis, which is such an amazing way of considering programming. You don't have to worry about quotas because, as it happens, the majority of people who are making movies that explore their own communities are not white guys. So then the programmers are really able to consider films as films, or jury members as jury members, or special guests as special guests. Which is essentially how all of us—those normally shoved into film things to meet gender and diversity quotas—prefer to be considered.
NOTEBOOK: What was a moment that exemplified your Indie Memphis experience?
CACIOPPO: The screening of Rukus, which was by local filmmakers Brett Hanover, Alanna Stewart, and Katherine Dohan. It was a room mostly full of their family and friends. The film itself is so inventive and personal and lived-in, so it felt like I was witness to the very beginning of the work of an incredibly talented group.
KIM: We went to Sun Studio with the cast and crew of Graham's movie, and our tour guide recognized the lead actress because he had just come to the screening. I loved that there were so many cultural crossroads at Memphis. And also because the city has such a rich musical history, the programming also highlighted a lot of music-driven films.
ROMVARI: I think it has already been talked about a lot, but during the awards (which were just the right mixture of silly and prestigious), Miriam was warmly welcomed on stage and started the night off by saying [to paraphrase], "When you have a lot of diversity, you no longer have to worry about diversity.” Which answered the question I have naively asked myself many times: how do we get out of this cycle where people feel that programming or awards are just being given to certain films due to the fact that they are being pigeonholed for their race or minority? How do we break the barriers of what is expected or what is politically correct and just focus on talent?
Well, when your festival is full of diversity in every sense of the word, it’s no longer a concern. It’s like the white cis people who are the regulars at every other festival and film industry situation are now the weirdos, and it’s probably best that way. I found myself sharing an Airbnb with some of the most amazing filmmakers and creators, people I had met briefly on the festival circuit before, and I noticed at some point that almost the whole house of us were LGBTQ or non-binary, which speaks to a similar message: when you stop thinking about it, and stop making a point of being inclusive just for the sake of it, you will find yourself surrounded by the best of the best.
ANGER: I think that, unless film has a death wish, it has to reflect the market it hopes to sell to. It's a capitalist enterprise. It's unfortunate that there is a hierarchy in which regional festivals are not highly regarded by the distribution market. It seems like an obvious place to see how films do with a real live audience. Unfortunately, most films’ fates are sealed long before they ever go to a regional festival. And most regional festivals are depending too much on the programming of the "top 10" or so international festivals.
CACIOPPO: This seems very important: [festivals] should be more than just serving the festival circuit darlings to the local population.
KIM: [If] your region is very white, then I think your responsibility is to introduce your crowd to films outside their norm.
ANGER: There is a massive problem that is not just because of the curators. Entertainment companies or financiers put money into films that they think they will make their money back on. You make your money back on a film by being programmed at a festival and then being bought by a distributor. Entertainment companies/financiers, programmers, and distributors have a lot to reckon with. What is "better"? Is it artistic or capitalistic? I think the first step is for all programmers to acknowledge they are working within the confines of capitalism (even if they choose, like Miriam and co., to disrupt that).
NOTEBOOK: How would you respond to programmers who excuse lackluster diversity representation in their programming by pointing to imbalances in pre-curation production and funding?
ROMVARI: Fuck those guys. Straight up. [That’s] passing the buck rather than digging deeper. Of course there are huge gaps and issues with the beginning of production before the films get passed on in the programming stage, but that doesn't mean those films aren't being made in spite of the messed up system. In fact, some of the best ones are.
KIM: I think [such excuses] would make you a bad film programmer. There are a lot of ways to meet expectations of good taste while including diversity, and that's ultimately what I thought was so great about Indie Memphis. Miriam Bale did a really great job making sure both needs were met. There were a lot of women and POC filmmakers, panelists, jury members in attendance, but they didn't feel like they were there for the sake of diversity alone.
ANGER: Miriam and the programming team have destroyed a model, and the film industry would be stupid not to listen. As with all good things, I'm sure a lot of the really thoughtful, transformative work done and clarity found during this festival has the potential to be butchered or romanticized or a number of things by the people who were not there. That being said, I am excited, because I think enough people were there to experience it and will demand no less in the future.
NOTEBOOK: Does Indie Memphis 2018 say something about where film culture is headed? Are there limits to what white male gatekeepers, even if well-intentioned, can accomplish?
CACIOPPO: It is important to have diversity at all levels, because white men can't just guess what a diverse audience would want.
KIM: I think that for all the allies, there will still be a lot of pushback. I like to be optimistic, and I'm seeing a lot of progress on a smaller scale but if I look at the industry on a macrocosmic level, I feel like we're still stuck. There's still a lot of room to grow. Indie Memphis felt like the utopian vision of what it should look like on a broader scale.
ROMVARI: Applauding white men for programming diverse films or filmmaking is just gross. They should be creating space for those people to program the films themselves, even if it’s just a guest curation or a shorts program. There are far too many white men that are patting themselves on the back for programming diverse filmmakers or women, and then there are those that essentially take credit for discovering that filmmaker and feel entitled to the success that film may have, helping put that person on the map.
ANGER: If you are a white male gatekeeper, take a few years off and get a day job. Let someone else open a door.
Speaking with Bale on the phone on what was (on my end here in Baltimore, at least) a changed-climate, grey and wet but warm New Year's Eve, placed these reactions in a clear, modest, and actionable focus. I knew Bale primarily for her criticism (for The New York Times, among other outlets). From her year-round home in Los Angeles, Bale talked about how her background in DIY and no-budget film programming, including the La Di Da Festival in New York, informed her vision for Indie Memphis as much as any demographic criteria. We found similarities between Baltimore and Memphis as cities with rich, self-starting subcultural scenes, and how festivals provide the best experience to both locals and visitors when they engage with and amplify those idiosyncratic local specifics.
Bale effused about her experience as a juror at Indie Memphis 2017, one that made her eager to be considered for programming work at the fest. She repeatedly noted that her programming at the 2018 festival in many ways offered a continuity of vision with the great work done in previous editions by her predecessor Brandon Harris, now a development executive at Amazon Studios. She also stressed how supported she felt in her vision by the organization at large—which, in the context of my recent very different experiences with boards and executives, reaffirmed perhaps the most essential ingredient for a large-scale film festival to succeed: enthusiastic support and resourcing or an organization’s creative mission and specific programming mission from administrative corridors.
More than anything, we talked about Bale’s notion of decolonizing film festival programming. Bale described a programming philosophy for which putting quality first means eschewing boring festival films (which, in our current moment, may mean passing on those that prioritize familiar straight-white-male relationship issues) for new visions and voices. Festival lineups often attempt to fulfil demographic diversity with white-gaze films that may depict diverse communities, but do so from an othering perspective; this approach represents a setback, Bale feels, not progress. She talked about working with an all-women programming team, and how that resulted, quite organically, in a lineup without sexist films; and how not being a Memphis native herself necessitated regular collaboration and consultation with local people and organizations.
Given the structure of this article, Bale preferred not to be part of a chorus of accolades for her work, favoring instead a conversation about her goals and vision for the festival. The chorus, I think, says the rest.
At their best, film festivals are magic: a distillation of both an art form and a community in their ideal form. But again, magic results only come about through hard work in service of a clear vision. For festivals that want the sort of rapturous reaction that Bale and her team earned, Indie Memphis 2018 drew a line in the sand. The landscape in film culture is changing, for the better; relevant and meaningful festival programming requires hard work and deep thinking about complex issues about team, mission, locality, and resources at every level of an organization. That’s hard work that begins on Day One of the process. And [my words, not Bale’s]: for festival programming to truly be decolonized, there are a whole lot of festival staffs and boards that need to reckon with what that requires of their own composition.