While attending True/False Film Fest in Columbia, MO came the news that South by Southwest later this month would be canceled due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Along with the additional looming possibility that the Cannes Film Festival in May might similarly be disrupted or postponed, this prompts the question of what such cancellations mean for film, which can only be answered by asking what purposes such festivals serve.
For SXSW, a public festival, this means a sudden evaporation of dozens of opportunities for audiences to see new film work. Due to the festival's size, it also serves as a launch pad for movies that will then tour festivals that are either smaller or have less cultural visibility. During or at the end of this tour, a film may either be bought for distribution in cinemas or on digital platforms (or both), expanding audience awareness of and access to it, or it may never be sold, and thereby precariously dwindle in the culture's consciousness. The cancellation of Cannes, a predominantly industry-only event—including press, producers, film buyers, programmers, and the like—would mean the absence of the world’s most prominent and prestigious professional showcase of new cinema. This showcase is intended only partially to be a curatorial effort; more directly, its primary purpose is for the offering of finished productions before the eyes of those who will hopefully shepherd those movies to local audiences through distribution and local festivities, an activity that will partially be guided by the reception of those premieres by the attending press. In other words, Cannes is above all a market, a place for goods to be presented and sold. Losing this venue for the year is akin to a shop closure; the goods might be dispersed and sold elsewhere, but not in circumstances ideal to create their maximum value.
The financial implications of this possible disruption, as well as the impact on careers that could be dramatically changed by a film premiering (or not) at Cannes, could be significant. But what this possibility underscores is how absolutely mixed up film culture is about what film festivals are, and what they can be. The cross-contamination of the market side of the film industry with the public side of hosting special exhibition events has placed undue pressure on major international festivals, including Sundance, Cannes, and the recently concluded Berlinale, to fulfill necessary functions as marketplaces alongside of, or possibly even superseding, their goal of curating the year’s essential new films for local audiences. Obviously such curation at any level, including at smaller festivals, can impact the lifespan and economics of a film, but there is something seriously awry with the contemporary film industry if the economic viability of so much production absolutely relies on a handful of premium festival showcases. This means that the business of film needs some festivals in a way it doesn’t need others, and that those festivals eventually grow to rely on the success—in business terms—of the films they select. If festivals with dedicated market components suddenly disappeared, not only would a large number of films never be made, but whole categories of films would disappear, so reliant are they on the cycle of funding and premiering engendered by these markets.
In contradistinction, in Columbia, I was safe, not just from the epidemic but from the complete impinging of the film market on the nature of a film festivity. This festival, only four days long and containing a lineup of just 40 features of nonfiction filmmaking, is modestly contained yet invigoratingly curated. It welcomes a few world premieres, but as what is termed (with a conscious judgment of cultural hierarchy) a regional festival, it is actually freed from the overdominating need to secure territorial premiere status of its lineup, which in the 2020 edition was a healthy mix pulled an eclectic array of other festivals and keen scouting from over the last year. In this context, you’ll find films that were only just revealed to audiences at Sundance two months ago, along with titles that have been circulating among more adventurous film events since the same time last year. Addressing a predominantly local audience from Columbia and the surrounding area and keeping visiting guests in cozy and friendly proximity to that community, the idea is to provide a selection that is diverse as much in form as it is in address and its makers, so that widely appealing features like the Walter Mercado-themed Mucho Mucho Amor can be seen the same day IWOW: I Walk on Water, a 200-minute first-person essay film from Khalik Allah about a Harlem street corner, a homeless victim of substance abuse, and an international love affair.
A festival should not have to ask, will this film sell to a distributor if we play it; nor should it have to ask, what kind of publicity will this film attract? A film festival should only be asking, will this film engage, stimulate, and challenge our audience? This questioning can result in a festival, as it does at True/False, that at once surprises and provokes its audience as much as it builds a community of trust and curiosity that desires to be so confronted.
Here is a festival, for example, that decided to show the debut film by Portuguese director Catarina Vasconcelos, The Metamorphosis of Birds, at the most impressive of Columbia venues, the historic Missouri Theatre. A semi-imagined family history traced from the geographically separated love of Vasconcelos’s grandparents to her birth and relationship with her parents, the story is told through real and imagined letters and narration, nature photography, languid actors, details of historical decor, and isolated, emotionally charged re-creations of small, sensual actions directly and indirectly related to the story—the kissing of a bust, the opening of a box of secrets, the view from a porthole. Curiously avoiding the tumultuous political history of the era, The Metamorphosis of Birds presents family history as a sequestered realm of poetry, metaphor, loss, longing, and love. Shot on 16mm, it is a tremendously pretty and delicate film, whose hushed quality of imaginatively extrapolated family diaries felt like a long hidden secret we were granted access to when shown on the big Missouri screen.
With its annual Neither/Nor section, even the modestly-sized True/False follows the admirable axiom of highlighting retrospective work alongside the new. The 2020 edition celebrated four Missouri-born artists, two of them black, and included work by Mike Henderson, whose shorts have a confrontative, no-nonsense materialism, a stark rejection of convention and slickness, and a welcome sense of sardonic humor. The Rocking Chair Film (1972) and Dufus (1973) both have the what-you-see-is-what-you-get frankness of early silent cinema, achieving the primal simplicity of movies unfettered by commercial concerns. This gives The Rocking Chair Film—whose protagonist is a stalwart chair used with continued interruption in the middle of a city street, dragged up a mountain, pulled down the same, and integrated into the production of a samurai film—its practical and surrealist take on performance art. And to Dufus, a self-lacerating masterpiece of comic black caricatures, this approach results in the lo fi, high politics subversive modesty of Luc Moullet. These are works of rare recalcitrance and were by turns bracing and baffling to encounter, as unfortunately they weren’t presented with any context on the artist or his practice; unlike in past years, the festival didn’t publish its usual—and free—monograph devoted to Neither/Nor, which would have provided welcome background to such work outside the mainstream as Henderson’s.
Another well-deserved Neither/Nor program was devoted to Christopher Harris, whose essential city symphony of a decaying St. Louis, still/here (2000), played on film. Harris’s searing 2004 short film Reckless Eyeballing, which aggressively manipulates footage of Birth of a Nation, a wanted poster for Angela Davis, and images of Pam Grier to achieve a demanding but triumphant confrontation of a racist gaze with resilient black women, was impressively paired with a new work by Ja'Tovia Gary. This piece, The Giverny Document (Single Channel), as a 39-minute collage that edges close the gallery world (the title reflects how there is a multi-channel exhibition version), underscores the best side of the festival’s programming, showcasing not only work of women artists and artists of color but daring and unconventional work that would be hard-pressed to be shown in a regular theater let alone a regular festival. The single channel version of The Giverny Document, which freely montages between Harlem street interviews by Gary of black women of various ages about their sense of safety in the world, with footage of Gary reclaiming France’s Giverny gardens famous as a subject of Monet’s paintings, an extended excerpt from a soul-crushingly personal Nina Simone performance, drone strikes, and a few eclectic stylistic flourishes, creates a very young but very fresh and powerfully acute dialectic on the black female body, its vulnerability, strength, progress, and possibility for change.
This possibility was underscored by the best new film I saw at the festival, Garrett Bradley’s Time. It is about the nearly twenty-year wait of Sibil Fox Richardson, also known as Fox Rich, for her husband to be paroled from prison for a robbery the two committed in their youth, right after Rich became pregnant with twins. Brilliantly cutting between black and white, low-definition diary footage Rich shot on video of herself and her children over the years for her imprisoned husband, Rob Richardson, and Bradley’s high-definition footage of a 40-something Rich now, the film constructs in absolutely vivid and often deeply emotional terms not only the strength and hope of this woman over the years and into this living moment, but also her remarkable performance of such fierce love and determination. In beautiful monochrome we see, on the one hand, the ordeal of waiting and working and hoping, but also the need to reconstitute the sorrowing and pain and disappointment into a public display—whether in the Fox’s videos for her husband, her time with Bradley, or at what looks to be inspirational speaking—of stalwart resilience and perseverance. Time pointedly leaves aside questions of systemic injustice, which it takes to be implicit in America’s penal system, and instead invests itself fully in the emotional anguish and yearning over so much time, and how this woman can be seen as a figurehead for transforming personal suffering into positive good, raising incredible children, inspiring others, never stopping her fight to be again with her husband, and never giving up hope.
These films weren’t in Columbia to be sold. It didn’t matter that Time premiered at Sundance (where, in fact, it sold to Amazon), The Metamorphosis of Birds earlier this month in Berlin, Ja'Tovia Gary's film at Locarno last year—or, for that matter, that Henderson’s work was more than two decades old. What mattered was bringing urgent films before the eyes of an audience who together would experience the riveting perspective of another. The voices behind those perspectives might be different from the general makeup of the audience itself—which superficially appeared older and whiter—but creating an event hosting eclectic and different work that was aesthetically and politically engaging is the only way to attract and create a relationship with an audience. For it is only and always the meeting point between the work of art and the audience that a festival constitutes itself, and that its curation has impact. The guiding motivation of that point of contact should never be a question of commerce, but, as at True/False, always a question of engagement.