The Duty of Film Festivals: The Gijón Festival & the Question of Programming

As a former employee of several festivals in Toronto, a current programmer for Toronto After Dark, and an attendee of festivals around the world, I know full well that running a film festival is a juggling act. Festival directors want to showcase the best films, get bodies in the seats, and generate publicity  Some festivals are worldwide events that attract the biggest stars and are covered by news outlets from across the globe while others become more niche, local events. The key for each festival seems to be to find a formula that works, and stick with it. If you create it, they will come.

Such was the thinking of José Luis Cienfuegos, who in 1995 took over the reigns of Festival Internacional de Cine de Gijón. Over the past 16 years, the director built the festival into, as John Hopewell calls it, the "Sundance of Spain." Cienfuegos and his team created a haven for independent and experimental cinema from Spain and around the world. Filmmakers as diverse as Gregg Arraki, Mario van Peeples, Tsia Ming-Liang, Kelly Reichardt, Nicholas Hynter, Paddy Considine, Claire Denis, and Ari Folman have all shown work there, not to mention the host of Spanish directors and filmmakers from Spanish-speaking nations. Presenting features, shorts, as well as tributes to filmmakers and screenings for kids, the festival in Gijón quickly became one of several festivals that has made Spain a mecca for filmmakers and cinephiles. According to a statement by Cienfuegos, the average number of spectators in 1995 was 10,000; by 2011, it was more than 75,000.

But things are set to change dramatically. Last week, Cienfuegos was let go as director of the festival. According to articles in El País and other Spanish news outlets, the municipal authorities spearheaded his removal. The new director, Nacho Carballo, has previously directed short films and has been an assistant to director José Luis Garci. The town councilor of Education and Culture in Gijón, Carlos Rubiera, stated in a press release that the festival would shift its focus to cinema from Asturias (the province in which Gijón is located)  as well as international cinema of the red carpet variety, 3D films, and more mainstream audiovisual markets. This, according to the press release, will open the festival to a new type of public, as opposed to just the "selective intelligentsia". Sources also note that the government in Gijón is of the more right-wing persuasion. And even though Spain recently elected a right-wing federal government who, among other promises, had said that it would eliminate certain subsidies previously enjoyed by the film industry, the move is quite a shock. The festival had become extremely successful, as a means of finding distribution for the very important Spanish market, as exposure for filmmakers, a site for film fans, and a boon to the tourist industry.

No one would dispute that festivals need money, and attention. Many festivals program films with internationally known stars in an effort to boost exposure. But that exposure and the subsequent income and attention is necessary, in order that festival might program lesser-known films that might otherwise never see the light of day. Very few people outside of France had heard of Michel Hazanavicius before his film The Artist played at Cannes last year. That a festival such as Cannes also screens Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is part of the deal festivals make: get the big names in, and their light will reflect on others.

One can appreciate the desire of governments to support films that earn top dollar at the box office. The trouble is, it's hard to guess which films those will be (UK Prime Minister David Cameron has recently expressed his wish for the UK film industry to produce more financially successful films; but it took a long time for The King's Speech to acquire funding, as no one thought it would be popular.) All films and filmmakers start from somewhere, and in today's market, the film festival network is the best way to gain exposure.

Much depends on the size of the local market, and what kind of festival it can sustain. Festivals with focused programming, such as short films, cult, documentary, local cinemas or other types of genres or forms can often thrive in smaller cities, that can become destination events, such as the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in France, or Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Festivals that decide to include a wide variety of these often only survive by having a large, local public on which to draw, such as Berlinale, or Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Having witnessed the crowds outside Gala venues at TIFF, waiting for a three-second glimpse of their favourite movies stars, I know that these screenings are important. But I've also witnessed rush lines filled with dozens (and on occasion hundreds) of people, hoping to squeeze into a screening of a Kenyan, or Icelandic, or Argentinian film that they might know nothing about, except that someone has taken the time and care to bring it to their city. And to create an event that allows people to share in their love of film.

A blog (in Spanish) has been created in support of Cienfuegos, with several opinion pieces by various figures in the Spanish filmmaking industry. There is also a manifesto (in Spanish and English,) signed by Spanish film luminaries such as Pedro Almodóvar, Mateo Gil, Isabel Coixet, Nacho Vigalondo, Agustí Villaronga and Jaume Balagueró, as well as international names such as Atom Egoyan, Abel Ferrara, Bruce LaBruce and Monte Hellman.

Questions remain: are film festivals obligated to show independent film? Should we begrudge a festival that wishes to showcase more commercial work? Should the increase in digital and 3D be accounted for and by extension given platform at film festivals?  Should festival directors act autonomously, or in conjunction with the wishes of locals (and by extension, local government?) These are all relevant issues, considering the importance of festivals for film exposure and distribution.
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