News for Whom?:
The reviewing of festivals is a far from revered form of film criticism. Anthologies of the canonical texts of cinematic critique have rarely ever included such pieces. Those who choose the selected works of specific, acclaimed critics (such as André Bazin  or Andrew Britton ) for book publication tend to cull such occasional pieces early on in the editorial process – with some important exceptions, such as in collections by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1995), Manny Farber (1998) or Serge Daney (2001, 2002).
Festival reviews are regarded, in the long view of film culture history, as not only occasional but also ephemeral – on-the-spot reportage, little more. A collection of first impressions, peppered with observations about the atmosphere of a particular city and its event, and perhaps some random thoughts of a socio-cultural or political nature. Such reports are considered as wed to – and swiftly exhausted by – their currency; three months after a festival is over, no one (it seems) remotely wants to read about it, even if they were present there themselves. It’s long gone, just a sweet or sour memory. And as for the vast majority of readers who did not attend that festival: why should they care at all?
But there is a double standard operating here: scholars and others often do return to the reviews of films written on first release – frequently in hurried, deadline-driven circumstances no more conducive to reflection (perhaps even less so) than attending a festival over a week or so. Why this stigma hanging over writing about festivals?
The currency of festival reviewing also has a mercenary character – and those who write such reviews, as much as those who deem to publish them (often rather reluctantly), are all too aware of this. Festival reviews exist, in the vast majority of instances, because a deal has been struck: a critic receives free hotel accommodation, accreditation to the event, and perhaps a plane ticket to and from a far-off land, if he or she agrees to cover the event. For those who run festivals – particularly those who man their public relations departments – all publicity is good publicity, and this publicity tends to be, on the whole, scarce. A positive review often serves to win a particular critic another invitation the following year, and the merry-go-round of critique-as-promotion spins again …
Of course, I am not speaking here about the biggest, A-list festival events. Cannes can treat its hordes of critics a little more shabbily because it is at the top of the festival tree, and it knows it will automatically get all the publicity it will ever need, every year. (Look, for instance, at the remarkably extensive – and impeccably serious – amount of pages the French magazine Positif devotes to Cannes.) To a lesser extent, the same is true of New York, Berlin, London, Venice, and a few others. But when we reach the level of festivals such as Rotterdam, San Sebastian, Locarno, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Thessaloniki or Jeonju, the situation starts becoming somewhat more desperate.
No matter how objectively good or valuable these festivals, no matter how beloved they may be for their local or regional audiences, they know they will always ultimately have trouble getting more than a page – perhaps only half a page – in the likes of Sight and Sound or Film Comment. Film festivals around the world arrange themselves into a hierarchy, with published coverage of them tending to follow this hierarchy all the way down the line. And Asian film festivals, perhaps above all others on the globe, suffer from the injustices of marginalisation built into this hierarchisation.
Do the British or American readers of these major magazines (sold and distributed all around the English-speaking world) really want to know what is being seen and discussed at festivals in Ljubljana, Valdivia or Shanghai? Ideally, they should. But this pinpoints the central challenge in the face of the reality of what we might call commentary-as-commerce: how to make a report on events in such sites seem like news within the flow of the world cinematic calendar?
Journalistic coverage of festivals is, by and large, obsessed with the status of film premieres (rather than, for instance, retrospectives – which provide a key impetus for reflection in highbrow journals such as the French Trafic). That is why Cannes will always win the greatest column space, even in newspapers (such as The Australian) that scarcely bother to mention other large-scale festival events, except when they generate political controversy. At Cannes, every film is a premiere; as an Argentinean festival director once said to me, flatly: ‘If you want to know what’s happening in cinema today, you go to Cannes’ – and there is an undeniable truth to this.
Elsewhere, however, things are different – and we must strive to take what I have called (Martin 2009) the view from elsewhere, decentred from the vantage point of the major festival sites. At the Jeonju International Film Festival or JIFF – which is my case study in this essay – far fewer titles fit the premiere bill, and even some of the major Korean films of a given year will have premiered at Cannes. In addition, Jeonju has to compete, on home turf, with the more industry-oriented Pusan for its special premiere events, especially on the field of genre films. Where does this leave a Festival such as JIFF in terms of its media coverage beyond Korean borders? Not in a strong position; indeed, it has to work overtime to attract prominent members of the international press.
I attended JIFF in 2009 – the prestigious year of its tenth or silver anniversary – because I was asked both to deliver a lecture (on the then recently deceased Manny Farber), and also do duty on the International Competition Jury. I experienced as much as I could of the festival (given my own professional commitments at the event), and tried to take in its impressive richness on various levels.
I suspected that subsequent published reports in the English-language press would be respectful (I already knew, or came to meet, some of the sterling critics assigned to the task), but also too few and too short – and probably nothing much like my own experience. So I followed with interest the coverage that appeared in a quick, brief stream of magazine and on-line pieces. My initial predictions, alas, were largely borne out: whatever the quality of the writing or the piquancy of the responses and analyses advanced, the brutal fact remained that JIFF was destined to rate only ‘on-line exclusive’ treatment – always (despite what editors and publishers today say) a sign that a film or event is accorded lesser cultural significance – in both Cineaste and Film Comment, both highly significant and influential US publications. (And can we read any casual significance into the fact that, in 2015, neither magazine’s coverage of this 2009 event is still available online?)
Let us examine – not too damningly or from on-high, staying aware of the journalistic constraints operating – these on-line exclusive accounts of JIFF. Nicolas Rapold (2009), an estimable and rising young American critic, covered the event for Film Comment. It is a mere five paragraphs in length – presumably a matter of editorial choice or commission, rather than authorial intent. The first paragraph discusses the year’s Digital Project entries, by three international auteurs well known on the international festival circuit: Hong Sang-soo (Korea), Lav Diaz (the Philippines) and Naomi Kawase (Japan) – all these short films being (and I shall return to this intriguing facet of the festival) premieres, and thus JIFF’s ace in the hole. Rapold’s second paragraph mentions two retrospectives (Jerzy Skolimowski and Pere Portabella) and the Sri Lankan showcase. Paragraph three turns to the International Competition, and briefly discusses three films: JIFF winner Imburnal (2008) from the Philippines, Uruphong Raksaad’s Agrarian Utopia (2009) and The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) from Romania.
Fourth paragraph isolates two films (from ‘other international offerings’) that appear to be of particular interest to Rapold himself – and thus, by extension, to the typical Film Comment reader: they are Jun Ichikawa’s final 2008 film Buy A Suit (which warrants the only photographic illustration provided for this piece by the magazine’s Lincoln Center website), and Olivier Assayas’ television documentary about a dance/music collaboration, Eldorado (2008). The final paragraph mentions an historic national feature (Sweet Dream, 1936]) which ‘upstaged … most of the contemporary Korean selections’ – no contemporary Korean work, apart from Hong Sang-soo and a ‘promising short’ titled The Horn (2009), is actually named – and ends with a welcome evocation of the masterclasses, from which Rapold extracts a motto (uttered in my own lecture on Farber) which, for him, ‘provided an apt conclusion – and a working philosophy – for the festival experience: roughly quoted, ‘“Don’t tame the wildness. Embrace it”.’ And, in approximately 650 words, that’s the wildness of JIFF in a Film Comment-decreed nutshell.
Almost all festival reports alternate between capsule discussions of select films – usually, in fact, a tiny fraction of what was available to see at the event, although reviewers often try to give the opposite, false notion – and snapshots of that ‘festival experience’. It is (as always in considerations of criticism as a written or literary form, as Meaghan Morris  has made clear) a matter of rhetoric, of the organisation of snippets and fragments: some reports begin and end with a spot of local colour, others return to questions of national political context obsessively (as was the case in Serge Daney’s ambitious festival reports).
There is a tension in this rhetoric between a musing on the stateless film text – plus its corollary, the cosmopolitan, jet-setting critic who might very well see that same text here, there or anywhere in his or her global festival travels – and the necessarily specific coming-to-terms with the conditions of that particular time, place and culture in which the critic finds himself or herself. Then again, is two weeks spent hunkered down in the dark rooms of a film festival really the best way to get to know a country, or even a city? Add to this a usually buried fact: that busy journalists frequently end up not in public theatres with local moviegoers, but in unlovely press rooms, booths or cubicles, hunched over television monitors, sampling bits of this and that film on DVD copies of variable quality.
Observations on the local context were to the fore in the reports on JIFF ’09 filed by Cynthia Lucia (2009) for Cineaste (another on-line exclusive), and in the Canadian magazine Cinema Scope which, like UK’s Framework in the 1980s, upholds a militantly cinephile stance towards the in-depth, often feisty chronicling and critique of the world’s film festivals. The piece by Shelly Kraicer (2009) for Cinema Scope (around 1000 words) evokes the crowded street life that gives the event its particular, rousing ambience; this he compares with the larger context of Korea’s ‘regimented society’. Kraicer, an Asian cinema specialist, is the only commentator of those considered in this piece to venture into the fulsome program of contemporary Korean productions – and even he undersells the remarkable (and largely unsung) Missing Person (2009) directed by Lee Seo, a gritty, Abel Ferrara-like social drama with a fierce allegorical bent.
Lucia begins her account – a bit over twice the length of Rapold’s piece for Film Comment, a sign of Cineaste’s greater flexibility with its on-line extension, and its more open-minded left-wing politics – with a lively summary of what she learnt about the current economics of the Korean film industry. She relays the excited, colourfully promoted talk of a ‘bubble’ or boom engineered by a tax deduction scheme, and the exploitation of ‘the 3-Ds’, namely digital download platforms, DVD marketing and, surprisingly enough – for this is a peculiarity of the Korean scene – documentary!
Lucia then covers some similar ground to Rapold: the Korean and Sri Lankan retrospectives, and two thirds of the Digital Project (Hong and Diaz). The high-profile auteur-based retrospectives (Skolimowski and Portabella) are skimmed in favour of the spotlight accorded to an independent Korean filmmaker, Hong Ki-seon. Turning, again like Rapold, to the International Competition, Lucia makes the telling (and entirely valid) observation that the ‘strong collection’ of works in this section ‘is not always the case with many of the smaller festivals’: a testament to the perennial problems that institutions like JIFF face in accessing premiers and top-line product. She, too, spontaneously finds a double-bill of films that arouses her critical interest, expressed in the rhetorical form of a sharp comparison: in this case, Michael Haneke’s US remake of his own Funny Games (2007), coupled with Amat Escalante’s trenchantly violent Mexican production The Bastards (2008). Finally, after mentioning the masterclasses, Lucia’s piece comes to rest on an evocation of the ‘intelligent curatorial effort’ behind JIFF’s lively and extensive experimental section (including Ken Jacobs, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and a one-minute short by Jean-Luc Godard) and concludes that the event is, all up, ‘the premiere international festival that boldly and refreshingly places serious consideration of contemporary cinema and cinema history ahead of festival glamor and glitz that inevitably wear thin’.
The Jeonju International Film Festival is, in truth – and speaking now to my own, necessarily partial and incomplete experience of it – a complex beast. Apart from the large number of simultaneous screenings, arranged into the usual (and sometimes not so usual) thematic groupings (including generous retrospectives), there were the masterclasses (in 2009 devoted to film critic-scholars, rather than filmmakers); an enviable range of book-length publications, often in dual Korean and English languages (one devoted to 10 Years of JIFF, alongside several excellent director-based collections); and other spin-offs including DVD production and distribution (such as the remarkable Jeonju Digital Project box set, covering ten years of commissioned work). JIFF’s catalogue – and this cannot be said of very many of the world’s festivals – is itself a significant reference work, showcasing some excellent critical writings (as does, for instance, the annual BAFICI catalogue in Argentina), again bilingually. And there are various kinds of talk sessions, many of them weighted towards the involvement of the Korean film industry.
Festival reviews rarely give a sense of this complexity. They give a truncated, synoptic view, quickly shedding all sidebars such as seminars and publications. Special outreach activities, some of them enormously popular with the local audience – such as outdoor screenings (the 2008 anthology Tokyo!, which boasts a segment by Korea’s auteur darling Bong Joon-ho, gets another go-round at JIFF in this context) and sessions for children and/or adolescents – tend to go unmentioned. For what globe-trotting critic would want to waste his or her time seeing a movie they have already processed elsewhere around the globe, just for the sake of imbibing a bit of local flavour? However, this suggests that there might be many, alternative ways to carve up and write about a festival such as Jeonju.
JIFF is particularly notable, in the span of the world’s most progressive festivals at the present time, for spearheading an integration of exhibition, distribution and exhibition functions. Indeed, this strategy is an absolutely ingenious way of ensuring premieres from major filmmakers around the globe, whether from inside or outside Korea: if JIFF finances the films up front, and later gets to distribute them (to other festivals, and later on DVD), it naturally also gets to screen them first. Several festivals (such as Oberhausen and Melbourne) are today experimenting with this method, which has been programmatically outlined by Lars Henrik Gass in his important manifesto ‘Trade Market or Trademark’ (2009); Jeonju, in particular, has shown how relatively small investments of production finance can result in maximal cultural capital.
The Jeonju Digital Project (running since 2000) is a generally well-known initiative of this sort: directors including Harun Farocki, Tsai Ming-liang and Eugène Green have made some of their best short pieces within its thirty-minute format. As we have seen, reviewers of JIFF in ’09 (indeed, every year) were keen to mention it. A strange absence or oversight, however, is at play in all these articles: the Opening Night premiere, which was another dirt-cheap compilation of shorts especially designed by ten young and upcoming Korean filmmakers around the thematic title Show Me the Money (2009). Was the fact that it escaped discussion in the English-language press the reason why this film, like Missing Person, has (to my knowledge, and in my subsequent festival experience) singularly failed to travel abroad? Yet it was a fascinating, sometimes outstanding anthology film – with at least one episode, Yoon Seong Ho’s wonderfully droll Neo Liberal Man, remaining etched in my brain forever more.
There is, finally, a bright star in this story of Jeonju. The rise of forums for film criticism on-line has most definitely opened up new possibilities for writing – at length, with greater depth and reflectiveness – on such an event. I am speaking, in this instance, not of personal blogs (although some valuable, almost real-time coverage of JIFF was provided by such sites such as that of Marc Raymond ), but of those film magazines which began and exist wholly on-line, rather than beginning in hard-copy format and then adding on (often uncertainly or uncomfortably) a web presence for promotional purposes.
Thus, we can find a different kind of coverage of JIFF ‘09 in the FIPRESCI (Fedération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) journal Undercurrent by its chief editor Chris Fujiwara (2009). In his extended, wide-ranging report, Fujiwara (who returned to the city to compose a sequel in 2010), best captures a utopian mix of anecdote, cultural savvy and cinephilic dedication – the kind that writing on festivals can and should aspire to – in this passage:
Jeonju is the only festival in the world where the three people who stayed to the end of a Thursday night screening of Pere Portabella’s General Report on Some Questions of Interest for a Public Projection (1976), a three-hour documentary on the death of Franco and the perspectives it opened for Spain’s left-wing political parties, might find themselves, on leaving the theater, greeted by smiling volunteers handing out sample-size jars of hair wax as farewell gifts. (Fujiwara 2009)
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Britton, Andrew (2009) Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Daney, Serge (2001) La Maison cinéma et le monde 1. Paris: POL.
Daney, Serge (2002) La Maison cinéma et le monde 2. Paris: POL.
Farber, Manny (1998) Negative Space. New York: Da Capo.
Fujiwara, Chris (2009) ‘Springtime in Jeonju’, Undercurrent, no. 5.
Fujiwara, Chris (2010) ‘Intimate Intransigence: The 11th Jeonju International Film Festival’, Senses of Cinema, no. 55.
Gass, Lars Henrik (2009) ‘Trade Market or Trademark? The Future of Film Festivals’, Rouge, no. 13.
Kraicer, Shelly (2009) ‘Jeonju 2009: On Cinema Street’, Cinema Scope, no. 39
Lucia, Cynthia (2009) ‘Jeonju International Film Festival’, Cineaste, Vol XXXIV No 4.
Martin, Adrian (2009) ‘Here and Elsewhere (The View from Australia)’, in Richard Porton (ed) Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals. London, Wallflower Press, 98-108.
Morris, Meaghan (1988) ‘Indigestion: A Rhetoric of Reviewing’, in The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 105-121.
Rapold, Nicolas (2009) ‘Outland Empire’, Film Comment, July/August.
Raymond, Marc (2009) ‘Foreigner’s Guide to Film Culture in Korea’.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1995) Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press.