So now the dust has settled on Bilbao and I have returned to the UK – on the flight home I made some notes about my experience at the festival. This is a very tough blog to write as I am not someone who likes to criticize other film makers or festivals as I know how much hard work goes into it all. But I feel compelled to voice my opinion regarding the actual films screened, the judging (and by extension, the programming committee)
First and most importantly, I wanted to be clear that the organisers of Zinebi 51 were fantastic and they really looked after all the film makers. It really was first rate! The venue was terrific too, and the film makers who attended and whom I met, were all wonderful people who were very passionate about their work (and open minded enough to sit through days of other film makers work too). And of those film makers who became my friends over the week, I liked almost all of their films, and two in particular were stunning pieces of art that impacted powerfully on audiences. We were all very happy to discuss our films and both give and take criticism. Usually over long breakfasts, lunches or in a club in the wee hours of the night. This was terrific fun.
And the film that won the big prize at the festival, while I would say is no work of genius, was a fine documentary. I would not have chosen it as a winner but it’s certainly worthy of that mantle.
OK… So what's on my mind?
Anyone who knows me will understand that I am no fan of arthouse cinema. So to sit through around 45 arthouse short films was, for me, a significant endurance test and a huge commitment.
Here are some of my personal views and experiences.
Only two films I saw made me smile. One was ‘Gone Fishing’. The other the closing animation. The rest were uniformly downbeat.
At every program of shorts that I attended (usually a two hour program with about 10 short films), I witnessed audience members leaving midway. On occasion, this could be about one quarter of the audience. To me, this spoke volumes about the films being screened.
More upsetting was the appearance of the judges when they announced the winners at a press conference. You can see a bit of this in the video above.
I considered how I might feel if I were a judge. What would I look like if I were awarding a prize to a film maker, whose work I thought worthy of a trophy? (and to be clear, this is an Academy Awards Festival so the winner gets into the Oscars longlist as well as a fat cheque for many thousands of Euros). I think I would have been very excited. To me, standing at the back of the room, the jury looked more like a group of people announcing a firing quad, ‘these are the film makers who will be shot at dawn…’ It was filled with the most awkward of silences too 'Any questions...?' .... silence... And not a single smile. Nothing.
It upset me quite a lot. Not because we didn’t win with ‘Gone Fishing’, I had accepted that as an eventuality way before the announcement, but because the whole process of screening and judging these films seemed to suck the very joy and life out of everyone – audiences, fellow film makers who were present, and clearly the jury too.Being exposed to 50 or so of the programmed films myself, I came to understand that many of the film makers simply did not care about the experience of the viewer. They were too busy making a point, a point that all too often was lost in their over self indulgence as artists. When each film began, inside I was screaming out, please let this be the one that I can connect with, and have some kind of emotional reaction to, other than either complete ambivalence or anger as the film maker had been so extreme as to make the whole viewing experience unpleasant (aka dull and boring).
I was also stunned at just how cliché much of the work appeared to me to be. If the UK comic group ‘The League Of Gentleman’ made a TV show where an arthouse film festival were run in Royston Vasey, many of these films I expect would fit right in. The only times I laughed was when a film actually did that ‘arthouse’ cliché thing that I had seen so many times before…
I hear many people complain about cliché in Hollywood movies. What I saw in Bilbao was equally cliché. This is very sad, as if anything, art should challenge convention and views.
Here are a few common symptoms that many of the films suffered from…
Symptom One - Refusing to make any point at all, preferring to present a succession of images that amounted to, well nothing I could discern*. This is not just my opinion, but that of many of the other film makers who attended (and who like me were at first politely smiling, assuming it was just them that didn’t ‘get it’). (*it’s possible I had a severe break with reality during some of the films)My overall feeling is that the films and the jury (and by extension the selection committee) all had some kind of funny bone removal, entertainment bypass or other such quasi operation that resulted in them choosing to present a body of work that was largely (though not entirely) comprised of films that acted like a kind of vampire on ones soul. Rather than challenge me, as good art should, they just depressed me with cliché, obvious contrivances and relentless incoherence.
Symptom Two - Refusing to have an end. Many of the films just stopped. Including at least one of the winners. Just plain stopped without warning. Not at the end. Just at the point where the film maker chose to stop making a film.
Symptom Three - Refusing to make any sense at all – be it literal, allegorical, ephemeral, interpretative… I am being way to kind here. Some films made no sense, and rather appeared to enjoy making no sense too. Maybe the point they are making is that there is no point, if so it was successful.
Symptom Four - Employing the theme that ‘life is crap. And then you die (or are killed by some random agent or a loved one)’. Actually, some of them made that film, quite literally.
Symptom Five - Refusing, while kicking and screaming, even throwing toys out of their prams, to attempt to make the audience laugh, giggle, chuckle, even remember what it must have been like to smile in life before this film was screened. My only giggles came as a kind of mental breakdown when I realised that it was going to get worse, and it was already edging on intolerable (I often left for the lobby to regain my composure)
Symptom Six - Being so aloof as to consider itself above reproach and criticism.
Symptom Seven - Persuading roughly a quarter of the audience (at some screenings) to get up and leave half way through.
Symptom Seven – Extreme close up shots that linger on objects designed to shock and repulse simply to push the boundary of taste.
It was only on the way home that I remembered the excitement, the thrill and the adulation I experienced at other festivals in the USA, such as Rhode Island, Sedona or Heart Of Gold in Australia.
The films and jury that I saw in Bilbao were soooooo serious, serious, serious… and anyone who knows me, knows that I am pretty serious myself. So to be out-seriousnessed is something amazing!
Now, the bad news is that none of this helps anyone.
Many of the films I saw help only the film makers onanism, and a handful of co-artists who buy into this nonsense.
My rant here does not help anyone else either. Well, maybe it helps me as I get it off my chest, but it continues to paint a negative picture of independent cinema in Europe – ‘cultural’ cinema (often state supported) that refuses to connect with mainstream audiences. This is something I am not happy about and I bit my lip for a long time in Bilbao until I had a mouth of blood over this experience, and it was time to spit it out.
Maybe this is all just a taste thing. I like rock music, they like jazz music. I think it probably is. And there is room for everyone and everything too.So it’s time to move on…
OK! So… This Friday, Gone Fishing is playing in central London, supporting a Steven Spielberg film! RESULT! Already I feel better. Yes, ‘Gone Fishing’ is playing as a support to JAWS on Friday night, and a doc about JAWS on Saturday night. You can get tickets here…
See you there!
Onwards and upwards!
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author