Kaleidoscope of Film Festivals
by Yu-San Cheng and Marie Zimmerman
Film has risen to be one of the dominant art forms over the last century, thanks in large part to the evolution of the technology behind it. With its growth, the film festival has become a ubiquitous phenomenon around the world. Daisy Evans, columnist for the European Commission on Culture, writes, “Film festivals as a whole are great for the movie industry worldwide. Many major films are premiered or previewed at film festivals, and the awarding of prizes creates a buzz and a hook for press and PR to hang stories and features about the film world and its associated glamour.” Whether seeking money, fame, celebration as an artist, or social impact, scores of filmmakers aspire to the great buzz created by exposure at film festivals.
The culture of film festivals began in the 1920s, in part as a reaction to the newly minted Hollywood film industry. From the beginning, the festival provided a platform for non-commercial, avant-garde, and documentary films. In this early period, some also recognized the political potential of film and festivals – the first official film festival arose from Italian dictator Mussolini’s “enthusiasm for motion pictures as a tool for political public relations and propaganda.” At the 1932 Venice Biennale, Mussolini’s people, claiming that they were working to make the display of Italian art at the event more varied, showed 25 films…all with serious political undertones.
In a reaction to a reaction – this time to Mussolini’s censorship of American, French, and British films in Venice – the great Cannes International Film Festival was created in the late 1930s. In the years since, it has evolved into one of the contemporary era’s most momentous screening events. It showcases everything from blockbusters to small artistic films, and success at the event can lead to even larger success worldwide.
In 1952, over 20 after the first film festival, North Americans took a stand on the platform when the Columbus International Film and Video Festival in Columbus, Ohio became the first official film festival in North America. The Columbus festival was designed to promote education and communication amongst filmmakers as well as with the public. To this day, the festival serves to give filmmakers a distinct voice. In subsequent decades, festivals have arisen in most major cities and have become a cultural staple in the arts landscape.
While the typical festival is rooted to a specific locale, the Ann Arbor Film Festival took the concept in a new direction with the advent of the traveling festival. This event, the longest running experimental film festival in North America, began to tour its selected works in 1964. The advantages of the traveling festival make practical sense – just like a traveling ballet, theater group, or museum exhibit, a traveling film festival will reach audiences who might not otherwise see its content. Greater numbers and more diverse groups of people gain access to lesser-known films. Though most people live within driving distance of a movie theatre where they can see all the year’s biggest blockbusters, independent and unknown filmmakers don’t necessarily have they luxury of exposure in that arena. With the traveling film festival, these types can gain access to many more people, and vise-versa. The Ann Arbor Film Festival continues to travel, as do a few others like the Banff Mountain Film Festival – both of which play in Pittsburgh thanks to Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Venture Outdoors respectively.
Since the early years, film festivals have evolved beyond what Mussolini might have imagined and now number in the thousands worldwide. Many are generalized in terms of content, but others focus on a specific theme – genre-specific programs, topical and issue-based films, or the cinema of national traditions and geographic regions. They nonetheless generally share a couple of common traits and goals: to promote artistic freedom and expression, and to draw attention to new work meriting our attention. Over the course of its evolution, the film festival has become not just a trend around the world, but a staple. They bring liberal mixes of narrative stories, documentaries, international films, experimental, and regional works for locals to ponder. Film festivals, in short, offer relevance and provide opportunities for the public to escape into someone else’s imagination, contemplate current issues, and prompt those conversations that only great art can. The film festival has come a long way since its early days, and in less than a century, the phenomenon has experienced unprecedented growth in both popularity and content. We must keep watching (literally) to see where it takes us next.
For a view of film festivals in Pittsburgh, click here.
For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:
Vol. 1, No. 3: Film Festivals Table of Contents
A New Type of Festival and an Integration of Multiple Art Forms: The Case for SXSW
Further Resources on Film Festivals, in Pittsburgh and Around the World