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Along with doubtless thousands of others, an email arrived today telling me there would be no skiing, partying, or gushing of non-existent money spent by me to attend the upcoming Sundance Festival.

Not with Coming to Terms, nor, advised 3 further letters, with The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, nor Trinity, nor the short, Stand.

RE:  12465-UNF – COMING TO TERMS

Dear Jon,

On behalf of the Sundance Programming staff, I would like to thank you for submitting your film to us for 2013 Sundance Film Festival consideration.  Unfortunately, we were unable to include it in our Festival program this year. For the first time in our history, we received more than 12,000 submissions (12,146 to be exact), so deciding on a final program was more difficult than ever.  We selected 170 films from around the world (1.4% of the total films submitted to us), and it goes without saying that we viewed far more worthy films than we had room for in our program.  Please know that your film was carefully considered by our team, and we truly respect your hard work and dedication as an independent filmmaker.  We wish you the best of luck with your project and hope you will give us the opportunity to view your work in the future.

Sincerely,

John Cooper

Director, Sundance Film Festival

I can’t really say this came as a surprise to me, but since I got a waiver from the stiff entry fee, I thought it worth about $10 in DVDs and postage to roll the dice.  In my cynical opinion it would have been very nice to go… to ski.   On the other hand though I’d read that it was the intention of the festival to shift a bit more toward the so-called indie world of adventurousness, etc., I kind of figured this was within the brackets which seem to define such things in the USA – mostly rather conventional filmmaking perhaps spiced with some literary/narrative topical kink.   So I didn’t really think Sundance would be inviting my work – none of the things I sent quite fills that kind of bill.

So, no skiing for me this winter unless some quirk finds me invited somewhere else – I could go up on Mt Hood I suppose.

Meantime, sending entry forms to Yamagata, off next year in autumn, and Jeonju, this coming spring.  And DVDs were already sent to Rotterdam and they confirmed, after a bit of a wait, finding them somewhere in the avalanche of other films which our brave new digital world has begotten.  So we’ll see if the Dutch will be interested.   Thus far The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima has accrued Dear Jo(h)n letters from Venice, Toronto, the Florence Festivale dei Popoli, the Margaret Mead conclave in New York and there must be another one or two as well.  Working on those films for (n)one. [Update, early December: Rotterdam also said no.]

Postscript:  Rummaging around in my computer files I bumped into this, written for Chris Fujiwara at his request, and then posted in FIPRESCI journal.  Chris is now director of the Edinburgh Festival.

The Big Circus

By Jon Jost

I guess I’m now an old-timer for the festival world. I’ve been going to them since 1977 I think. Berlin and Edinburgh, Deauville and Taormina. Way back then there were only a dozen or so festivals worth the name, each with its own characteristic value. Today there seems to be a festival for every day in the year, a grand “International Film Festival” of whatever obscure place you can imagine, for whatever genre and taste.

When I first went to festivals there was a practical purpose to it: festivals would get you exposure, they would provide a springboard to make a sale, for those with more commercial work it was a form of advertising. Some of this still holds true in Cannes, and perhaps a few more places. But in reality those functions have stopped. For commercial films, festivals are now a marginal matter, a little icing on the PR cake; but for non-commercial films they are almost the only matter.

Way back then there were arthouses, and little boutique (they didn’t use the word back then) distributors to serve them. Now there are virtually no arthouses and no such distributors. What once existed as a market, however small, no longer exists.

Instead what exists is an exhibition system that doesn’t pay, or in reality requires the producer/artist to pay. Most festivals require a submission fee and in effect work as a vanity press combined with Lotto. You pay to roll the cultural dice and if you win, your film gets shown at your expense. Those who can play this game – art films are still made, but they are made in the cultures which subsidize these films in the name of making their culture known on a global scale – are those able to pony up the entrance fee, make prints, crank out a bit of promo material, and exhibit at festivals. In general that’s it unless the film is basically commercial in quality, and has some effective hook – a star, a star director, a good genre story – that lets it escape the festival zoo and find a broader public. Few and far between.

So festivals have changed from being one step toward an audience to being the audience, and hence they have become a kind of cinematic ghetto, where a certain kind of film obtains a fleeting life – a page or less in a catalog, an audience of twenty or 2000, perhaps a festival circuit shooting-star life of another ten lesser festivals, and then a year later, oblivion.

The blame for this can be attributed to a number of things, the main one being the victory of Market Economy Capitalism (otherwise known as globalism), in which the primary measure of value is money, the more the merrier. According to this system there really are no other values. Crammed down the world’s throat by the IMF, World Bank, and other American-controlled entities, this has resulted in the jettisoning of any cultural values that don’t equate to the maximum profit. Another likely cause is the organic nature of culture, that it grows and dies like any living thing. Cinema seems peculiarly transitory this way, just as the flicker of 24 fps of light is, with cinema cultures flourishing briefly – Italy, France, Germany, Portugal – and then quickly falling into decadence. Currently the most vital cinematic cultures seem to be in Asia, particularly the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and some places in South America. In this floating world of cinematic flashpoints, it is natural that festivals flare and fade in synchronicity with the cinematic cultures which surround them. Where once Italy had a vital film culture, Venice played a second fiddle to the grand old lady of Cannes. Now Venice is a glitzy momentary blip on the festival calendar, forgotten the week it concludes. Cannes has a half-life slightly longer, but not much.

Ironically, being one of the few places where one can see serious, non-commercial cinema, festivals are utterly mis-tuned for such work. Festivals are circuses, places of non-stop partying and low attention spans, with a plethora of too many films to be seen; places where a film is sized up in minutes, and abandoned if it hasn’t hooked – after all there’s another one starting in ten minutes 100 meters down the street. Lots of serious cinema doesn’t work that way. And then serious cinema, like any serious art, requires attention, concentration, and time to absorb after the fact. Festivals are the opposite, a massive flush of films, one after the other, simultaneously, each shouting for attention, with no time for reflection. If this sounds like the jaundiced view of a burned-out festival participant, it is.

And yet, at least for this cultural cycle (I’m privileged to see things in a somewhat long range – if not so long as Manoel de Oliveira), festivals are about all we’ve got – to show my films, or see those of others in the same predicament. So a few words on one recent one with which I’m now quite familiar – Jeonju.

Located here in Korea in a small city a bit south-central on the peninsula, I’ve been to it since its inception in 2000. First time out it was a beautifully organized festival with a swarm of ever helpful student volunteers, who kept inquiring, “Are we doing good enough?” Their anxiety betrayed a provincial sense of inferiority that was utterly unwarranted. Even in their first year they had a very good selection of films, real audiences, and ran circles around the organization of a lot of festivals I’d been to. Since then Jeonju has blossomed into a really impressive festival, with consistently high audience levels for a range of interesting filmmaking from around the globe, with retrospectives accorded to the likes of Béla Tarr and Jerzy Skolomowski, Alexander Kluge and Pedro Costa. Naturally, Jeonju has become a beacon for Asian filmmakers, and seems increasingly recognized in the wider world.

In addition, for some years they’ve sponsored a digital filmmaking project, handing out a very good budget to three filmmakers each year to make a half-hour long film. Putting their money where their mouth is.

Naturally such a gathering brings in a good number of critics, mostly Asian-based, and the festival has provided space for serious discussion from the critical standpoint. In 2009 there were “master classes” by Raymond Bellour on “Trafic and the films of Philippe Grandrieux” and “Chris Marker and Level Five”; by Richard Porton on “WR: Mysteries of the Organism – Anarchist Realism,” and by Adrian Martin on “Manny Farber: Creative Criticism.”

So while the general picture from the festival world deserves a cynical eye (are some of these festivals I’ve sent DVDs to and never heard from again merely rackets for making a weird collection of DVDs to crank out locally and sell?) and perhaps from a filmmaker’s viewpoint a bit of caution, there remain some bright spots, where film is taken seriously and space is given outside the glittering glamor-struck spotlights of Cannes and Venice and Berlin. Short-lived but lively festivals come and go, and others like Rotterdam and now Jeonju, which have staked their ground and grown, still maintain an integrity which for the most part seems absent elsewhere. And perhaps, before I drop dead, the cultural cycle will roll over and film/video of a certain serious kind will again find a place in the larger world, one that might even offer the hope of making a living! Until then it’s a handful of festivals, and in my case, a belated teaching gig.

I note that since the above was written the director of the Jeonju festival was fired, I quit my teaching job, and my work has been rejected by a mess of festivals!

Castle wall, Yamagata

A few nights ago there was the Awards Ceremony for the festival, and indicative of the evident tastes of the jury, and how out of synch it was with my own inclinations, the first prize (worth about $25,000) was a film I walked out of, finding it a somewhat sloppy TV-style doc affair – The Collaborator and His Family.  The other winners in the International Competition suggested more tilt along that line:   Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman’s rather glossy paean to the cosmos and Pinochet’s victims got runner-up, Distinguished Flying Cross, some honorary mention with some cash, and The Woman with 5 Elephants, a very nicely done by-the-book TV doc got something, as did Apuda, the Chinese film of long long takes of a father dying from which I also left.   It was clearly a jury that tilted toward the by-the-numbers film-making book, with some modest nods to very conservative modes of wiggling the rules, or so it seemed to me.

Following the diminished closing party and gathering at the festival watering hole, the Koumian bar, it was departure.  The next morning Iman Kamel, who made Nomad’s Home, and earlier in the week, after seeing my film had asked me to see her film and give my thoughts, came up to talk.  She’d Googled and up had popped my capsule review with its comment about “sloppy images.”   She was charming, and said some critique is better than the usual “nice film” or no comment, though the “sloppy” clearly bothered.  I explained I meant it for a handful of parts where a camera is rather waved around while walking, in telephoto, mostly out of focus though sometimes in.  These parts were clearly deliberate, as a kind of punctuation mark, but I felt they went on too long, revealed nothing, and didn’t work as intended.   The rest of the imagery was competent enough, but not more – and in a setting where the opportunity for a lot richer imagery could have been had, and appropriately to the content and context of the film.  Just her camera person (not her) didn’t have the eyes to get it.  And she, working with a group, didn’t guide it to a better place.    Try harder next time – get better camera person, whatever.   It was meant in a way to be lyrical but it didn’t quite fly.

Naoko Komuro and Iman Kamel

Overall I found the competition films rather disappointing – the made-for-TV work ranged from really manipulative or crudely done, to very finely mounted, but “for TV”; those not aimed at a mass audience were for the most part modest in their bending of the rules of engagement, and for the most part in my view didn’t work.  I suppose if I were in the jury, recusing myself regarding my own film, I might have pressed for Day Is Done , whatever my reservations the film left in my mind about the maker, his voyeurism and his implicating his viewer in the same.

When teaching or doing workshops, or in meeting younger filmmakers and encouraging them I tell them to enter festivals (but not pay entry fees), and keep their ego out of it. I tell them festivals are like rolling dice – submitting and then if you get in, the jurying.  Like dice, it has almost nothing to do with you.  While I was in Yamagata, I got two more rejections for Imagens – from the Florence Festival and Jihlava in the Czech Republic.  They joined a list of other rejections – Margaret Mead, NYFF, docLisboa, Bilboa, Mumbai, Busan and DocSDF in Mexico City.   I’m about run out of documentary festivals to try for it.  Whatever these places say, Imagens de uma cidade perdida is among my best films, which, whatever selectors think, seems to be the view of audiences which have been very positive.   Festivals?  Go figger…

Toshi Fujiwara translating Jon pontificating

I caught the train to Fukushima, to head for a hot spring resort for a brief break.   About 40 kms away is the Daichi nuclear power plant, three reactor cores melted down, oozing radiation.  Iizaka, the little town on the edge of Fukushima seems deserted – I don’t know if because it’s a week-day, or that people have decided it’s too close for comfort.  Seems like a ghost town.  And the particular one I am in is located next to a mini-power transmission thing – the taxi driver seemed a little bewildered that a foreigner was going there.  It’s almost empty.

Jon as Max von Sydow by local artist Mochizuki Rie

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