A big part of the world of cinema today is the role of the film festival. Film festivals serve a whole host of purposes such as giving a voice to unknown filmmakers, allowing them to showcase their work to critics and distributors, as well as hosting discussions and workshops on all things movies. However above and beyond all of these they are aimed at simply celebrating cinema.
The most notable and world-renowned film festivals include Cannes, Berlin, Tribeca and Sundance. These festivals are where some of our best films from the last few years have been discovered and given the recognition they deserve. Films such as The Lunchbox and last year’s stellar Masaan have gained their status and admiration as a result of first ‘travelling the festival circuit’ as they say.
I myself have never had the chance to attend a festival but instead have always followed them closely to find out which movies were making the most noise. So it was a true pleasure and delight when I found out I would be covering my first film festival, the kind of event where a cinephile like me would live and love to be. I attended the London Asian Film Festival, and these are but the random musings of my experience, in exploring all the curious aspects that make up a film festival.
So just how does a film festival work? How does the experience of watching a film at a festival really differ from a regular trip to the cinema? It all really starts with the line-up of films to be screened at the festival. Countless filmmakers submit their films to a festival, whose panel then select their picks as the official line-up, which may follow a set theme the festival is focusing on that year.
The line-up at this year’s festival already had me curiously excited. As most festivals do, it included a range of small films which don’t always get the big cinematic release, and so these are often the films which audiences don’t actually get to see. However as countless examples from previous years have taught us, these are the same small films which many a time go on to be some of the best films of the year. So I was already won over given that I got the opportunity to watch some of the most raved about movies of the year such as Aligarh and Chauranga, which I wouldn’t have been able to catch at the cinema.
The line-up also had me pleasantly surprised in its diversity and variety across genres. My assumption going in was that the typical ‘festival film’ was the hard-hitting, serious Indie film. But I was secretly grateful see a few light-hearted films and romantic comedies, such as For Here Or To Go? (a comedy starring Ali Fazal) andUnIndian, a romcom starring cricketing legend Brett Lee. This taught me that festivals are not necessarily a platform for a given genre of film but rather all walks of independent cinema.
And yet this diversity wasn’t limited to just genre but also geography as the festival included many picks of world cinema. Like most from this side of the world, my entire cinematic existence as an audience is largely split between Hollywood and Bollywood with a few films from abroad seen here and there. And yet it goes without saying that some of the most unforgettable films year on year come out from film industries around the world, outside the mammoths of Hollywood and Bollywood. In fact the award for best film at this year’s festival went to a film from Yemen, I Am Nojoom, which in my opinion fully deserved it. This sort of exposure to global cinema teaches you that movies really do transcend language and nationality. The emotions and sincerity that goes into a movie and telling a story are completely and wholeheartedly universal.
Then there’s the screening of the films themselves and just how it differs from going to a regular cinema. The main difference here is that at the end of every film, there is a discussion held, often involving a Q&A with the makers of the film or some of the cast. In a lot of ways this is a dream come true. For starters you’re surrounded by film enthusiasts from different facets of life, which in itself adds its own unique energy to the room and makes you feel like you’re in like-minded company. The discussions were such an exciting concept for me, because isn’t that all you want at the end of a movie, a chance to discuss it with people, and find out about what went into making it from the filmmakers themselves? Particularly for the movies that you loved?
For the films I enjoyed and connected with, this truly heightened the cinematic experience in every way. It was also admittedly interesting to see other people’s interpretation of a film, to see what they got from it that I might have not.
And yet, for the films that fundamentally didn’t work for me at all, I found this discussion quite taxing. It was as if people were finding meaning in a film where I found none, but then I guess that’s the nature of an opinion; they tend to differ across people. As a critic it almost made me doubt and question my own stance on a film, wondering what it is some people are seeing in something I found quite dull. Yet that comes with the territory of being a critic, it’s not necessarily about having a better opinion but possibly a more informed one. But I do believe there’s a fine line between discovering the layers in a film you might have missed, and people finding meaning where there really isn’t any.
Overall I loved my experience of covering my first film festival, it was an exciting and memorable week which really put the movie at the heart of it rather than PR and marketing machines which we see more often in the mainstream world. It gave me the chance to see some wonderful small films, meet the filmmakers behind them and put me out of my comfort zone with world cinema. I see this as the first of many and look forward to the next time I’ll attend a film festival and watch movies, and discuss them with like-minded people. In many ways, is this not the dream of any film lover?