The Movie Lovers

The world makes out all right at the International Film Festival

COWGILL: It's very expensive to fly filmmakers to Australia. And if airline sponsorship is curtailed, this crucial part of any festival's cultural value is curtailed. What I've noticed is that audiences do appreciate having even film technicians--editors, cinematographers--appear with the film to talk about it and answer questions. I don't know if it adds to one's immediate appreciation of the film itself, but it does remind us that film is made by human beings, by artists who sometimes have interesting things to say. It makes the whole enterprise seem more real somehow--more than a piece of machinery throwing images at us.

CP: So is increasing the number of appearances even by editors and cinematographers something that [the MSPIFF] should be striving to do?

COWGILL: Always. But that's part of the whole notion of festival growth, which is an incredibly expensive and tricky proposition. I believe our festival needs to get bigger. Now what does bigger mean? Bigger means that we'd be able to bring in more international filmmakers. Bigger means that we'd be able to get more producers and distributors to want to place their films here. And it means that we'd be able to hire more people to spend more time on programming; our staff is stretched desperately thin. But the tricky part is that growth may in turn lead to an internalized awareness of what, on one level, is "marketable," and that could affect the festival's integrity. It's my feeling that in order to secure major sponsorships, the festival has to have a certain number of major films and filmmakers.

Tim Lane

TAUBIN: The question of what constitutes a "major" film or filmmaker is a good one. Many critics worldwide would say that Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Yet only one of his films--Millennium Mambo--has been distributed in the U.S., and only barely distributed at that. The major figures in world cinema are often invisible in the United States.

WILDER: The MSPIFF--indeed, all U.S. festivals, with the possible exception of New York's--needs to spend more time securing the "major" films, and I don't mean the ones with Nicole Kidman. It isn't going to cost the festival more than some shoe leather and cell phone minutes to get a greater percentage of the work that has been rightly honored in the most respected European festivals. I do have to commend the programmers this year for bringing in at least two documentary masterpieces: The Five Obstructions, which is the best movie about the creative process that I can recall; and S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is simply in a class by itself--a class beyond criticism, perhaps. But in past years, the MSPIFF has screened a lot of movies that made me seriously doubt whether anyone involved with the festival had even watched the movie. Forget about the films that seem to have fallen off the back of a truck: Anyone with access to some recent issues of Film Comment, Cinema Scope, and Sight and Sound could get a fair idea of what's interesting, acclaimed, and unseen in America.

COWGILL: You can put out all the shoe leather and cell phone minutes you want, but just because you desire a film desperately doesn't mean that you're going to get it.

WILDER: Okay. Then the question becomes, What will it take to get those films in front of the public? I mean, that to me is the most interesting question--above and beyond the other questions of diversity of representation and so on. "Diversity" is important, but not for its own sake. I for one am tired of festivals that program the umpteenth regional variant of the "Grandpa and cute kid learn a lesson" movie, but have too little to offer from, say, South Korea or Thailand or especially Japan.

CP: What's interesting is that the "Grandpa and cute kid learn a lesson" movies often sell out when they screen at the MSPIFF--which can't make it easy for programmers to want to turn down those sorts of movies in favor of, say, the critically acclaimed headscratcher from Taiwan that has had difficulty finding a sizable audience anywhere in the world.

COWGILL: I don't think festival programmers ever allow films to compete with each other this way. No film is turned down on the grounds of its challenge to the audience or weighed on a commercial basis next to a crowd pleaser. But any festival has to consider showing films that an audience may love. And maybe this is good.

CP: Audiences for art films in the U.S. haven't increased notably in the last decade--but they have increased for the MSPIFF. How on earth do we explain that?

COWGILL: What seems to be working here is the blockbuster complex: Produce a huge event that everyone notices for two weeks and the audience will show up for it. We've seen evidence that more people have been coming to more films simply because they're festival films. These audiences often don't know or even care particularly what the film is. Whatever else this might mean, I think it means that the audience is opening itself up to experimentation, to discovery.

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