By Nick Cunningham
"I don't think we have seen a festival edition this political for quite a while," reflected IFFR director Bero Beyer at the end of IFFR 2017. He was citing some of the programmes devised for this year's Perspectives sections, such as Black Rebels, Picture Palestine and Parallax Views, all of which played out within a context of Trumpian and post-Brexit uncertainty (as well as a past half century of political turmoil).
But this year the need to contemplate, cogitate and examine extended also to the festival's very raison d’etre, vis-à-vis the business requirements of the independent film sector, Beyer pointed out. How best can the needs of the filmmaker be served when so many films are pitched, so many films are made, but so few get to international market?
"We too may be part of the problem," he stressed. "Last year we tried to question the idea that maybe training programmes and nurturing programmes are actually part of the problem, offering up a certain kind of film that is sealed and delivered within a certain context, thrown out into the marketplace and then, guess what, they don't really work. They [programmes] are skewing what the process is."
"We have organised CineMart for decades now, one of the biggest co-production markets," he continued. "But is it a logical thing to be continuing in its current shape? Isn't it logical to be thinking of other models?"
The festival therefore hosted the latest round of Think Tank deliberations during which leading co-production market chiefs (including CineMart's Marit van den Elshout), funders and producers looked to redefine the markets' contribution and level of involvement in the financing and production of projects.
Additionally, IFFR saw the successful launch of Propellor, a programme designed to cull the best of innovation strategies from other industries to invigorate the film business sectors. The initiative was devised together with Berlinale's EFM, CPH:DOX and Cinemathon.
"But we have to be really aware that we at IFFR are not just broadening the community but that we are really shaking it up, in terms of the kinds of films that we show but also realizing that we have a very distinct responsibility in who and what becomes part of that community. All festivals do. We select, we curate, we put things up, and we play a much bigger role in the life of filmmakers and their careers than is sometimes warranted. Luckily other things happen in other ways as well because it is not a given that things stay the same. In fact the only given is that things will not stay the same. So to embrace that as an inspiration is part of the fun of what IFFR does."
The business of existential analysis was extended within the festival to embrace both how culture is viewed and used as a device for recording, preserving and/or rejecting value systems. Film academic and theorist Thomas Elsaesser delivered a "thought experiment" to test the limits of Europe’s political values through an evaluation of the abject human state, as depicted in cinema, commenting on how both Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake and Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann exemplified this notion before turning his attention on IFFR 2017 selection Park, by Sofia Exarchou. Parallax Views took a multi-dimensional look at the shifts and ruptures within the geo-political world, while the highly politicised, at times polemical, Black Rebels programme featured filmmakers who, for many years, have portrayed, resisted and in some cases attempted to close the endemic cultural and racial divisions. This programme included a masterclass with Barry Jenkins after a screening of his Moonlight.
You take a kind of a leap
"There was a controversy last year about the Oscars being so white, but it is not like Barry started writing his story after that - it has always been going on," opines Beyer. "There are all these things that happen in the foreground that actually cloud the fact that these movements are more tectonic, are way deeper… If we look at out polarized society, this has been going on for a very long time. So we use a medium that embraces time and image and conveys that experience like no other medium can. And maybe even clarify [matters] slightly, or try to raise the right questions of how we got into this position of polarization, and if some of the politicians or, even better, some of us take that notion with us, maybe we can mend whatever rifts have been going on in society as well."
"You take a kind of a leap," he adds. "You are able to put on a film and you can invite the king to attend [Netherlands’s King Willem-Alexander attended the world premiere of Ernest Dickerson’s Double Play] and that is all good and well, but at the same time all this programming is also going on… You have the width of possibilities as a festival to say that we are going to do all of these things, which is kind of remarkable, but actually it is kind of normal at the same time."
More than just screening films
It is not always the case that a director of one the world’s leading film festivals will understand the slings and arrows of filmmaking him or herself. As an Oscar-nominated producer [Paradise Now Hany Abu Assad: 2005] Beyer understands therefore the satisfaction, pain, joy, frustration, hope and humiliation of getting a film to festival, and how the enormous energy generated by many hundred such filmmakers drives the event every year. But, for Beyer, it also underlines why IFFR should be more than just a place to screen new movies.
"Making a film is so bloody hard," he underlines. "You [the audience] see the film and it kind of works for itself and you can like it or not like it, it can receive a good review or a bad review, and you can say it was kind of nice or you can love it for the rest of your life. But those words [bear no relation] to the process of how someone sat in a room, talked to someone else and said 'you know what, I have an idea, maybe we should make a film about this', and that process is very invigorating and fantastically challenging."
"So when you come to a full Pathe 1, and you are standing on the stage and 850 people are staring you in the face and you have worked on this thing for five years, I can sort of relate to what this actually means, which has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but has everything to do with the process by which we make films, and this is again why the festival has a way bigger responsibility than just showing them."
"That whole process should be part of our DNA as well. Not just this festival but other festivals too, this convergence between funding, selecting, networking, promotion, distribution – it is all intertwined, and the responsibilities are shifting from one place to the next, and whether that is visible to audiences or not, for me personally it is just a joy to see a filmmaker and a producer come up and be able to say 'we have sacrificed five years of our lives and here it is.' And that alone deserves respect and compassion, and a round of applause."