When he was twenty-six, it was a very good year…. And when he turned twenty-seven, he was in Warsaw, attending his eighteenth film festival of the year and the second of eight in a row—like, one after another, like, without going home. You do the math; meanwhile, this is what I made of 2014.
Photos by Michael Pattison.
[Editor’s note: At right, a few Fandor films on the 2014 international film festival circuit.]
1. Means to an end
At the time of writing, I am preparing to attend International Film Festival Rotterdam for the second time. My first visit, last January, was also my first festival of the calendar year. Twenty-three festivals later and I’m totting up what has been an unexpectedly intense year of travel, writing, teaching and seeing. My year in brief: twenty-four festivals, about 170 days away from home and just less than 340 feature-length sittings, if you treat each shorts program as a feature. It averages out at two feature-length films per day.
2. Never mind the length of stay, feel its intensity
My most intense viewing schedules came at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March and IndieLisboa in April. In Thessaloniki I saw thirty-four films in eight days; in Lisbon, seventeen films in four days. Both are reflected in the amount of writing I did at each: three reports and twelve reviews from the former (including this piece here at Keyframe), two reports and eighteen reviews from the latter. Though I saw more films in Rotterdam (twenty-four), Bradford (twenty-one), Vienna (twenty-one), Ljubljana (twenty-one), Edinburgh (twenty-one), Berlin (twenty) and (twenty) than I did at IndieLisboa, I was at each of them for longer, which afforded rests and recovery periods between the viewing: I was in Rotterdam, Ljubljana and Vienna for ten viewing days each, Warsaw, Marseilles and Berlin for eight days, Edinburgh for six days and Bradford for eleven.
3. Sing for your supper
A heavy shroud of doubt still hangs over the future of the UK’s Bradford International Film Festival—to give it its full name—following what was otherwise a successful 20th edition in March/April 2014. I was delighted to contribute to its last (and perhaps indeed to its last) edition as a programmer and Q&A moderator, and followed this helping-hand capacity with catalogue contributions and/or Q&A moderations at Crossing Europe (Linz, Austria), IndieLisboa, Kino Otok (Izola, Slovenia), CurtoCircuíto (Santiago de Compostela, Galicia), the Viennale and Seville European Film Festival.
4. Duty free
I served on four juries proper in 2014 (not counting an at-home jury-duty judging an avant-garde competition at Peru’s Lima Independiente, which included watching via Vimeo and deliberating via Skype): Bradford, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Warsaw and Ljubljana. Speaking generally, juries are the best way to spend one’s time at film festivals, which is perhaps why my time at each of these ranks among my warmer memories this year. Other duties at festivals have included teaching: I organized and led a five-day workshop for young critics at Dokufest (Prizren, Kosovo) in August, and a similar initiative at ZubrOFFka Shorts Film Festival (Białystok, Poland) in December. In between, I gave a critics’ masterclass at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, on the English-Scottish border in September, and was one of several mentors to contribute to a young critics’ workshop at Black Nights Film Festival (Tallinn, Estonia) in December.
5. Escape plan
It’s become a cliché when giving such talks for me to make reference to seeing four or five films a day at a festival. The reality, of course, fluctuates—and the lows this year have all had something to do with sitting through a succession of terrible drags, such as at the Berlinale in February and Edinburgh International Film Festival in June. During the former, in fact, I made a conscious decision not only to have a “day off” by watching nothing but retrospective viewings (Citizen Kane! Shanghai Express!), but also to walk one afternoon as far away as my legs would take me from the cinema.
6. Beware the pecking order
Speaking of escape plans, if you find yourself at Bergman Week on the Swedish island of Fårö in 2015, don’t go cycling up to the northern coast in a hurry—be aware that it’s nesting season and that the seabirds there swoop down at you until bike and human are violently severed, as they did with me. Alternatively, because the birds apparently are only interested in the very highest point of an oblivious human intruder, do what one local retroactively advised me to do and wear a rock on your head. I repeat: wear a rock. On your head. Because that isn’t likely to end up with you splitting your skull in half at all.
7. Go places
Islands, towns, cities, hamlets. There’s something indeed to be said for seeing the places that host these festivals. A well-prepared itinerary can be the difference not only between coming away from a festival having discovered one or three gems and coming away from a festival writing it off as a terrible event whichever way you look at it, but also between feeling like you nailed that healthy but oft-elusive balance of watching, writing and walking and feeling like you frankly spent too many days in the dark. My least intense viewing schedules in 2014 came in Białystok (three feature-length shorts programs in five days) and in Tallinn (a mere three features plus a multiplex ticket to a public, non-festival screening of Interstellar in four days). Each trip felt healthier for it.
8. Slug it out
It’s perhaps no coincidence that both these latter, comparatively sluggish tallies coincided not only with teaching duties, but also with an end-of-year ease-up following ample opportunities to have caught 2014’s “buzz” titles elsewhere. That’s perhaps why the ‘A-list’ festivals rank so lowly on a list of pure, on-average viewing pleasures: for every gem there are three or four duds. Such is the nature of the bigger, more bloated beasts. But this might also be down, of course, to the less quantifiable things: the bigger the fest, the busier the press, the harder the grind, the more soulless the place, the higher the entitlement, the more anonymous the feel, more explicit the hierarchy.
9. Retro perspectives
Finding time to see the films you’re not obliged to write on can be tricky for a freelancer, but the rewards are often staggering. Some colleagues seemed to find a love for Rotterdam in 2014 that I could not: but I noticed they weren’t under any pressure to see new stuff there, and could instead bask in the glories of Nils Malmros and Heinz Emigholz. In Edinburgh, just about the only good things I saw—and they were outstanding—were all in the retrospective dedicated to the late English playwright John McGrath (The Reckoning, 1969; The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, 1974; Border Warfare, 1989). At Dokufest, the retrospective was American documentaries: in addition to Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds (1974), two Barbara Kopple masterpieces: Harlan County USA (1976) and American Dream (1990), which I saw on the same day as one another in two separate cinemas among a combined total audience of ten. By the time November comes around, any regular international festival-goer will have seen many of the fare offered by Ljubljana Film Festival. All the more time, then, to delve into the delights of the city’s Slovenska Kinoteka, which this year hosted a retrospective of movies you (and I) would only ever want to see in a cinema: The French Connection (1971), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Red Shoes (1948), Sátántangó (1994). . . . Oh, the joys to behold! (Need I say they were all on 35mm too?)
10. The least interesting things at a film festival are the films
But it isn’t just the films. As implied in points one through nine, there’s more to life than cinema. I think. At the same time, there are worse ways to spend half a year than at festivals. Without further ado, then, combining all the average film scores with a magic formula of instinct and happy memories involving people met, places been, drinks guzzled, walks completed and times had, here are the ten best festivals I attended in 2014. In 2015, you should attend them too.
1. Ljubljana International Film Festival (Slovenia, November)
2. New Horizons (Wrocław, Poland; July)
3. Kino Otok (Izola, Slovenia; June)
4. Crossing Europe (Linz, Austria; April)
5. Vienna International Film Festival (Austria, October/November)
6. FIDMarseille (Marseilles, France; July)
7. Dokufest (Prizren, Kosovo; August)
8. IndieLisboa (Lisbon, Portugal; April)
9. CurtoCircuíto (Santiago de Compostela, Spain; October)
10. 25 FPS (Zagreb, Croatia; September)