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2018: A Year in 14 Festivals


in Festivals & Events
on Dec 31, 2018

2018 is the year that film festivals were challenged to answer the most basic question: What is cinema? The rise of VOD and streaming platforms have cinema owners worried that audiences will finally abandon theaters and the theatrical experience. The fear stems from the VOD market refusing to worship the primacy of cinema and the dictum that says all films should be played in theaters before arriving on another platform.

And who can blame VOD providers for taking this stance, when they operate in a global market place, and when they are funding movies by auteurs themselves? If they fund a film, surely it’s their right to show them when they want? Not according to some powerful distributors in France, so powerful that they forced the hand of Thierry Fremaux, Artistic Director of the Cannes Film Festival, so that no films funded by Netflix were screened at the festival. This meant no Roma. Other festivals felt they couldn’t take such a stance against Netflix, or more pertinently why should they? The world has moved on, and the festivals would have to adapt to the new players in town rather than the other way around. But if a film is going to be screened on television, does it mean it’s no longer cinema? In an age of huge TV screens, is the distinction even one worth making?

One thing that is a fortunate by-product of recent times to movies needing to up their games to attract audiences is the rise of event cinema. The film itself is not as important as having a unique experience. Festivals have responded by upping their offering to audiences as well, so that often the movies are overshadowed by the events. The first items that sell-out at festivals are not the movies, but the special events, the master classes with filmmakers, rooftop screenings, culinary events, anything that feels unique. Festivals have also started to embrace virtual reality and industry events, and panels are increasingly taking pride of place. Even at Cannes. So this year, I noticed that my year at festivals was taken up with increasingly looking at more than just a silver screen.

Berlin Film Festival

A few months before the Berlin Film Festival, a group of prominent German filmmakers wrote a letter demanding more transparency in the programming (and a better program) when long term Artistic Director Dieter Kosslick retires in 2019. The critical filmmakers want the Berlin Film Festival to find itself on a par with Venice and Cannes, and that seems like it would take a huge effort given the respective competition programmes announced by the festivals this year. Berlin continues to lag behind Cannes and Venice. Or does it? The popular sentiment only works if cinema is just about box office and media inches, for when it comes to challenging our perception of society Berlin remains a winner. The Golden Bear was won by the experimental Romanian film Touch Me Not, and other notable winners included Mug, The Heiresses and Isle of Dogs.

And while I can see the validity of the points made by the filmmakers, and am of the belief that film commissions and festivals would benefit from term-limiting its directors, I’d also say that there are areas where Berlin is head and shoulders above Cannes and Venice, most notably with regards to the nurturing of new talents. One of the great successes under Kosslick’s watch has been the Berlinale Talents. It started in 2003, and now the program has blossomed and includes talks and classes from some of the best filmmaking talents in the business. Adina Pintilie and Marcelo Martiness, who made the prize-winning Touch Me Not and The Heiresses, both are Berlinale Talents alumni. Twenty-three projects from alumni were at the Cannes Film Festival this year! That’s a Michael Jordan-level number. This year Gus Van Sant and Tom Twyker gave talks as well as Lav Diaz and Josephine Decker, who showed her new film at the festival. For any young person wanting to break into film, it’s arguable that of all the festivals on the circuit Berlin is the place to be — that is, if you’re lucky enough to be accepted into the talents program. And the success of the Berlinale Talents program means it now has off-shoots in Sarajevo, Tokyo and Rio.

Cartagena Film Festival

Colombia is making a big push to encourage foreign films to come and shoot movies in the country. The drug wars that blighted the South American country for decades are now mainly consigned to Narcos, however such is the ubiquity of that series, and the plethora of Pablo Escobar films, that many still associate Colombia with cocaine. If you want a way out, you got to take me out, so as a precursor to visiting the Cartagena Film Festival I was taken on a tour of TV stations and film production facilities in the country’s capital Bogata, which was extremely pleasant and an insight into how the local industry is trying to battle international stereotyping.

The Cartagena Film Festival has one of the most picturesque locations for a film festival in the world, especially if one can avoid the bachelor and bachelorette parties that seem to take over the city on the weekend. It is also the longest running film festival in Latin America. The festival centre has a beautiful courtyard where Tilda Swinton and Owen Wilson held master classes. Other official guests included Lucrecia Martel and French auteur Bruno Dumont, who held their talks inside the building. In the main cinema, a converted opera house, films such as The Heiressed and Colombian cartoon Virus Tropical screened.

East End Film Festival

The shoe was on the other foot, as I took on the job of headline programmer at the East End Film Festival. It was an incredible enjoyable experience. The opening film saw Sara Driver cross the Atlantic to host a screening of her documentary on her friend, the artist Basquiat, Boom For Real, and the following day delivering an invigorating masterclass, which highlighted how ill-served female auteurs had been in American cinema and globally in the last century. One really got the sense of how many great films had not been made when Driver talked about the scripts in her drawer and the conversations she’s had with financiers. Also showing his new film, In The Fade, which had recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film, was Fatih Akin. It was a pleasure to host them both, and see their interactions with the public.

One of the highlights of the East End Film Festival is the Cutting East programme, which puts on events and shows films from local filmmakers, encouraging new voices and challenging the status quo. It’s music, film and discussion. It’s less about the movies and more about the community coming together and is the most exciting part of the festival for many. How to engage young audiences is one of the great battles independent cinemas face, as well as festivals. and more innovation is needed to attract the next generation.


Thierry Fremaux coped with the absence of Netflix films by promoting a new swathe of filmmakers into the competition for the first time. Nonetheless it was the usual faces of Kore-Eda, Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard and Pawel Pawlikowski taking home many of the main prizes. The festival had many of the year’s best films despite the absence of many established “name” auteurs. It was a risky strategy but by the end of the year and looking back at the program it’s clear that Cannes managed to pull it off.

Even Cannes seemed to put extra effort into its master classes this year. The great writer and film personality Elvis Mitchell interviewed Ryan Coogler on stage, and Christopher Nolan popped up to talk about his love of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Also on-stage were John Travolta and this year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman. The Director’s Fortnight was opened with an award given to Martin Scorsese. Also interesting is how Cannes is slowly building up its virtual reality program. This was a festival of change and one that is trying to set a template for the future, and it will be interesting to see what happens next year.

Sundance London

Sundance London has really grown as an event since it found its new home at the Picturehouse Central in the heart of London. Sundance London has benefitted from the insights of the programming team of Picturehouse Cinemas more than the change of location. This year the festival highlighted a strong female presence and one of the best events was a talk: Triple Threat – Three Major Filmmakers in Conversation. The panelists were Jennifer Fox, director/screenwriter of The Tale; Debra Granik, director/co-screenwriter of Leave No Trace; Desiree Akhavan, director/co-screenwriter of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and they each also chose a film to present. Fox went with Tarnation, Granik chose Girlhood, and Arkhavan chose Morvern Callar. I could not help but wonder what the filmmaking canon would look like if these three filmmakers were chosen to pick the 100 best films of all time.

Venice Film Festival

The Venice Film Festival was full of superstar directors, and some “jokingly” called it The Venice Netflix Film Festival, such were the preponderance of titles from the VOD platform that found their way to the Lido. The major coup was landing Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which had been destined for Cannes, until some major honchos in the film industry, like Nicolas Seydoux, decided that “it is not a film.” The festival will also likely be able to say that it launched the Oscar Best Picture winner again, as A Star is Born, Roma and The Favourite all premiered there.

Other big names there included The Coen Brothers and Jacques Audiard, as well as, with Amazon titles, Mike Leigh and Luca Guadagnino. I’ve heard that the best of these films were all wanted by Cannes, but they could not get there for one reason or another, and the films that didn’t quite work were rejected. And comparing the competition line-ups, it’s arguable that Cannes with Lee, Kore-eda and Pawlikowski actually had the better hand.

But for me the outstanding feature of the Venice Film Festival this year was not a film. Sorry Mr. Seydoux! It was the VR Island, where the virtual reality events take place. Venice and Tribeca are head and shoulders ahead of other festivals when it comes to VR presentations. The VR Island is a fantastic setting and whether you are using visors, or taking part in a stand-up viewing or entering a three-dimensional live interactive installation, there was invention, and wonder to be had.

It seems only a matter of time before a major auteur follows the path laid down by Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu’s short Carne Y Arena, which was at Cannes last year, and makes a feature film that can only be watched outside of a cinema and the home. The only shame for me was that I didn’t have more time to sample everything on offer. I experienced Home After War in which we are taken to Fallujah and walk around an Iraqi home. and Lucid that takes on a lucid dream with an author. Another VR work on offer was Umami, a realtime animated VR experience immersing the user into the story of a man rediscovering his memories through a series of Japanese dishes. Food was definitely needed afterwards.

Toronto International Film Festival

I returned to Toronto International Film Festival after a number of years as it was the first major festival to try to address one of the great embarrassments of the film industry and the arts media in general: the lack of diverse voices in criticism. In my British homeland, every single major newspaper publication has a white male as their chief critic. Every single one. The position is such that I’m never surprised that so many people have gone to bloggers and social media outlets to find critics that give alterative opinions on movies. It’s embarrassing that I’m one of the only (possibly only) film writer from a Muslim, or even non-European or American background that has been working consistently in criticism in European mainstream media over the past two decades. It’s a shame that festivals have taken this step only when it’s become harder than it’s ever been for writers to make a living by commenting on movies. The cynical side of me wonders if it’s because film criticism is no longer a viable profession for most that it’s okay to bring the barriers down. Having said that the steps taken by Toronto to tackle the issues should be lauded because it was one of the few times I walked into a press room and saw the same diverse range of faces that I would see at a pop concert. There was a great panel discussion with Dr. Stacy L. Smith that started with a new study on how bad the situation really is for women and non-white critics. The situation is a disgrace!

As for the movies is it any coincidence that it was also the launch pad for films directed by Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen et al, a line-up that is startling when compared to Venice, a festival lauded for it’s competition line-up but was even criticised by Thierry Fremaux for it’s lack of voices from around the world?

San Sebastian

San Sebastian is like visiting your favorite restaurant. It took on increased significance this year as I’ll now always remember it as the last time I had dinner with my good friend and one of the great film publicists, Louisiana-born Richard Lormand. One of the great things about festivals is that with so many interviews on offer and with everyone being so busy, it’s a moment when the opportunity for young members of press to get their first interviews, or to write their first major pieces, arise, and Lormand would always support new writers. His death has also made me reflect on how the festival journey is so different for press, publicist, producers, financiers and filmmakers but at the same time. Festivals provide one of the rare moments when the quotidian of these important parts of the film industry cross and mingle. San Sebastian with its picturesque locations is a great spot for hanging out, meeting and chatting to other and getting a greater understanding of the movie business.

Zurich Film Festival

At Zurich I attended two fabulous masterclasses, one with Julian Schnabel and the other with Donald Sutherland. It’s always incredible to see people who have been in the industry so long talk about their movies and their lives on film, and for me this was the highlight of a festival that continues to grow. On the industry side, Fabien Rigall, the man behind Secret Cinema, a British based company that has transformed the movie experience by giving movies a theatrical element, delivered a keynote speech that described innovative new approaches that are sure to take “cinema” into wonderful directions in the future. We just have no clue what that might look like!

Busan International Film Festival

I haven’t taken the train to Busan for a number of years, and the first thing that struck me was that this festival has got its priorities right when it comes to serving coffee. Every half-day one of the fabulous local coffee roasters would come into the most beautiful festival center in the world and show off their wares. My caffeine fix was sated, and bye-bye jet lag. The good coffee also meant that I didn’t worry as much when my trip around half the globe was rather rudely interrupted by the arrival of a typhoon and many cancelled events. Thankfully the typhoon was fast and not so furious so the festival quickly got back to normal.

It was at Busan that I realised that the Philippines is celebrating a centenary of cinema. There was an exceptional talk and a rather brilliant book that was handed out to guests — that was a major highlight of festival for me. With festival superstars, Brilliante Mendoza to Lav Diaz, Filipino cinema has been punching way above its weight in recent years yet doesn’t seem to have been given the appreciation that it deserves. Hopefully the centenary celebrations will change that — starting here!

Another great pleasure of film festivals is the opportunity to get to know filmmakers at dinners paid for by someone else! Thanks UniFrance for this one! At one such dinner I got to meet Mats Grorud, who made The Tower, an animation set in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; Valerio Mieli, who was there with his second film, Ricordi; and Luzie Loose who was premiering her debut, Swimming. But even going through catalogs and looking at online reports and magazines, some films pass you by, such is the number. It was at this dinner that I got to meet these filmmakers and subsequently their work. In an age where journalists are increasingly watching films sent to them online, it once again shows how nothing can beat being physically present at a festival to discover new films, especially from those filmmakers without the finances, know-how or connections to employ publicists.

London Film Festival

I got an odd email in the summer — it was not déjà vu, but I was invited to be on a jury at the London Film Festival again this year. This time, I was tasked alongside esteemed co-jurors from Film 4, BBC Films, BFI and the London Film Festival to create the final short list of three first or second time British filmmakers to vie for the IWC Schaffhausen Bursary, in association with the BFI, which gives the winner a grant of £50,000. As the award is given out the day before the festival starts, it was a job that happened before the festival and would eventually see Richard Billingham, who made Ray & Liz win the prize.

During the festival I was asked to go onto a panel: Where are all the Diverse Voices in Film Criticism? The panel was moderated by former Times chief critic Kate Muir, and featured Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Founder and Director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative; Rotten Tomatoes Reviews Editor Jacqueline Coley; Catherine Shoard, film editor of the Guardian; freelance writer and chair of the London Critics Circle Anna Smith; and myself. I was struck by the number of people in attendance, most writing about film but frustrated in their endeavors to get gainful employment doing so. Following on from Toronto Film Festival, I found it heartening that other festivals are taking this discussion forward. Hearing these voices, the myopia within film criticism becomes more and more clear.

Cairo Film Festival

It was the first time that I’ve been to the Cairo Film Festival, which is the only festival in the Middle East and north Africa to hold A status, and one of only 15 festivals around the world to do so. However, following the Arab Spring, and the changes in government it’s a festival that has lost focus in recent years. The engagement of film critic and producer Mohamed Hefzy as Artistic Director, the youngest in the festival’s history, is an effort to change that. It’s a process of reinvigoration that he believes will take three years, but 2018 was a brilliant start, featuring an interesting competition, taking advantage of the growing range, innovation and diversity of films from the Middle East in its Best Arab Film Award, as well as picking up great films from around the world for the International Competition. It was a good way for the festival to celebrate 40.

I also moderated a panel that was based around the perceived success Arab Women have been having at film festivals, such that they seem to be outdoing men from the region. The panelists — Annemarie Jacir, Mai Masri, Hala Khalil, Kaouther Ben Hania, and Sofia Djama — shot down the assertion and showed how it remains a continual battle for filmmakers. They made salient points about younger film industries being more gender balanced than older ones, so Egyptian Hana Khalil operates in a very different paradigm to Jacir. Jacir discussed how her French producers worried about how Arab men would react to her being the boss figure on set, and said how it was not the Arab men but the experienced French male technicians that were most stuck in their ways. But all five filmmakers wanted to highlight how the social, cultural and economic barriers for Arab women are just as tough as elsewhere. There is still a long way to go before the film industry anywhere in the world arrives at anything like gender parity.

Marrakech Film Festival

The Marrakech Film Festival returned after a hiatus and some old features remained. There was a star-studded jury headed by James Gray, and a rather lackluster program of films. But that was easily forgotten as who wanted to see movies when there was a list of master classes that was like attending a dream film school. Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux, Martin Scorsese, Guilermo Del Toro, Robert de Niro, Agnes Varda and Yousry Nasrallah all shared their thoughts on their careers and the film business. Each afternoon, two incredible hours (and on one days four hours whentwo2 master classes took place) was spent listening to insights and titbits from these masters. I’ve never been a big fan of Guilermo Del Toro’s films but the way he spoke about his filmmaking and his ideas of using color to reflect story and performance will definitely make me relook at his films and perhaps see what I’ve been missing.

Marrakech, like Cairo just before it, is also placing greater emphasis on its industry components, and the loss of the Dubai International Film Festival from the calendar was keenly felt. There is now no festival in the region with a prominent market place.

European Film Awards Seville

My year ended with a visit to Seville where the European Film awards were being held. On the opening night, Ralph Fiennes introduced and discussed his upcoming film about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev, White Crow. It all revolves around an award ceremony that is so loose and informal that at times it seems like a high school production. It’s great to watch, as after the good will to an awards ceremony that places emphasis on art house films receded the cynicism can kick in, and it’s easy to laugh at the shenanigans, and what is better than a bit of schadenfreude. But there is something almost perfect about the ceremony being so inadequate as it’s like watching a great spoof movie, where it becomes a pastiche and sarcastic comment on awards shows in general, and as such could be read as a dig at Hollywood’s love of the award season — so over-bloated, so long, so ridiculous.

But that seems to be an expensive point to make. And really the best thing about the European Film Awards is to show that despite all the talk of globalisation and a globalised industry, the regional identities still exist and need to be celebrated. So while the European Film Awards may be the worst/most kitsch ceremony on the calendar, it is a celebration of European film and doing things differently. And because it’s a celebration the European Film Awards always has the best party. Seville did not disappoint. And I’d rather a good dance, than see some statutes handed out in a more professional manner. In case you’re wondering Cold War took home a handful of prizes.

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