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When the Film Festival Comes to Town

Christmas, Again (Photo courtesy of Factory 25)

Regional film festivals all start to feel the same after a while. There’s at least one feature dramatizing the life of a white guy in Brooklyn. The organizers tell you about a farm-to-table restaurant down the street from the movie theater with craft beer you just have to try. When you ask the volunteer driving you around if they grew up in town, they answer, “sort of,” and give the name of some nearby suburb. And usually there’s a VIP party in an antique store or a mansion owned by the town’s historical society where you meet white-haired locals wearing expensive glasses who love supporting the arts. In Atlanta, a 50-something told me he worked in real estate and bragged about his cars; in Dallas, we played croquet on the lawn.

Film festivals are not just neutral or passive celebrations of cinema, they have an active role in shaping communities, neighborhoods, cities and more. What they program and who they program for can reinforce or challenge deep-seated divisions. An increasing number of festivals geared at white liberal audiences and neighborhood newcomers are curating homogeneous filmmaking and filmgoing communities at the expense of real diversity.

There are two trends that are not entirely unrelated. More and more film festivals are cropping up — about half of the festivals you can submit to through Withoutabox are six years old or less. At the same time, more and more American cities are seeing demographic shifts, where white young professionals who grew up in the suburbs are gentrifying urban centers by moving into minority neighborhoods that surround central business districts. What’s called the back-to-the-city movement, bringing to mind the proliferation of farmers markets as well as a friendliness to community arts events, is also referred to as white infill, suggesting the racial inflection of these urban centers’ changing composition.

Small film festivals aren’t necessarily driving gentrification, but they’re part of its ecosystem. “You definitely see cities trying to build an infrastructure that millennials prefer,” explains Derek Hyra, director of the Metropolitan Policy Center at American University. “Cities are really trying to put forward things that will attract that group. It might be brew pubs. It might be bike lanes. It might be indie film festivals.”

If you build it, they will come, or maybe they’ve already arrived and now they need something to do. Either way, over the last several years, festivals have emerged, like the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood; Cinetopia in venues across Detroit and Ann Arbor; the Treefort Film Festival in downtown Boise; the Portland Film Festival in the Nob Hill neighborhood; and the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival in the Wicker Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Bucking the trend, but also proving there is indeed one, Grand Rapids, Michigan, opted to start an art competition rather than a film festival because organizers were concerned that there were already too many newish film festivals to compete with. There are also, of course, older festivals, like the Atlanta Film Festival, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, where the current ecosystem of reurbanization impacts a decades-old event.

As a white young professional based in Brooklyn, I’m the demographic these cities want to attract. And sometimes hopping around from festival to festival feels like speed dating. There’s an unspoken (or sometimes not so unspoken) desire to prove this city has everything I’m looking for.

History suggests film festivals have always been a force of social organization that’s extended beyond just filmmaking communities. After all, the modern film festival has its roots in the Venice Film Festival, which Benito Mussolini founded in 1932 to promote fascism on a global scale. Today’s indie film festivals, bastions of white liberalism sponsored by granola bar companies, suggest something less sinister, but it’s still pretty easy to make a connection between the worldview inherent to many of the films these events program and the socio-political landscape they’re supporting, at least indirectly, in their respective cities. Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again, last year’s micro-budget break-out about a thirty-something in a flannel shirt selling Christmas trees in Brooklyn, which played at Locarno and Sundance as well as regional fests like Atlanta, Montclair, Oak Cliff, Cleveland, Indie Memphis and Sarasota, might seem innocuous in a broader sociopolitical context, but it’s not neutral — nothing is.

“Young professionals are a mobile set,” notes Hyra. In other words, they’ll go wherever supports their lifestyle, and their transience lays the groundwork for sprawling gentrification. They’ll settle in whatever neighborhood is up-and-coming but not yet expensive, and move on to the next one when condo developers horn in. Poekel’s film finds its rhythms in the sluggish angst of a seasonal worker alone for the holidays. A recent break-up is implied, his co-worker in a young-love attached-at-the-hip relationship is his foil, and there’s a series of romantic chance encounters with a young woman who he could probably be happy with if only she didn’t have a boyfriend. For broke, white, transient hipsters, the melancholy of rootlessness is solved by coupling. The streets of Greenpoint and its fading Polish culture seem temporary, just like the Christmas lights strung up around the tree stand. The characters will move on eventually. We don’t see any sign of longtime residents being forced out by rising rents, but we do see the new faces in the neighborhood, annoying people loudly talking into their cellphones and bluetooths, happy families with young children. It’s a hyper-realistic portrait of a neighborhood in flux from the point of view of a first-wave transplant, a perspective that festival programmers and audiences, likely transplants themselves, probably most relate to.

The issue isn’t one particular film from this point of view, but rather that a similar perspective repeats itself over and over again. Blood, Sweat, and Beer, a documentary about craft brewery start-ups, part of Atlanta Film Festival’s 2015 program, framed the story of white bros in baseball caps starting microbreweries as an inspirational underdog tale. The festival spotlighted the documentary, too, with a party following its screening featuring samples of Atlanta’s own local beers, sponsored by the local festival Taste of Atlanta. The film’s trailer begins, “This is the Golden Age of American craft beer. We will look back and see this as a very special time,” and includes busted-up building porn, an analogy about how brewing beer is creative like art and a tone-deaf metaphor from one of the aging frat-boy brewers comparing lawyers in a trademark lawsuit to “suicide bombers.” Even though one of the two microbrewery start-ups the filmmakers follow is based in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a majority black borough on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the storyline about how these white dudes’ brew pub can help save the neighborhood is relatively colorblind.

When the programmers chose to present this film at the festival in Atlanta, whether or not they realized, the noncritical framing of craft beer’s gentrifying forces in Braddock implies a noncritical framing of Atlanta’s own changing makeup. Atlanta ranks fifth in the country when it comes to rapid gentrification, according to a report by Governing Magazine. (The study analyzed increases in household income and housing value in low-income neighborhoods based on data from the American Community Survey 2009-13.) Everywhere in the neighborhoods near where the Atlanta Film Festival was headquartered there were condo buildings under construction and bearded white men eating nouveau-rustic barbecue in newly opened joints. A TripAdvisor review for the area points out two craft beer bars, calling them “world-renowned places to imbibe;” another labels the neighborhood a “whimsical gentrification theme park.” Of course, Atlanta, like everywhere else, has advocates of gentrification praising these neighborhoods’ “revitalization” as well as skeptics noting the displacement of long-time residents and the changing racial demographics.

There was a third film on the festival circuit last year that seemed to be hocking an ideology in the service of post-industrial lifestyle gentrification more than any other movie I saw. Artist Doug Aitken’s documentary Station to Station premiered at Sundance but I didn’t see it until it made its way to the regional Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas last June. Aitken staged and documented a 4,000-mile cross-country train trip making stops along the way for outdoor concerts in the train stations of various cities, the pulsing LEDs on the side of the train giving a lightshow to audiences. In addition, Aitken invited artists onto the train to record music and make work, including familiar figures like Thurston Moore and Gary Indiana as well as unknowns. Billed as 62 one-minute films, the end result weaves together performance footage and banal soundbites about creative expression through slick montages in which the wreckage of industry along America’s Rust Belt feels like trendy decor. It’s cut like a car commercial, which makes sense since it is virtually a Levi’s commercial — the denim brand, which moved all its manufacturing out of the U.S. more than a decade ago, bankrolled the project, along with other corporate sponsors like Moog, in exchange for screen-time for their logo.

While some black performers are given screen time in Station to Station, like when Aitken has a marching band perform in an abandoned warehouse in Kansas City, there’s a noted discrepancy between the talking time given to these performers compared to their white counterparts. All the lip service about art-making and freedom of expression reveals itself as a convenient brand of creative libertarianism where freedom for all is espoused without any attention paid to the uneven distribution of power and opportunity that undergirds its access — no surprise for a film that’s essentially branded content.

I remember emerging from the theater and telling the programmer, Adam Donaghey, a less-developed version of what I just wrote. His defense was that Station to Station is a music doc. He explained further, when I talked to him more recently, that music-related documentaries have a history of bringing people out at the Texas Theatre where the Oak Cliff Film Festival is headquartered and where Donaghey and a few others are responsible for year-round programming. While there are more and more white young professionals moving to Oak Cliff, a historically Latino neighborhood, the festival sees its audience as including not just newly local millennials who are into film and music but also ones who live in other parts of the city who might not be familiar with the area. Donaghey sees the festival as related to getting the neighborhood on this audience’s radar. “Part of our job having a theater over there is to make sure people can get there, it’s safe, and it’s a really great destination,” he explains. “That plays into the programming of the festival.”

Oak Cliff is a borough of Dallas, southwest of city center on the other side of the Trinity River. Since the ’60s it’s been home to one of the city’s largest Latino populations. In the ’80s, rising property costs pushed a lot of businesses out of Little Mexico, forcing them to relocate in Oak Cliff. Today, the main drag along Jefferson Avenue is lined with shop windows, quinceañera dresses and rent-to-own furniture on display. There are also signs, restaurants and bars here and there, suggesting the creeping influx of white millennials attracted to the fact that the neighborhood is an oasis of walkability amidst the incessant suburban sprawl of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Donaghey and his partners took over operations of the Texas Theatre in 2010, which had recently been restored but prior to that had fallen into disrepair and out of regular use since the early ’90s. They started the annual Oak Cliff Film Festival in 2012.

When I was in town last June, there was anxiety regarding a proposed real estate development in the neighborhood, the Bishop Arts Gateway. The development, on track to get millions of dollars in the form of subsidies from the city government, marks the second-wave of gentrification in the area, which is following a familiar pattern: after white artists and entrepreneurs create some buzz with their independent ventures, corporate real estate money takes an interest. This past February the local press got a hold of an artistic rendering the developers, Alamo Manhattan, mocked up, illustrating white twenty-somethings approaching the mixed-use complex with acoustic guitars and a djembe over their shoulders. The reductive idea of “funky artistic types” and the value of them from a real estate developer’s point of view is nothing new, but what is perhaps unique in Oak Cliff is that the Texas Theatre has become a community space for people to talk about gentrification. Right after the film festival last June, they hosted a community meeting where residents could raise their concerns among each other and to a representative from the development company. Still, these conversations didn’t make their way into the festival or its content.

“With the Oak Cliff Film Festival, we try to program diversity as much as we can, but the problem is a lot of filmmakers in the first place are in their thirties and they’re white and they’re living in the same types of neighborhoods,” explains Donaghey. When you see a lot of the same mumblecore movies about “white hipster thirty-something dudes doing nothing except having quirky conversations,” he says, “it has a lot to do with who is making movies and who has the access to make movies. It has a lot to do with money, leisure and education.”

Donaghey echoed what Kristina Breneman and Christina Humphrey, the Atlanta Film Festival programmers, told me last year. “So many people make the same films,” says Humphrey. “I’m still getting hundreds of films about white guys in offices.” While they’ve made strides spotlighting women filmmakers, they noted that it can be especially difficult to find filmmakers of color. “To find diverse filmmakers you have to do the outreach,” says Breneman. Last year’s short program included a film by the local Atlanta collective House of June made up of three black women — Amber Bournett, Ebony Blanding and Tempest Roque — whose work Humphrey discovered through a local film night put on by the arts organization WonderRoot.

If more programmers want to pay more than lip service to diversity, it’s their responsibility to do the work building relationships with different communities in their cities and others. That being said, a lack of this sort of outreach isn’t the only issue. There are instances, too, when films by filmmakers of color and films on the subject of diversity are submitted and programmers don’t see them as a good fit.

“I was told by many festivals that American Promise was not appropriate for their audience,” says filmmaker Joe Brewster about the 2013 documentary he co-directed with Michele Stephenson. The film, which follows their black son and another middle-class black family as the two boys attend a predominantly white private school in Manhattan, played at Sundance, New York Film Festival and Full Frame before going on to secure distribution through PBS and Netflix. Brewster found other ways to screen the film in the cities like Seattle and St. Louis where festivals turned him down, and he discovered that there was in fact an audience determined to see his film. “We sold out 10 shows in the course of a week. These are communities where people stood around the block to watch the film, so you have to ask what audience were the film programmers talking about? That audience wasn’t a part of the festival’s film-going community, and they were unwilling to do the work to make them a part of it.”

Brewster noted that some festivals do this work, like Full Frame, the documentary festival that takes place in Durham, North Carolina. “The efforts that those programmers go through to engage with the community year-round is what it takes to have a successful festival,” he contends. Unfortunately, though, most film festivals replicate the same patterns of segregation that we see in schools, churche, and even bars. “The film community is a great community but everybody looks alike,” says Brewster, later adding, “What we have when it comes to film festivals is a continuation of what we have in all these other situations: a failure to invite.”

This failure to invite reveals itself when neighborhoods gentrify and different racial groups overlap. Older patterns of division are still getting remapped as these changes take place. “If you look at census tract blocks, you see a lot of diversity,” explains Hyra, “but what happens is people tend to micro-level segregate. I’ve coined it ‘diversity segregation.’” The newcomers who favor all things “progressive,” environmentally friendly bike lanes, socially responsible farm-to-table restaurants, independent craft beer over corporate beverages, as well as creative expression and community arts also tend to stick to themselves. Maybe because it’s the path of least resistance. Maybe because, in spite of or because of their liberal identities, they haven’t reflected on their own potential personal biases. “The most disappointing thing I’ve been dealing with in the last year is the inability for white liberals to examine their behavior and their feelings in this racial debate,” says Brewster, who’s been working on a series of short documentaries about race for The New York Times.

If film festivals want to be an exception rather than a rule they need to become self-aware of their whiteness. They need to be conscious of the role they are playing in normalizing aggressive transformations happening in their neighborhoods. Hyra suggests one way to provoke this self-examination would be for festivals in cities undergoing these changes to program films about gentrification and shifting racial demographics. Brewster, a psychiatrist as well as a filmmaker, insists we’re in urgent need of a shift in mindset too. While transference refers to an individual unconsciously redirecting feelings from one person onto another, counter-transference specifies how a psychotherapist redirects emotions onto a client. “How do my issues determine how I see you and treat you,” explains Brewster. He insists that’s the question programmers and other film industry gatekeepers need to look in the mirror and ask. “They need to look at themselves so we can have a better relationship.”

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