The relevance of film festivals
Our nation is still reeling from the pandemic; a heavy shadow that has paralyzed the world’s vibrant industries.
As we plan for all sectors to strongly reemerge to a healthier future, we acknowledge that the government must first succor and revive our weakest. We also pray that the film industry will not be forgotten.
Mentioning plans of revival, it’s a humble observation that, for a country that used to pride itself as one of the top film producers in the world, we do not host a major international film festival. That is, aside from the one we had in 1982.
Globally, the three top film festivals are the ones in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Then, there are the other A-category festivals as listed by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations such as Locarno, Cairo and San Sebastian. Understandably, festivals this year are either canceled, postponed or conducted online.
Cinemas are closed now, but filmmaking remains a billion-dollar business. Like the Olympics, legitimate film fests are considered major events around the world, attracting thousands of art aficionados and tourists who spend money annually that benefits diverse businesses. These are supported by governments that value their contributions not only to the economy, but also to culture. There is nothing wrong with conducting these events online, but it defeats the purpose of festivals. Those who are not fully informed about their relevance may care little about these cancellations and changes, but those who know realize the difference.
After the era of filmmakers like Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, there seemed to be a lull in properly penetrating the international scene for a long time—as if after their endeavors, that world ceased to exist. Recognized successors appeared prepared to continue paving the road already marked by the National Artists’ footprints.
Many confined their works to pleasing the usual audience with the same formulas, based on Hollywood’s standards. Now we are on the right path, gaining the momentum to firmly establish our country before the global audience.
Festivals are platforms for filmmakers to showcase their creativity, where we announce to the world that our nation has a legitimate film industry. Locally and globally, festivals can be more focused on moneymaking, while others, more geared toward art films, do not expect to profit much from the entries; others offer funding to participants. These are good grounds for filmmakers, especially the new ones, to prove themselves.
International film festivals vary and evolve. These are venues where you can talk about films, meet producers and distributors from around the world. I, myself, needed time to study the types of festivals my films would be best placed in.
A-list festivals are focused on competition, usually requiring the world premiere of the film—there is a difference between being in the competition and simply being screened. Festival sections include the main competition, out of competition, short films, special screening and so forth.
B-list festivals are also significant. Market festivals are where films are sold; there are genre festivals. Some require submission fees, but others waive this for established filmmakers.
Hunger for prestige
Filmmakers must know the calendar, as a film that has been shown in one festival might not be received in another. Prepandemic, in January, there’s the Sundance Festival in the United States; Berlin takes place in February; Cannes in May; Locarno in August; Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian are held in September.
There are fraudulent festivals, and creatives who are lax with their craft, but join them out of hunger for prestige, however spurious. But it is necessary to expose filmmakers to festivals, especially to the international ones, for it will open their minds about various cultures, styles and films that cannot be easily viewed elsewhere. It will help them realize that there are greater things than the rifts and the confines of our industry.
Starting out, I appreciated the learning experience, the joy of knowing that Filipinos can compete with major international filmmakers during the time of “Masahista” (2005), which won Locarno’s Golden Leopard (video category)—the first Asian film to bag the prize. The same year, “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” by Auraeus Solito also helped reawaken interest in independent/art films and international film festivals.
Now, an art film is alive if the creator receives a screening fee from festivals, and is distributed in several platforms—theaters, television, online—in various territories. There’s the complaint that Filipinos do not watch art films, but this is a worldwide issue.
Sometimes, an art film earns, but the same formula is no guarantee that the next will. Blockbuster and award-winning, that’s a rare breed. In countries like France, though, they gradually established a concrete audience for art films that actually earn. This audience isn’t the majority, but they’re informed and ardent about it.
Filipino artists who get to take part in top festivals mean art films are worth investing in. We should grow an audience for these films. Think: hundreds of regurgitated telenovelas have retained a strong following in the world. Well-promoted companies pay top prices for their ads to appear between these programs and are absorbed by the audience. Yet, here, few would give a chance to art films, because the audience “does not like it.”
There are great things that are not easy to love at first sight. We’re quick to try the new; after amusing us, many surrender their votes to politicians they aren’t familiar with. Why not further educate and promote art films to Filipinos, that they may understand what they are not accustomed to?
I understand that art has not been the priority in our country; that festivals are just one of the venues to exhibit competence; that unlike first-world nations that invest heavily in cultural pursuits, often we associate art with extravagance and controversy, films with entertainment—and our people must feed the stomach first.
This is why when I receive assistance, I am thankful for what is given, and accept that this path has challenges. I don’t feel entitled, or demand much. But why do I stress the importance of art/film education, which isn’t a basic need to survive? Because as we feed the body, we must also enrich the soul. Intellectual nourishment gives us fulfillment. Our country needs more cultured citizens who search for meaning, a higher purpose in this world.
In top festivals, our audience is international, but we must be heard by our own. As we recover, we urge the government to support projects like the creation of a major Philippine international film festival, to include art in its programs—not as a fad, or focused only on the well-to-do—and learn about topics that explain why films must be for all.
Let us not belittle the creative economy when looking at other industries, for nations have benefited from supporting creatives in planting their flag around the world. These days, it’s easy to be more than just artists: be educators and advocates to lift the industries around us. We must sow good seeds, but these will not thrive if they are not cultivated in the right environment, here and abroad.
Film festivals aren’t mere red-carpet events. It’s a place where we can build tracks that can lead us to brighter horizons, if we try to perfect our craft. Let us forge on and expand, and leave bright marks that declare our identity wherever we go—do not think of personally reaping the fruits of these efforts in our lifetime. Contribute even if you are later forgotten: keep paving a road for others.