Showtime for popcorn sellers and the besieged

Sundance to Sarajevo
January 17, 2003

Between making the trains run on time and embarking on the creation of a new Roman empire in Africa, Mussolini started the world's first film festival in Venice in 1932. His aims were artistic and propagandistic: to provide a showcase for Italian cinema and to present his regime to the world as culturally enlightened.

Politics inevitably reared its ugly head. When, in 1938, a rigged Fascist jury presented the Golden Lion to an Italian movie instead of Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion , the French decided to stage their own festival in Cannes. This was due to start the day war broke out in September 1939, so the visiting US stars (Gary Cooper among them) went home without a reel having been shown. Not until 1946 did Cannes get going, and there was a missing year before it settled down by 1950 to its annual ten days in May. As for Venice, it was closed down from 1941 until after the war.

All this has allowed Edinburgh, which began as a hastily arranged documentary festival to accompany the city's first International Festival of the Arts in 1947, to advertise itself as staging the film festival with the longest unbroken record. It has also for 50 years boasted John Huston's encomium: "The only festival worth a damn."

There are now more than 1,000 film festivals worldwide, according to a New York Times estimate. The majority of the smaller ones are devoted to specialist subjects such as fantasy movies (Alvoriaz) or Celtic Cinema (which shifts between Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany). There are at least 60 Jewish film festivals.

When two or three critics are stranded together in an airport lounge, the subject inevitably turns to festivals. The most terrible festival I attended was held in 1969 in Alghero, Sardinia, high-mindedly devoted to cinema and literature. I was part of a three-person British delegation that was supposed to include John Osborne and Peter Brook. I arrived to discover that the other two delegates were in fact a freelance girlie photographer for the Daily Mirror and Michael Crawford.

My most memorable experience was being a juror at Cannes in 1986, where the police quite literally stopped the traffic to let the jury pass.

Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times , has been an inveterate festivalier these past 30-odd years, and in Sundance to Sarajevo he shares his amusing and instructive memories of 12 diverse festivals on three continents. Naturally, he starts with Cannes, the best organised, most handsomely financed event of its kind, which manages to maintain a balance between art and commerce. But although for critics, movie-makers, producers and distributors it remains the most important event, Cannes has lost all of its intimacy and much of its charm.

The only other prestigious event Turan deals with that has officially recognised status as an international festival is Montreal, and this is mainly because he has been on the jury. Other than that his subjects are odd specialist affairs.

The most amusing, best-funded festival is ShoWest, a gaudy annual occasion staged in Las Vegas for cinema owners and those who provide multiplexes with washrooms and popcorn. The most serious and valuable is the festival devoted to the retrieval and celebration of silent movies held in Pordenone, north of Venice.

The most encouraging is the shoestring affair held each February in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), a troubled African state rated 170th out of 173 developing countries. This vibrant, hopeful festival is the continent's most significant movie gathering, very different from Africa's best-funded festival held annually in Cairo, which most foreigners attend as an excuse to visit the pyramids and Luxor.

Turan's most moving chapters are devoted to Havana, where a beleaguered, near-bankrupt movie-mad Cuba keeps in touch with world cinema through its festival, and Sarajevo, a city of cinephiles who kept their spirits up watching movies during the siege and regained their sanity with a makeshift festival.

The saddest two pieces of news emerge from theUS. The first is that the movie industry has corrupted the spirit of Utah's Sundance Festival, originally set up as a venue for independent moviemakers. The second is that the once-relaxed festival established for dedicated hippies in Telluride, a former mining town in Colorado, has been taken over by fashionable yuppies.

Turan's book has several themes. The first is that every festival sets out to celebrate and ends up producing conflict - between archivists, collectors and academics at Pordenone, between Bosnians and Serbs at Sarajevo, and between English-speaking Canadians and Quebecois determined to make Montreal "more French than Cannes".

The second is that money rules. The third is that success leads to expansion, which demands subsidies (usually termed "sponsorship") from private, public or corporate sources, and this leads to compromise or worse. The London Film Festival, for example, which Turan mentions only in passing, was broached over the dinner table of Dilys Powell, the long-serving film critic of The Sunday Times , in the mid-1950s and began as a selective festival of festivals. At its outset, it featured a mere dozen pictures, each arguably a masterwork, the cream of other festivals. It has grown into an orgy of several hundred pictures that demands numerous sponsors to sustain.

Philip French is film critic of The Observer and co-author of Cult Movies .

Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made

Author - Kenneth Turan
ISBN - 0 520 21867 1
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 180

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