Film festivals have always operated as nodes in a network of global power relations. Set within this field of social and economic tensions, they act as spaces in which our view of the world is formed through our interaction with films. The ways in which these spaces operate, and their relations to other spaces, result from “complex dynamics of local and global forces, always defined by the physical place in which the event is organised, but at the same time embedded in an international circuit” (de Valck, Loist 2008: 187). Since the establishment of Cannes in direct response to Venice (originally setup by Mussolini), film festivals have played a role in the geo-political strategy of governments. Indeed, the establishment by occupation forces of the Berlin Film Festival in 1951 was done with the intention of showcasing Western democracy to the population of the Eastern half of the city.
As power shifts, and the dissemination of the means of representation makes it possible for more people to make films, film festivals have become local as well as global affairs. If, as de Valck and Loist suggest, “the city, much more than the nation, has come to define festivals identity and functional logics” (ibid.) then the possibility for smaller scale festivals to have an impact on the city and it’s communities is a converse effect of this trajectory. Occurrences such as these present activist groups with the chance to organise film festivals that are more distanced from the market than their ‘independent’ predecessors, such as the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. One advantage of this is that it allows for the screening of politically radical films, including those that openly advocate the destruction of global capitalism.
Here I want to draw on Mark Neocleous’ work in Radical Philosophy to analyse these spaces of resistance in relation to other activist and/or human rights film festivals that offer mere resilience to the effects of capitalism. Because of their lack of political radicalism, these latter festivals are part of what Solanas and Getino would call the ‘left-wing’ or ‘alternative’ arm of capitalism, fulfilling “the prospect of becoming ‘the youthful, angry wing of society’ – that is, of neocolonialised or capitalist society” (Solanas and Getino 1968). This argument provides the basis for my conclusions on film festivals as spaces of resistance, which are influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on the carnivalesque and the pedagogy devised by Paolo Friere in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Applying these theories to an argument on film festivals allows us to see the ways in which such spaces operate as sites of political and cultural transgression, in which the act of educating and being educated takes place (an act that is, in the first place, necessarily radical). The conclusions I draw regarding film festivals are pre-emptive to broader questions around the development of anti-capitalist networks, educational structures, and the relationship between the two.
Finally, my conclusions are extrapolated through audience research that was carried out at the 2013 Bristol Radical Film Festival (BRFF). Engaging festival attendees through a simple feedback form enabled me to develop an understanding of how they felt about the festival, the way it operates and their own levels of engagement and suggestions about how to develop the festival. As opposed to a quantitative research method, which advocates a positivist form of ‘truth’ based merely upon the observation of appearance forms, this action-theoretical approach toward conducting and interpreting research makes sure that the objects of study are not “frozen in the here and now,” but examined within “a field of tensions between the possible and the actual” (Adorno 1976: 238). The continuous re-interpretation of research findings in relation to the ongoing practice of conducting an annual film festival situates the BRFF within the boundaries of what is called research as practice, meaning that it develops in both a theoretical and practical sense, and that these two things are inseparable.
The illusion of an ‘alternative’ comes out of the myth that film festivals have always offered an antithesis to Hollywood. The geo-political alliance between the U.S. government and the Cannes Film Festival shows, rather, the influence of the former in its attempt to establish post war hegemony within the region. As Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong reports “the films shown were international, but confined to the Western world. Among the films screened at Cannes during the 1940s and 50s Hollywood followed only France itself” (Wong 2011: 133). In 1959 the festival excluded Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, France, 1959) from its official selection for fear of offending the U.S government by reminding the world of the nuclear bombs they dropped on Japan. Wong naïvely identifies a benign purpose behind the ongoing collusion between the U.S. and Cannes as “the constructing of cosmopolitan film culture” (Wong 2011: 132), thereby overlooking the desire for regional control frequently enacted by political and market forces via the establishment of dominant (neo-colonial) culture.
Government influence preceded the influence of the market, which found its way into film festivals through the setting up of the Marché (market) in Cannes in 1959. Since then “the deepest relationships between film festivals and Hollywood have been about business […] the seals of approval that film festivals provide are all parts of the profit making enterprise of Hollywood” (ibid.). The major players in film festivals today are “producers, sales agents, investors, distributors […] these are not the auteurs or stars that festivals generally highlight […] yet these people provide the apparatus that make the production and distribution of alternative cinemas viable” (Wong, 2011: 130). However, Wong seems to ignore the idea that properly alternative cinemas are those that distance themselves from this market apparatus and its material and ideological limitations. Despite her reporting of the ‘independent’ Sundance Film Festival as a “frenzied meat market” and “the most commercial festival on Earth” she never questions the relationship between this apparatus and a festival’s independence. When it comes to the kinds of smaller scale film festival that are the main focus of this essay, their purpose is to “validate the circuit of grand festivals as anchors and generators of a system that people glimpse by participation in these smaller festivals” (Wong, 2011: 13). Whether this is a consequence or even the purpose of some smaller film festivals, the rhetoric cannot be applied to those that actively promote the overthrow of capitalism.
If, as Marx says, the ruling ideas of a society have always been the ideas of its ruling class, then it comes as no surprise that smaller film festivals should attempt to validate the “generators of the system,” reflecting the fundamentals of market ideology in their structure and operations. The proliferation of film festivals that has occurred over the last few decades runs parallel with developments in Western political theory, through which “‘social change’ has been de-coupled from ‘revolution’, disconnected in such a way that we are led to see revolution as an unrealisable extreme as opposed to a daily possibility” (Gaines, 1999: 87). Discourses within human rights groups and charity organisations both reflect and perpetuate this development. Campaigns drawing attention to important though seemingly hermetic issues are put into the public sphere via a somewhat standardised, disarming rhetoric that often fails to identify any commonality.
The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival of Australia, which runs for four weeks between May and June “continues to provide a shared site whereby artists, human rights organisations and the Australian public are united by their desire to contribute to social change” (HRAFF 2013), yet on the same page the festival identifies itself as a non-political organisation. It is one of a global network of 34 film festivals called The Human Rights Film Network, which is similarly neutral. On a smaller scale, the Let’s All Be Free Film Festival, which ran its second year in London in April 2013, combines a spirit of entrepreneurship with a focus on the philosophical idea of freedom to abstract the latter beyond tangibility. Their stated “mission” is to “discuss freedom’s many definitions and implications, and in doing so foster acceptance, discovery, and further global understanding” (LBFF 2013). To potential sponsors they write “together we can achieve your commercial objectives, targeting a sophisticated and selective audience” (ibid.). That aside, the only clear objective of the festival is to “change the world”. In comparison, the Take One Action Film Festival, which has been running in Scotland every June since 2008, aims to “bring together communities, filmmakers, politicians, businesses, academics and artists – united by the simple desire to connect around common stories and shape their unfolding for the greater good” (TOAFF 2013). The festival’s main focus is on building communities. It offers resources for schools “to inspire action, learning or debate in the classroom” and the website features a list of screening guidelines for those who wish to carry out “DIY screenings” (ibid.).
Meanwhile, the Workers Unite Film Festival of New York, entering its second year in May 2013, states its aims as such:
“We seek to join forces with our working brothers and sisters from around the world, both organized in existing unions and currently fighting to organise for their workplace rights, to broadcast our stories of struggle and victory to the mainstream media that often pretend that we – the vast majority of the worlds population – count for less than the celebrities and corporate titans.” (WUFF 2013)
This festival is one of a small but global (though predominantly U.S. based) network that constitutes the Global Labour Film Festival. In contrast with the Human Rights Film Network, the emphasis is on explicitly political films that encourage organisation on a local and global level in an effort to resist the effects of neo-liberal capitalism.
The difference between these two kinds of film festival networks is that the former is indicative of the widening disjuncture in Western political theory between social change and revolution identified by Gaines. Exemplary of this is the ubiquitousness of the term ‘resilience’ within contemporary academic discourse. As Mark Neocleous reports, the term is derived from military discourse that seeks to develop strategies for managing what is presumed to be inevitable natural, economic, and national security disasters. “Urban planners are now obliged to take it into consideration, and academics are falling over themselves to conduct research on it” (Neocleous 2013). Indeed, one opportunity for potential PhD candidates involves writing a thesis on the solidification of resilience at a community level, beginning “from the assumption that Co-exist [a cultural space within the Stokes Croft area of Bristol] exemplifies the new emphasis on ‘resilience’ as the way we should live” (Bristol University 2012).
Yet “resilience has been recognized […] as a means of further pursuing an explicitly neo-liberal agenda […] it is doing so by simultaneously becoming one of the key ideological tropes underpinning accumulation” (Neocleous 2013). Acceptance and endurance of the effects of capitalism replaces any critical engagement with its systematic flaws. Resilience “demands that we use our actions to accommodate capital and the state, and the secure future of both, rather than to resist them” (ibid.). To add to Marx’s maxim, it is not only the ideas of the ruling class of a society that become its ruling ideas. The discursive framework in and through which these ideas are discussed also plays a role in how they develop. Yet in her essay on film festivals and dissent, Dina Iordanova asserts that new “digital dimensions” of film dissemination “diminish the importance of physical presence” at film festivals (Iordanova 2012: 21). For Iordanova, the festival is merely a node in a distribution network through which activist films are disseminated. The space in which the film is received does not seem to matter as long as filmmakers “secure maximum exposure for their message” (Iordanova 2012: 22). Failing to make the connection between films and the space in which they are screened, she ignores the discursive framework into which “the message” is projected, thereby overlooking the sphere in which ideas materialise into action.
This disjuncture between films and space, between ideas and materiality, is symptomatic of the pervasive ‘resilience’ discourse that exacerbates the separation between social change and revolution. Emerging from, and perpetuating, these sterile discursive formations, many film festivals that advocate ‘causes’ and ‘social change’ serve only to further neutralise the “‘youthful, angry wing of society’” through continued acquiescence to capital. Clearly there is a distinction to be made within the category of the activist film festival between the one that shows activism through film, and the one that does activism through film. This difference is worked out within the space of the festival.
While contemporary discourse may lead festival organisers to identify themselves as activists, that is, those who enact “the policy of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change” (Oxford Online Dictionary 2013), this is rarely, if ever, related to “affecting the fundamental nature of something” embodied in the term radicalism (ibid.). The motive of the Human Rights Film Network to “exchange ideas on how to promote human rights through film festivals” (HRAFF 2013) is conducive with Iordanova’s view that they are merely nodes of dissemination for activist films. The shared understanding is that the purpose of activist and/or human rights film festivals is to “promote” human rights or provide “exposure” for an activist cause.
Undoubtedly these are important functions. However, this understanding is flawed in its incapability to connect activism per se with the activity of putting on a film festival and even the act of screening a film, which in themselves are radical. Activist film festival spaces that stratify activism from radicalism offer resilience rather than resistance to capitalism, perpetuating the market ideology of the ruling class by providing society with the myth of an alternative. Lacking the carnivalesque desire to properly transgress political and cultural boundaries, they have “degenerated into the ossified repetition of perennial rituals” (Stam 1989: 90). Here the Bakhtinian conception of the “carnivalesque” can be applied to film festival studies. Characterised as a popular festivity, the carnival is a site in which dominant moral, ethical and social boundaries are transgressed and “all hierarchical distinctions, all barriers, all norms and prohibitions are temporarily suspended, while a qualitatively different kind of communication, based on ‘free and familiar contact’ is established” (Stam 1989: 86).
Robert Stam’s work on this is central to my argument. According to Stam, “Bakhtin gives the name ‘carnival’ to the de-centralising (centrifugal) forces that militate against official power and ideology” (Stam 1989: 122). This involves not only a contrast between the carnival and dominant power, but between “open” and “closed” cultures. A culture becomes permeable as a result of its “hearing” others, its hermetic rigidity is loosened and “decentering” occurs. The concept has its roots in Bakhtin’s analysis of nineteenth-century literature, particularly the work of Dostoyevsky and François Rabelais. In the work of Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin finds that the authorial voice of the narrator is subsumed by the multitude of characters he creates, with each articulating a different subjective experience of the world. The text is constituted by myriad voices, and in this way it becomes dialogical. According to Stam, real life carnivals are “complex crisscrossings of ideological manipulation and utopian desire” that cannot be separated from the “institutional sites in which the complex relations of discourse and power are actually negotiated” (Stam 1989:96).
Activist film festivals are, potentially, spaces in which power is realised through a fundamental (radical) change in the “complex relations of discourse”. An attendee at the 2013 Bristol Radical Film Festival highlighted their desire to go beyond the mere promotion of an activist ‘cause’. Upon being asked, “what did the festival do well” they responded, “raise awareness/publicise issues/re-enforce shared understandings and impetus to resistance.” Another responded “opening up discussion on topics often excluded from the mainstream media and society in general.” Put together, these comments display an understanding of how the discussion of ideas is conducive with fostering resistance, especially when topics are “excluded from the mainstream,” that is, topics that are not defined by (or at least, less subjected to) the discursive framework established by the ruling class. Education via discussion is initiated by film screenings. “In each screening” said another attendee “there is a great deal to learn,” which is only surpassed by the comfortable discussion afterwards. Screenings were “discussed and informed” as well as “educational and entertaining.”
While an emphasis on discussion is the commonality linking activist film festivals, only when it is coupled with a desire to reveal the fundamental contradictions in wider society can the festival be a space that transgresses political and cultural boundaries. This pedagogical imperative is recognised by academics, activists and festival organisers who seek to undermine the disjuncture between social change and revolution. It is also evident in the suggestions of BRFF attendees to “create discussion groups,” establish “more links with organisations” and “politicise young’uns through film” by conducting special screenings at schools. Central to this space is a discursive framework that is built on dialogism, through which the decentering of power occurs through collective exchange. This framework resists the imposition of a single, authoritative voice. Its central function is to “resolve the student-teacher contradiction, to exchange the role of depositor, prescriber, domesticator, for the role of student among students […] to undermine the power of oppression and serve the cause of liberation” (Friere 2005: 73).
Film festivals have been, and continue to be, nodes in a network of local as well as global power relations. As austerity policies are enacted in the UK, communities are under increasing strain. The need to create sustainable structures is being realised alongside the fact of capitalism’s collapse. “We need to begin” as Mark Fisher writes “to develop strategies against a capital which presents itself as ontologically as well as geographically ubiquitous” (Fisher 2009: 77). Film festivals (and indeed, all educational institutions) can play a major role in re-distributing power at a local level as long as they strive to re-connect ideas of social change with those of revolution. Activists, whatever their main cause for concern, need to recognise the common and systemic failures that have brought about the need for concern in the first place. Until activism is reconnected with radicalism it can only serve, as Solanas and Getino tell us, to perpetuate the current system. As the contradictions within capitalism become more extreme, activist film festival organisers will be among those who most sharply witness the irreconcilability between breaking free and breaking even. For this reason it is imperative not only to build communities, but to build global networks of resistance. Alongside this is the requirement for people to set their own discursive boundaries and continue to transgress them. Film festivals provide a space within which this form of pedagogy and resistance can take place.
Anthony Killick is a postgraduate Film Studies student at Bristol University, and co-director of the Bristol Radical Film Festival.
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