Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Guth Gafa 2013

On the invitation of the organisers I was at a film festival by the sea over last weekend. This one, not that one. While it's certainly true that there are film festivals taking place all over the globe at the same time nearly every day of the year, it is possible that relatively few take place while Cannes lays out its red carpet in much the same way that the devil laid the world at the prophet's feet.

Every May the chorus of makers - vastly outnumbered by a circus of meretricious camp followers - takes to the Croisette in what may be the biggest con-trick in a 'business' so inured to trickery that it has largely lost the ability to distinguish the purpose of a deal from the deal itself.

Do you ever wonder who pays for Cannes? Think about it for a minute. Follow the money all the way back. Think of the thousands of people, their hotels and apartments, their yachts and their suites, their flights and their food, their coffee and their alcohol, their brochures and their advertising, their phones and their laptops. Who covers those expenses, all of that overhead?

I may be somewhat eccentric but I think of it all as a cost on the people at the front end of film-making, the people who wait for the light. It is part of the reason why money seldom comes back and replenishes the pot.

The cost of Cannes (and Toronto, and Berlin, and Sundance, and Rotterdam, and Venice... and... and dare I say it, the Radisson Film Fleadh) is eventually and inevitably attributed to the cost of sales or overhead and netted-off income from whatever source. It is not a sustainable paradigm.

At the Guth Gafa Festival over the weekend, in one of the northernmost villages in Ireland, one could palpably feel the vortex that is Cannes sucking attention to itself, from the very periphery of Europe to the bling-encrusted shore of the Mediterranean. We are come a long way from the intervention by Louis Malle and others in 1968. If European policy in the audiovisual sector has been captured by the chimera of 'scale' then Cannes is its celebratory moment, if not its apotheosis.

But 'scale', as a measure of success, disregards the correlative concentration of public resources - the greater dependency of the bigger few at a cost to the smaller many. Not only therefore is it not sustainable, it is also a barrier to diversity and to new entrants.

But perhaps these thoughts are off subject, or 'off topic' as we say in the online world? I don't think so. In the world of film festival organisation and in film-making itself the debate will always come to the issues of resources and editorial freedom.

At Guth Gafa, where I moderated a panel discussion on the future of the feature documentary, it seemed to me that ever-reducing resources together with editorial and creative compromises (mostly made to suit broadcasters' notions of their audiences' tastes) would together ensure a very brief future for the feature documentary.

Or, if the feature documentary does survive it will do so at no little personal cost to those who persist with the ambition to tell stories that are not merely reducible to the 'beats' and 'hooks' of their narrative content but are themselves works of creative endeavour.

Of the funding provision for documentary in Ireland it has to be said that it includes a number of uncomfortable bedfellows, each inclined to see only their own interest rather than the greater good which might be attained if they could take a more holistic perspective. Perhaps this is a little unfair to the Arts Council whose Reel Art scheme may be the model for best funding practice in this area.

The Film Board seems to take a scatter-gun approach and is, arguably, in a period of financial and editorial transition; the BAI is hostage to broadcasters (albeit not just the more constrained local players); and those local players - RTÉ, TG4, BBC NI, TV3 - are all (to a matter of degree) hostage in turn to their schedulers. So much so that, forty years hence, one wonders what they will have created of lasting archival worth from our present time.

When it comes to funding the feature documentary, and then finding outlets for it, there is little point in treating it as if it were a manufacturer's product. It is instead one of the many forms of creative endeavour which spring from the human need to tell each other stories. Some are more interesting than others, some are better told than others, some - the best - keep us spellbound and tell us things about ourselves.

That industries and empires have risen to mediate - or make a buck - between the maker and their audience is of little matter. In any case, many of these industries and empires are now failing. The idea that the work is only validated by a publisher's (aka a sales agent's, a broadcaster's, a film agency's, or a distributor's...) willingness to bring it to an audience was a false idea to begin with. Even as they pose on the Croisette these gatekeepers are in as much trouble as ever they have been.

The challenge now for the originators of work is not to demonstrate adaptability - haven't they always - but to enhance their inherent adaptivity.

This is not just subtle wordplay. It expresses the idea that the originators of work need to switch from responding to circumstances to reinterpreting those circumstances. As an example, film-makers might start to re-think the inevitable conditionality of the funding they receive. Instead they might begin to consider what conditions they might impose for their acceptance of that funding.

To this observer, then, the means to secure the future of the feature documentary lies not in adaptability - meaning, colloquially, being forever on the back foot - but in the adoption of adaptive reasoning and behaviour as a collective response to how things are.

Give it a minute. Think about it. It is, after all, the applicant who justifies the funder's existence.

-with thanks to David, Neasa and the crew at Guth Gafa, and to the many film-makers I met there.

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