Sunday, November 16, 2008

A taste of global film festivals

Kenneth Turan’s Sundance to Sarajevo is an insightful look at the diverse and rich world of international film festivals. While Turan covers popular festivals such as Cannes and Sundance, the real joy lies in the chapters dedicated to the FESPACO (Burkina Faso), Midnight Sun (Finland) and Pordenone (Italy) film festivals. Of the trio, I had never heard of the Midnight Sun and Pordenone festivals but the chapters covering them left the most impression.

  • Midnight Sun film festival

  • The Kaurismäki brothers were co-founders of this unique festival in Sodankylä where films are shown throughout the night because the sun doesn’t set for the duration of the festival. The first time I learnt of a place in Finland where the sun never sets was in Julio Medem’s wonderful film The Lovers of the Artic Circle. As Kenneth Turan points out, Julio got the idea for the segment in the film after he visited the Midnight Sun Festival. Overall, the concept of watching films right through the night is enticing but ofcourse how can one consider it night when the sun is still shining brightly at 4 am when some screenings end?

  • Pordenone Silent Film Festival

  • This is quite a remarkable film festival which not only brings together silent film buffs but also film collectors. Turan writes about how a majority of the silent films were almost destroyed when sound films started arriving but thankfully some individuals saved a majority of these films and kept them for their personal collections. Every year some of these personal collections are being released to the general public with Pordenone being the common meeting ground to discover precious gems and keep the heritage of silent films alive. Also, there is a section in the festival where unknown films are shown in the hope that someone can recognize them. One year in this section Sergio Leone was pleasantly surprized to discover a lost film starring his father Andrea.

    This Pordenone chapter really gave me a new appreciation for silents films especially the following paragraphs which talks about the complex issues in running these films:

    For though there is a uniform sound projection speed of 24 frames per second, nothing of the kind exists for silent films, largely because they were shot by cinematographers who hand-cranked their cameras. They speeded up or slowed down the movement from film to film and even within frames from 16 frames per second to 20-something per second as the action dictated.

    Making things even more complicated is that footage was often supposed to be projected faster than it was hot, ensuring that stunts looked crisper and slapstick funnier. Speeds also varied with decades, and projecting D.W Griffith’s ambitious 1916 epic Intolerance at the late silent speed of 24 frames per second instead of the intended 16 to 18 makes it play like comedy, while showing 1929’s gently romantic Sunrise at 16 frames per second instead of the intended 24 has the unfortunate tendency, says Kevin Brownlow, "to put audiences to sleep."

    Though modern silent projectionists don’t generally change the tempo within films, they must have a knowledge of what the standard frames-per-second count was in each of the films they show plus the ability to work with today’s breed of variable speed projectors. The aim remains what it was in 1911, when a practitioner wrote that the ideal projectionist is someone who "'renders' a film, if he is a real operator, exactly as does the musician render a piece of music, in that, within limits the action of a scene being portrayed depends entirely on his judgement."

    Turan spends the second last chapter in the book talking about a failed French film festival which gives a look at the complexities of running a festival and also sheds some lights on the efforts of the French government to promote their cinema. And in the final chapter, Turan talks about his experiences serving on the jury of the Montreal film festival. This was a very delightful behind the scenes look at how film festival awards are given out, a process that hardly ever gets any press.

    It is good to know that there are great films being shown in most parts of the world, albeit via film festivals. Ideally, good cinema should be shown week in week out, but until big studios stronghold over the world’s theaters is not loosened, film festivals are still the best way for a majority of the planet’s population to view true cinema.

    Note: About half of the book's chapters are available online via Google Books. Unfortunately, the sections on the Midnight Sun Festival and Pordenone are not online.

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