Tuesday, 17 December 2013

My Encounter with Encounters 2013

Pop-ups, back-patting and the changing role of the film festival. A brief reflection on my experience of volunteering for Encounters 2013 and how this exploration of a film festival formed a part of my ongoing research into the transfigurations of how the spectator interfaces with the spectacle.

What is a Film Festival?

This year I volunteered for the Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival in Bristol. I did this for four reasons:
  1. I love film. Obviously.
  2. It gave me an opportunity to network and build up contacts for future projects.
  3. I was relocating from Bath to Bristol and I reasoned it would be a good way to get to know some other like-minded individuals.
  4. It gave me an opportunity to do some hands-on research and exploration of the public exhibition field.

Encounters 2013 Launch Event @ Creative Common.

Volunteering for Encounters provided me with an opportunity to witness a film festival up front, something I had never done before; as I commented during the festival: “I’m not here for the films, I’m here for research" - see Ways 2 Interface. Examining a film festival (the spectacle) and its outreach to the public (the spectator) was something I wanted to observe in the mists of the current digital re-birth and how that digital upgrade is influencing the purpose of the film festival. Additionally, I wanted to answer a more simple query, something I had never really addressed: I wanted to understand the purpose of a film festival - what is it for?

The main festival itself did not take place until the latter half of September (17th - 22nd), but there were a series of fringe events held in the build up to the main festival. 

The full festival guide can be seen here.

The first event I assisted with was the launch event at Creative Common. There was not much for the volunteers to do and, really, it was just a chance for everyone to meet up and enjoy the films that were screened. I am not complaining.

The screenings were held in the Creative Common circus tent...
...and It was a surprisingly good turn out.

However, the fringe event that left the biggest impression was the 'Chile 40 Year On' event presented by the Bristol Radical Film Festival, that was, in turn, held in association with the UK Chilean Solidarity Campaign. Basically, it was just a Radical Film Festival event with the added bonus of having the Encounters Film Festival brand attached to the event (that may have helped to produce a bigger turnout). As the name of the event would suggest, it dealt with the Chilean military coup that initiated the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 and resulted in the death of over 3,000 people. A number of films chronicling the subject were screened; as was La Spirale, which is a very rare and enthralling documentary.

'Chile 40 Years On' was held at the ARC Bar.

Considering the size of the venue, I was struck by the turn out and I was amazed by the impact the event had on the spectators present. I won't go on off on a huge political tangent, but it was clear to see that everyone present was very fired up after the screening and the ensuing discussion drew parallels between the events of Chile and what is happening in the world today.You could also argue that this larger participation of the audience made the whole event and the films therein increasingly more immersive.

One of the things I have been grappling with in light of the vast transfigurations happening across the media industry is the subject of whether the film medium still matters? Does the medium still serve a widespread informative purpose? Is the increased length of the standard film something with which spectators still want to engage? One the subjects my research is looking into is changing viewing habits and the preferences towards how the spectator experiences the spectacle. Now Video On Demand is a strong component of our lives and which is allowing us to watch films almost anywhere and anywhen. There is a growing preference towards shorter forms of content because "no one has the time these days", precisely because there now exists a wide plethora of content and content mediums; as such, is the longer medium of film still relevant?  

However, the 'Chile 40 Years On' event did demonstrated that the film medium is still very relevant to the spectator of today, but only when the filmmakers AND the exhibitioners make it relevant. Realising the exhibitors equal role is essential for the future of public exhibition as a lucrative and fulfilling experience. Film Festivals, in particular, need to remember this, because they are in a prime position to set an example for other public exhibition outlets.

Overall, the 'Chile 40 Years On' event had the feeling of a very important cultural and political discussion and it was an experience I was glad to be a part of. The event demonstrated to me why the theoretical explorations of film were initiated from a culturally inclined perspective, because that is the perspective through which we see films as being inherently integral to our lives. Films take complex subjects and clarify them for us. Film offers us a medium through which we can come to terms with some of the more terrible aspects of our human nature. This is the stuff of film and this is why continued investment in public exhibition and public discussion of films is vitally important - it expands minds and open eyes. It is my belief that this is what film festivals should be like as whole. If they are not already?

A Place for Back-Patting

From the research I have conducted since volunteering for Encounters, I have come to understand the film festival as previously being a platform used by filmmakers to secure distribution for their films and for distributors to secure films. However, now that filmmakers have the ability to self-distribute online and in the physical world, the role of a film festival is slowly changing. 

The 21st century film festival is less about the distribution business and more so about the film festival’s promotion of a particular selection of films to the public. Recently, BBC Radio Four's The Film Programme - 15 Aug 2013: Film festivals & Lotte Reiniger - discussed the function of Film Festivals (with particular attention aimed at the Cannes Film Festival) and it's glorification of what can best be summed up as 'film snobbery'. Indeed, by its very nature, the film festival is very much a prestigious entity; as it is elevating a particular set of films and their makers for promotion, discussion, consumption, appreciation and distribution. Encounters did have its fair share of snobbery and it is highly irritating, but that's show business. 

However, I believe, this primarily focus on the film elite or cinephile is something of a failing for the 21st Film Festival and, perhaps, if the film festival is not careful, it may prove to be the downfall of the film festival (or at least the classical Film Festival paradigm). Currently, from what I have seen, the film festival appears just to be a situation where a load of film snobs can get together and pat themselves on the back (I wholeheartedly include myself in this statement, by the way). However, as the 'Chile 40 Years On' event demonstrated, the film festival has an inherent ability to serve a greater cultural and political purpose. I believe, as the 'Chile 40 Years On' event demonstrated, the film festival has an obligation to the general public to provide an open space for cultural engagement and education. Enlightenment, even. 

Furthermore, thanks to the game-changing industry disruptions that the digital re-birth has initiated, the film festival now has a prime opportunity to grow as a cultural platform 
and enterprise. 

Enter the Pop-up

Encounters operated a solar powered pop-up cinema - the Solar Cinema - in the lead up to the primary festival. Unfortunately, and much to my annoyance, I was not able to attend the pop-up events as I was working. Although, there was one event that I could have attended at the last minute, but (having only just moved to Bristol the day before) I could not find the park where the Solar Cinema was located; It was only when I finally got home, long after the pop-up had packed up, that I discovered the park was located only 30 seconds from my house! That was also the night I locked myself out, another funny story and a very interesting night.

Anyhow, while Encounters outreach to the cinephile was very strong, as could be evidenced from the mass crowds that swamped the Watershed, Encounters outreach to the general public was something that I felt was only marginally being tapped into. Encounters 2013, ultimately, had one of the festival's best turn outs. Fine. But, as it stands, Encounters and the film festival as a whole, feels too cut-off, too hidden away in the cinephile niche of the Watershed and the Arnolfini that it might appear a bit too imposing for a member of the public who possesses only a marginal interest.

The Encounters milk float - part of the Solar Cinema pop-up.

This is the redeeming feature of the pop-up, because it brings the festival to the public and it turns the festival into an open space.

It was free!

Additionally, Encounters hosted a Cine Chalet Swiss themed pop-up during the primary week of the festival. Basically inside the Parlour showroom, the festival crew had built a Swiss chalet inside of which a constant stream of Swiss animated short films were being played. And it was free.

However, the main problem it suffered from was the fact that most of the people who went to the Watershed or the Arnofini did not know where it was or how to find it (on the back of your program, people).

The Pop-up Cine Chalet was located on Park Street.

Furthermore, while it was located in the Parlour showroom it was still a bit too inconspicuous: there are a lot of shop windows along park street and because the screen is hidden inside the chalet which, itself is hidden a quite a way inside the showroom, meant that it was not immediately apparent that the whole thing was a pop-up cinema (look at the writing on the window, people). 

"Come in, cosy up and enjoy an intense blast of Swiss film-culture." Can you read that?

It was actually while I was stewarding at the Swiss Chalet Pop-up (and I did quite a few shifts there) that I had some of my most interesting discussions with some of my fellow volunteers. In fact, this blog post was born in that Cine Chalet and, more and more so, while I was stewarding there I bemoaned the implementation of the Cine Chalet. Do not get me wrong, if you want to showcase a range of Swiss animated films, then it's a brilliant idea. However, if it so hidden away it hardly gets seen to, why do it? 

The Pop-Up Cine Chalet in The Parlour Showrooms.

Especially so when you have College Green slap-bang opposite it - a prime location outside of Bristol Cathedral, the City Council and the Public Library that is always heaving with people. What the Encounters organisers should have done is rolled out the Solar Cinema on the Green and engineered a program of films around that - if you put a pop-up on College Green nobody is just going to walk by it! 

College Green - a prime location for a pop-up!

In terms of the longevity of public exhibition and the film festival, the pop-up is going to prove to be hugely important! I say this quite confidently because the application of the pop-up has already proven to be hugely beneficial for public exhibition. While they are not the only ones exploiting the potential of the pop-up, Secret Cinema has really demonstrated the massively popular immersive potential of the pop-up cinema event. 

With a pop-up, the venue is designed to reinforce the subject of the film or the film is selected to fit the venue - either way, a pop-up that exploits this characteristic has a greater marketing strength and will provide the audience with a unique, novelty and immersive experience. Part of the reason multiplex attendance has been steadily decreasing is because of the lack of showmanship that accompanies today's cinema experiences. In an age when we can watch any content in the comfort of our own homes on HD displays with surround sound, what incentive is there to go to the cinema? 

If they are really clever, by exploiting the application of pop-ups, film festivals can set the new standard of public exhibition and, through the process of doing so, provide an open public space for cultural engagement and discussion. The power of the pop-up is not to be underestimated and it is something that is still largely underexploited! For public exhibition, appreciation and discussion of films, the pop-up is solid gold.

The Cine Chalet even had its own chocolate money!


Throughout the whole festival I made my assistance very available. Although, I would later regret this as the kept changing the rota and, as such, I rarely had a clue what my shifts were! However, as a festival volunteer, I was entitled to free access to all the events and screenings... and then I lost my festival pass within the first two hours of collecting it! This made gaining entry to further events slightly problematic. Although, considering how many shifts I was down for at the primary festival, this did not really matter, as I could mostly just attend the screenings or talks that I was stewarding. Furthermore, losing my pass proved to be a blessing, as I was able to use the extra free time to write my final reflection on my EYES web series project; I managed to get a solid 5000 words written in the hectic environment of the Watershed Cafe - result!

Ultimately, while I do love the medium, I was not really at the festival for the films and, while I am sure there were plenty of good ones screened (a very few of which I did see), my attention was research inclined and focused on the festival construct itself: the atmosphere, the organisation, the patrons, etc. But there were two panel talks hosted therein that I found highly enlightening... 

IdeasTap Industry Road Map - This talk pretty much covered everything I have come across in my career research and what I have been told before in regards to 'making it in the industry', as it were. However, it was still an hour-and-a-half well spent because it was immensely reassuring to know that I was on the right path. There were two very good reminders I got from it: 'breakdowns are breakthroughs' and 'make your goal your primary focus - be hungry!' These are not a problem for me - I am having many eureka moments and I am starving

Contentertainment - This was a panel talk that I stumbled into at the eleventh hour; when I discovered what it was about I very quickly swapped with my fellow volunteer so that I could steward and attend it. I was hugely glad that I did, because it illuminated the huge potential of Video On Demand and the opportunities available with self-distribution. It was a very forward thinking talk presented by a highly knowledgeable panel of speakers. I am going to come back this!

Overall, Encounters was a mostly enjoyable and a highly invaluable educating experience. Through the process of volunteering for Encounters, I was looking to ascertain the cultural role a film festival plays and the potential it has as an ongoing cultural entity - I am pleased to say that its potential appears to be very vast and waiting to be exploited even more so. As it stands, the film festival is okay, but it can be SO MUCH better! In addition to all the cinephilic back-patting, it just needs to invest a little more energy and engagement into the general public as a whole and nurture a strong focus on cultural discussion as instigated by the films hosted within the festival. I am hugely excited to see how the film festival evolves alongside the medium it celebrates.

Will I volunteer for another encounter with Encounters in 2014? Well, we will just have to see... 

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