Why film festivals can (not) inherit cinema culture
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Why film festivals can (not) inherit cinema culture

By Lars Henrik Gass

Let’s not dogmatically discuss the meaning and purpose of online festivals but find more tolerance for complexities in this area. For me, at least, this is not a question of ideology or attitude towards film and cinema, but a fragile temporary answer to a social crisis that calls for new solutions.

A solution that is wrong for one festival may be right for another. There is a difference between a large international film festival with a long tradition and competitions or a festival without competitions with a more regional reach, a short film festival, an archive film festival or whatever. Film festivals have a historical substance, a specific character and sometimes completely different target groups. What seemed possible and necessary for a festival in May, might prove to be wrong or insufficient in November. Our answer in Oberhausen would probably have looked different two months earlier or later. It’s not about an either/or, streaming or cinema. In short, what might have made sense for us in Oberhausen cannot be transferred to others.

So, we are not only talking about temporary answers, but also about non-transferable answers. I trust neither a crypto-cineaste fetishization of cinema nor an affirmative technological vision of the long-distance society. At best, this is how you get out of the good old days or into the brave new world. Both are equally scary. I am more interested in what individual answers film festivals find to different conditions, i.e. how credible, creative and plausible the respective answer turns out.

Transformation of cinema culture through film festivals

When we had to cancel the event in Oberhausen in spring 2020, three questions were in the foreground: What does the cancellation mean for the filmmakers, for the freelancers and, above all, for the development of the festival itself. Here, too, the answers had to be individual: As far as the filmmakers were concerned, we saw the need to carry out already finalized programs and competitions. As far as the staff was concerned, we recognised the social responsibility of securing their salaries.

Last but not least, the online edition represented the seriousness of a collective training for ourselves, in which we could question the conventions and self-images of a film festival. Our individual and temporary answers were also intended to initiate a structural change in film festivals in general. This was because the commercial as well as cultural relevance of cinema has been dwindling for decades: a structural change from market to brand, from mediation to exploitation, in other words: a transformation of cinema culture through film festivals.

Why does a film festival have to be limited to place and time? On the contrary, why shouldn’t a film festival use digital resources to give people who cannot or may not travel access to films? Here we are also talking about a possible new democratization of film culture at a time when cinema had largely left this role to digital media long before Covid-19. Anyone who wants to see a decent film today either has to travel a long way or preferably stay at home and make use of streaming.

The decline of the cinema cannot be understood and prevented by the fight against technology alone, but also politically is a struggle that frees the cinema from economic interests and places it on an institutionally equal footing with the other arts.

So why not try out whether and how a festival can be done in a completely different way in order to convey film culture? No one has yet claimed that festivals should now take place permanently online. But if cinema and television for the public communication of film culture are increasingly failing, the festivals themselves will have to step in. Whether the festivals, which have long since ceased to be (or never wanted to be) a “market”, will thus have to become a “trade mark” is then no longer a question of marketing.

What we have learned and achieved in this process helps us to better shape the future of the festivals. We are not advocating the abolition of cinema, but the development of new strategies for the benefit of filmmakers, film culture, and the audience. It is not about a dreary replacement for an event in the “real” world, but about a new, continually flourishing idea of festival. This is basically a social question, not just a cultural one.

Structuring the social question

In Oberhausen, we set up a streaming portal with about 350 films and over 60 programs in two months. And in an even shorter time we set up a festival blog, which grew to about 130 contributions by mid-June. The blog was driven by the idea that a festival could be a space from which to think about everything, to connect everyone. The blog was an attempt to make visible the process in which we and others found ourselves. It contained contributions from many to many, freely accessible. Our conditions were that it must not be about short film and not about our festival.

For the streaming portal we had hoped for 1,000 festival passes sold. It became almost 3,000. So why shouldn’t we have shown these people films, films that were worth seeing and for which there was obviously an audience? We had set a price of 9.99 euros, a psychological price – a nod to the price structure of streaming portals. We didn’t want to charge more than a cinema ticket and at best we wanted to set the threshold so high that the risk of disappointment didn’t seem immeasurable.

Our evaluation showed that we reached half of a completely new audience. That was the real success. Without a doubt, we also lost people who didn’t want to watch films on the Internet. We reached children and schools, people overseas. People joined together to form viewing communities, others bought festival passes to support the donation. The income was donated for social purposes.

I think that shaping the social question is the unmistakable parameter of the attitudes that are represented in this debate: what exactly we do for those who make films, who want to see films, and those who make sure that this is possible. This is a collective task, not an individual one, a political one, not a cultural one, just like the fight against the climate crisis.

The place is the festival, not the city

We don’t do online festivals because we see them as a last resort, but because cinema is currently forbidden to us; because we have to protect those who want to go to the cinema; because we want to offer those who now don’t know where to show their films an opportunity to show them to others; because we want to support people economically; because we want to look for new solutions, think and talk. In short: because we want to make film culture possible even during the crisis and we understand that film festivals have long since taken on a new responsibility in the communication of film culture.

Now the genie should be put back in the bottle; the potential of the Internet for festivals and thus for film culture would be best seen as regulated. The number of possible viewers for a program on the Internet should be limited, digital reach of the programs should be as close as possible to the city’s horizon: replication of the province on the Internet.

But an online festival should not re-establish geopolitical borders. The place is the festival, not the city. The vital political negotiation process among all participants on how to deal fairly with questions of geo-blocking or festival premieres in the future is buried in an ideological conflict. Sooner or later, against the backdrop of the dramatic erosion of the cinema landscape, which is not being stopped politically, festivals will have to consider how film culture can still be communicated with very limited resources. That would be a battle to be fought together.

A plan for the future

However, it is gradually becoming clear that cinema no longer fits in with the structural change of a public sphere in which people actually only like to act as if they were private. In every art exhibition you can “switch”, not so in the cinema. In cinema, consciousness is subject to a technical regime: a view of the world. Cinema, once considered a place of entertainment, protects us as a media-historical relic from arbitrariness, from distraction, by referring us to the world in which we live.

There is no place in cinema for a subjective approach to the world. This distinguishes cinema from the arts and new technologies in equal measure. And that is radical about cinema and has always remained so. It is a cultural practice, a changed relationship to the world, not just a new art form. And this is precisely what made cinema so suspicious and prevented its recognition in the established bourgeois culture, also in its critical expression in advanced art discourse, which always wants to perceive only art in the cinema and not what is more radical.

Cinema box-office revenue has been declining for decades and has been in free fall since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Politics reacts at best with emergency aid, not with planning. Thus cinema is left to the market, while governments try to save business models in a crisis that has no end.

Cinemas committed to film art have their backs to the wall. From the outside, this does not feel like a desire for the future, but rather like a fear of doom, of streaming platforms, of the overpowering art world and so on. And yet action is urgently needed now.

Firstly, cinemas committed to film art will have to be maintained by public funding, at least in the big cities. Against the background of social and technological developments, most associations are hopelessly overburdened with the rescue of the cultural practice of cinema in the 21st century.

Secondly, the future of cinema will have to be realized in the context of advanced cultural buildings, in order to be able to offer urban societies a plausible cultural program with a quality of stay.

Thirdly, cinemas will have to be supported in a structural change that would also include streaming offers, i.e. the expansion of the role model. Cinemas could thus also become digital screens, to the benefit of all those involved.

A cinema of the future would thus have to paradigmatically redeem the media-historical specificity of cinema and at the same time solve completely new tasks. These include reaching an audience through the quality of architecture, gastronomy, work opportunities, participation; not understanding the contrast between the digital and analogue world, between reception and production in an antagonistic way, but creatively, and also meet the highest ecological and technological standards.

The social loss of significance of cinema, which in its history has always been driven by commercial demands and was subject to grotesque designs, has created a momentum for its rediscovery as a cultural practice. It is only the process of the historicization of cinema that has brought the possibility of a regulated museumization into consciousness: that the business model can be allowed to die and cultural practice saved at the same time.

The lack of acceptance of cinema culture is also due to the fact that it has never been possible to free cinema in public space from the commercial interests and functional contexts of other cultural sectors. Cinemas have either been banished to the cellars of museums or buried under investor architecture. Since the 1960s, cinema has hardly been considered a cultural building like a museum, a philharmonic hall or a theatre. Therefore, the bourgeoisie could never be interested in it. Moreover, such a cultural building was never understood as a contribution to urban development or as an intelligent contribution to sustainable climate architecture.

The task now is to discover cinema culture as a living social space again. It will have to adapt to societal changes in the work and leisure society (cinema on demand, video on demand, etc.), rediscover co-working spaces and the connection to the film-related arts in appropriate spatial conditions (performance, expanded cinema, etc.). A cinema of the future would have to be a place that forces the individual to be perceived collectively.

In short, one will have to rethink cinema as a cultural building aesthetically, architecturally, socially, technologically and in terms of urban planning, and thus also as a living component of urban culture. This cinema could be much cheaper and more sustainable than other cultural buildings by allowing for individual scaling and uses. In the future, cinema as a cultural practice will have to convince socially through architectural and urban planning impulses.

Photo source: Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

Lars Henrik Gass has been director of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen since 1997. He has published essays, reviews, and lectures on film, photography, and cultural and film-political topics, and has taught on film and cultural management. He is author of the books Das ortlose Kino. Über Marguerite Duras (2001), Film und Kunst nach dem Kino (2012/2017, in English 2019) and Filmgeschichte als Kinogeschichte. Eine kleine Theorie des Kinos (2019).

Photo source: Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

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