Issue 1 | July 2014 (Cambridge, MA)

Introducing my project | Film festival finessing

This blog is intended to chronicle my experiences and insights — both the practical and the profound — during my preparation for and execution of a journey I will undertake in summer 2015, thanks to the generous support of a Stevens Traveling Fellowship, to document 21st century independent cinemas and movie-going. Attached here is the essay I wrote as part of my application, describing why I wished to embark on this trip and how it serves to fulfill the mission set out by the fellowship to support “purposeful travel into unfamiliar territory that will inspire reflection and growth and lead to more fulfilling and productive personal and professional lives.” For reasons to do with the vicissitudes of my particular personal and professional life, about which the fellowship committee was most understanding, I have deferred the trip (originally to have taken place this summer) for one year. Due to the realities of budgeting both my finances and my time, I have scaled my initially proposed plans back considerably and will now confine my travels to the European continent. Yet I very much hope this will be but the first leg in an ongoing journey of itinerant cinephilia throughout the world…

midnight-sun-film-festivalAnd now for the preparation…Because I know how hectic the intervening school year will be, I very much want to have the bulk of my planning done by this summer’s end. Having decided to restrict myself to Europe and to structure my route according to designated festivals and urban centers — where I’ll get the most bang for my buck, film-viewing and cinema-visiting wise — at present I’m scouting the festivals and cinemas that line up with my temporal and geographical stipulations. Tentatively I’m planning to be en route by mid-May, to return by August 1 or thereabouts. While the fellowship is directed at travel abroad, I hope to do some reconnaissance come January at the Art House Convergence Conference that takes place alongside Sundance in Utah.

So many festivals, all at the same time…

It’s barely exaggerating to say that every backwater with a chamber of commerce has a film festival these days. Determining which are the festivals for cinephiles and which are merely inert extensions of the local tourist industry is a must. Consulting Indiewire’s directory of fifty leading film festivals was helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff.

The two I’m most excited about both take place in June: Il Cinema Ritrovato at the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, about which I’ve heard beguiling stories of films projected al fresco in piazze where viewers watch while sipping proseco and eating gelato; and the Midnight Sun Film Festival, held “in Finnish Lapland, some 120 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t set at all in the summertime” and, true to heliophobic film buffs’ nature, films are screened around the clock. (Though I hear there is also a steady rotation of soirees on the banks of the area’s many lakes.)

Two other strong contenders because of their perennially solid line-ups and settings in two places I’ve yet to visit are the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest, though frustratingly both also take place in June. As does Bergman Week on Fårö, the Swedish island long home to Ingmar Bergman which now hosts a week each June devoted to film-related happenings. AND as does the Taormina Film Festival, which, taking place in a resort town on the northeast coast of Sicily, runs some of the same risks as Cannes (see below), yet beckons with an allure both bittersweet (it’s where both actor James Gandolfini and film scholar Peter Brunette passed away unexpectedly last year) and consanguinian (I’m half-Sicilian, have visited once but didn’t make it to the east coast). With it looking like I’ll need to make some tough choices regarding June, it’s a relief that the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Prague, where I’ve also never been, takes place in July, as does the Paris Film Festival.

The big question: to Cannes or not to Cannes? Pros: It’s conceivable that I could actually get there (it’s one of the only big-name festivals to take place during the summer months, or almost — mid to late May), and, well, it’s Cannes. Cons: It’s Cannes: hyper-commercialized, monstrously expensive, and insanely crowded. Many of the films screened there arrive with distribution deals already intact, and there’s a hierarchical system for admission passes so that you’re guaranteed to spend a lot of time standing on line or even not getting into screenings for which you have tickets. Because it’s bound to be less crazy and takes place a bit later in May, the Transilvania International Film Festival in Bucharest, Romania might be a good consolation prize.

Finally, while academic conferences are not specifically tailored to my project, it’s always inspiring to be around film and media scholars (not to mention it’s an economical way of covering a leg of the trip with conference funding from my home institution). I plan to apply to present papers at two in the U.K.: Console-ing Passions International Conference on Television, Video, Audio, New Media, and Feminism, June 18-20 in Dublin, and the Screen Conference in late June in Glasgow.

To attempt to whittle down these possibilities, I plan to approach the organizers of the festivals in question to inquire about any (ahem) opportunities that might entice me to go to one over another. I’ll need to wait until after the craziness of this year’s festivals has concluded, which delays my finalizing the skeleton of my itinerary and purchasing (or, I should say, trading in a lot of frequent flyer miles in exchange for) my ticket to and from Europe. But I’m grateful to have a bit of time in which to solicit opinions from those who may have attended any of these festivals, in which case please contact me via email or Twitter. Until next month, vive le cinéma!

Coming attractions: the state of independent cinema(s), foraging for cinemas across Europe, mapping my route…