Rotterdam II: Film festivals as a platform for artist film

The vibrant hubbub of this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival gave curator William Fowler pause to reflect on the changing relationship between film festivals and artist film and video.

William Fowler
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A highlight from this year’s Rotterdam: Robert Todd’s Habitat (2012)

A highlight from this year’s Rotterdam: Robert Todd’s Habitat (2012)

I only attended the Rotterdam Film Festival for two of its 12 days (it ran from 23 Jan to 3 Feb) and was there to see work and greet familiar faces, but most of all to speak to exhibitors about booking the Bruce Lacey film restorations that the BFI National Archive completed as part of the Lacey project of summer 2012. Eight titles dating from 1951 to 1975 are available on 35mm and I had digital copies and information on paper ready to disseminate to cinematheque and festival programmers.

Special archival programming has increased internationally over the last ten years – in line with our general, collective interest in the past – and it was good to compare notes with fellow archivist Andrew Lampert from Anthology Film Archives (also a filmmaker and presenting work at the festival) and to begin to conceive of a Lacey film tour of North America.

The role of the festival in the artist film circuit has been changing in recent years. For a long time it’s been the most significant if not only exhibition platform for many filmmakers, a space where the international community gathers, shares perspectives and celebrates work. As Jonas Mekas says in relation to his 1997 film Birth of a Nation, the international independent experimental community “IS a nation in itself”.

At the London Film Festival (LFF), it’s often felt like those who attend the Experimenta strand use this as their only means of catching up with the latest artist films – it’s their one-stop-shop. More recently, festivals have also seen established gallery-based artists presenting their work and art curators attending too. It’s noticeable at the Oberhausen festival and even more so at Berlin and Venice (with its links to the Venice Biennale). The glamorous, red-carpet world of A-list movie stars and the cultural prestige of the art world threaten to meet and overlap. At their best, festivals offer the thrill of sharing ideas and meeting new people; at Rotterdam chit-chat and meetings always seemed very animated.

Michael Snow’s Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film (1970)

Michael Snow’s Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film (1970)

It was the panel discussion about festivals and artist film that particularly interested me. There was some discussion of the value of premieres. One panellist felt that they a good way of drawing attention to films and festivals, while an audience member countered that they created auras around certain artists and institutions, making it difficult for others not so lucky: “Was it good for cinema?”

The LFF insists on national premieres, while Berlin demands a European premiere; there are different levels of competition. There is a tension here between playing to international professionals and engaging people within the host city – though of course saying something is a premiere still confers a specialness and exclusivity regardless of the audience and where they might travel.

Like many of the people I spoke with, I am very privileged in being able to attend festivals internationally, but one question that came up which really interested me was how festival screenings relate to what happens during the rest of the year. Might there be an interesting relationship between, say, a regular strand and a ‘special’ festival presentation in a city, for example?

Similarly, if premieres are obsessively sought after, are the artist and experimental films that cannot be premiered still shown at another time? It’s all part of that ongoing question: where and how do we see films? Or, perhaps, how and to what depth are we engaging with films individually? That is, not just the platforms and discussions around them – the very thing I’m guilty of here.

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