As the autumn festival scene draws to close, it is worth considering what exactly is the point of an event showcasing international cinema' Although the origins of most festivals lie in politics or tourism, most of the leading international events have evolved into conclaves with a desire to represent the potential for movies to communicate and engage emotionally and philosophically on the highest level.
The thorny aspect is the degree to which the balance has shifted from discovery to validation. To varying degrees, there is a programming gestalt that favours particular film-makers or film-making nations that says something about the organisation or its artistic director. Depending on the event, there has also been the erosion of pristine ideals in favour of the inclusion of photo-opportunity films of lesser quality that will nonetheless ramp up the event's media profile.
What are festivals for'
Ultimately the debate boils down to a conundrum. If a film festival introduces a handful of movies that might otherwise go unnoticed, should it be saved from the wrath of cinema's purist gods'
Unlike the realities of the marketplace, the ability of a movie to travel the festival circuit is, if not unfettered, considerably more democratic. More than any other single aspect that informs these events, that is their contemporary salvation.
Film festivals in their own unique fashion are reminiscent of automobile-testing labs with the movies substituting the crash-test dummies. In experiments, the mannequins that withstand the shock and impact have a better chance in real-life situations. There are exceptions but that rigorous scrutiny is as good an indication of how a film can navigate the rough road ahead as any other we have at our disposal.
An event such as Cannes provides a movie with a public and media airing. It is difficult to imagine films such as the 2003 Grand Prix winner Distant (Uzak) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, being considered for acquisition without this forum. Winning the top prize, as Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days from Romania did this year, will open a door that would otherwise be barred.
While hardly a blank cheque, the international film festival remains one of the few tools that keeps viewing portals from being sealed shut.
Obviously there is not a level playing field when contrasting a film such as 4 Months... with the likes of The Game Plan, the saccharine comedy starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson that was the highest grossing movie in North America this week. The latter has its international dates lined up and marketing campaigns in place. Whether it speaks to the audience in Germany or the Philippines will have to wait but it will definitely play in those territories - and 60 others.
The Cannes prize-winner will have to earn its screens. It does not have the same muscle behind it and without film festivals probably would not have any momentum. But neither does it have as high a bar to clear. Keeping everything in proportion, a little assist from Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, Pusan, et al may just be the thing that keeps the gods happy.