I thought I’d post the talk I gave for our presentations at the returning fellows conference this past weekend. For past and future Watson fellows, and for anyone marginally interested in which things I basically arbitrarily decided to address given the endless list of possibilities.
I’d like to start out on a bit of an unconventional and sad note. By the end of the year, I didn’t want to come back. But the death of a dear friend in Mexico City jolted and compelled me to yearn for closer physical proximity to more loved ones. My friend had applied for the Watson but didn’t receive one of my school’s nominations, allegedly because he was already so experienced with his topic (investigative journalism). Given his gregarious and vivacious spirit, it doesn’t surprise me to have discovered this weekend that several of you here knew him. Mando Montaño was living his dream and embodied the Watson spirit as much or more than anyone I’ve met. I’d like to dedicate this presentation to him.
I once read that a film festival opens somewhere in the world every 36 hours. I’m not sure how someone calculated that because it’s also pretty clear that no one knows how many film festivals there are, since many get born and die too quickly for anyone to hear about them besides the people who were there. These conflicting ideas exemplify how the world of film festivals bursts with contradictions and complexities.
I discovered this pretty quickly, which was appropriate since it turns out the world itself is also pretty complicated and rife with contradictions.
In the simplest terms, I set out to learn about the politics of how film festivals work, operating under an intentionally broad definition of “politics,” encompassing everything from film selection choices to government funding structures to sponsorships to internal bureaucracies. I started out the year by volunteering during festivals and interviewing organizers in the Balkans, then moved up the ladder to cover festivals as press or work as a member of the organizing team in the Netherlands and India. About 3/4 through the year we got the chance to put on our own migration-themed festival in Spain. I wrapped up the year with press passes at festivals in Macedonia and Brazil. At the heart of the project lies my love for sharing cinema with others, and a desire to learn about how other people do this in the exciting and oftentimes messy context of film festivals.
As you all know, this description of everything I did this past year actually leaves out a whole lot.
Anyway, this project derived from a belief of mine that is so basic and fundamental to who I am that it feels instinctual: I believe that movies matter–in many senses and on many scales. On a grand scale, the status of Hollywood as the cornerstone of American cultural imperialism immediately comes to mind, along with the historical role film has played in shaping national imaginaries all over the world. On a smaller but just as pervasive scale there’s the social significance of our relationships to pop culture, so that “people who don’t like Star Wars” becomes an identifiable category.
For the record, I like Star Wars.
Needless to say, and to invoke the title of a film made by a former Watson fellow during his year, cinema is everywhere. As the largest social gatherings devoted to movies, film festivals struck me as ideal places where one could witness and explore numerous and unpredictable examples of movies mattering to people. And oh, the politics. In India, I watched a liberation theologist/ self-described “activist monk” named Benny Benedict persuade a young man to change the title of his film in order to better reflect the festival organizers’ political stance on the subject of the documentary, a dam on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border that’s ready to burst any second. There already is a fiction film about this impending catastrophe–it’s terrible but also rather ominous.
In Amsterdam, I watched a Dutch businessman fly straight from Africa and appear on TV to protest the largest documentary festival in the world, which was about to open with a film that exposes him selling a passport and Liberian consul papers to the “undercover” filmmaker for $50,000–all caught on hidden camera. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, I read the fiery open letter of a festival programmer who quit working for the Sarajevo Film Festival after being with them since the beginning, 17 years prior when the city was under a brutal siege. He accused the festival of selling out after a surprise appearance by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on the red carpet robbed his own event with an acclaimed Danish auteur not only of press photographers but also of any audience members at all. And in Brazil, the first guy I talked to at a random party turned out to be an incredible young documentarian who films massive protests by indigenous people that are otherwise completely ignored by every media outlet.
Within any one of these festivals, contradictions run rampant. That festival in Amsterdam may have pulled something bold by showing an exposé of the lives of international “diplomats” on its opening night, but it also functions as the center of the global documentary industry, meaning that a lot of their films are financed, formatted and formulated by European TV networks, so that they follow easily digestible human interest stories and adhere to 52 or 82 minute runtimes. Noticeably absent from the Amsterdam program was the latest film from India’s first independent documentary-maker, Anand Patwardhan. When I talked to Patwardhan in India not long after discovering his amazing film, he told me that the Amsterdam people actually wrote back to him with a list of suggested edits for the 3.5 hour documentary, shot over the course of 16 years. In response, he gave them a piece of his mind. He also looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’m not making films for you. You’re not my first audience. India is my first audience.”
This brings me to ViBGYOR, the largest alternative film festival in South Asia and our home for two months in Kerala, India. The name for the festival came to that activist monk Benny Benedict during a nap. It’s the acronym for the colors of the rainbow, except the “i” is lower case because, as they say at ViBGYOR, “it’s not about me, it’s about celebrating identities and diversity.” Much more than a film festival, it also marks an annual gathering of activists across all leftist movements in South Asia, and the films embody and extol their causes. The way that these activists deploy documentaries in their communities inspired a major shift in my philosophy about film. Film constantly struggles to legitimate itself as a field worthy of academic study. So, when people want to “use” film as a “tool” to “enact change” or as a “lens” or a “portal” into another culture, I always felt it undercut the necessity of disciplinary study of film on its own terms.
And I still think this, to an extent. But after being confronted with the urgency with which some stories must be told, I’ve gained a new respect for what one experimental documentary-maker in India calls “pamphlet films.” There’s very much a time and place for these films that break walls of silence to provide information and call people to action. Even if it sometimes means watching a tribal leader launch into a tirade for 20 minutes while staring straight into the camera.
The awe-inspiring activist-filmmakers at ViBGYOR were not, of course, the only life-changing people we met. By the end of my first month abroad–on the Watson and ever–I learned what would be one of the most important lessons of the year: it’s all about the people you meet. Fittingly, this realization hit me right at dawn, on an island off the Croatian coast, when my new friends woke me up just in time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Along with about 30 other people, we had spent the past week sleeping on the same floor and using the same cold shower while volunteering on the first edition of Supertoon, an animation festival hobbled together by a group of well-meaning but disorganized animators. As we trudged to the ferry, my friend told me about his participation in the student protests that effectively shut down his faculty at the university in Zagreb–the subject of a couple great documentaries, in fact.
Over and over again at festivals, I found myself intensely engaged in unexpected but invaluable conversations, in which film acted as a sort of launching pad for learning about all kinds of political passions. It was during conversations like these that I formed what I have no doubt will be lifelong friendships. And it was during conversations like these with festival organizers, volunteers and audience members that I learned the most about the politics of how film festivals work.
Despite all of the differences in our projects, approaches and the places we traveled, we all no doubt shared a lot of common experiences and emotions. So I shouldn’t end this talk without addressing what made my year markedly different: traveling with my partner, Anand. To sum things up briefly, it was awesome. I barely ever wanted to kill him, and he did a great job of never letting on if he wanted to kill me. But you should really hear from the man himself-
[at this point, Anand came up and spoke for a bit to wrap things up]