"500 FILMS, 500 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE WORLD": A report from the 37th Göteborg International Film Festival
There are many ways that an individual can experience a film festival. The following lines document my experience from the 37th Göteborg International Film Festival (24 January – 3 February 2014) as a new follower and new resident of the city. Instead of an exhaustive report on the participants, the awards and the surrounding activities, I chose to focus on some aspects of the event that I found particularly interesting during my first encounter with the largest film festival in Scandinavia. These include the festival as a forum for the discussion of contemporary socio-political issues; the festival as an occasion for a creative dialogue between practitioners and academics; and last, but not least, the festival as an accommodator for the discussion of problems and developments taking place in other media, such as television. Some highlights of the festival, as well as a brief comment on the presence and the reception of Greek films, conclude this report.
Before going into more details regarding the themes mentioned above, I would like to refer you to the welcoming message on behalf of the festival's artistic director, Marit Kapla, included in the event's accompanying publication. In her preface to the Programme, Kapla describes the experience of films as "moments of rediscovery"; instances when the individual finds the time for concentration and contemplation and manages to escape the plethora of information provided thanks to digital communication and technologies. Within this context, films are described as spaces in time where the human mind temporarily blocks out the fatigue caused by the continuous flow of information and images, and becomes re-sensitized to the visual stimuli and experiences by means of the cinematic form.
It is always interesting, in my opinion, to read carefully these introductory words to an event, as they most explicitly describe the organizers' vision. Kapla's conceptualization of the cinematic experience corresponds to her idea of cinema's socio-political function in contemporary society. It is also associated with the first theme that I wanted to talk about, the festival as a forum for the discussion of current issues of socio-political character. This year's festival put Russia in its focus, using contemporary Russian cinema as a mediator of the current political and social situation in the country. With films that feature, for instance, the trial against the female art collective Pussy Riot, and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the festival's intention was to draw the audience's attention to documentaries and fiction films that "have their finger on the pulse of Russian society and which provide nuanced perspectives on the world’s largest country".
Apart from dedicating a whole section to Russian productions, the festival revealed its politically engaged character by choosing Pussy Riot as the event's poster artists. According to Kapla, with this decision the festival intended to make a clear statement about the importance of respect for the freedom of expression and human rights. The working conditions for Russian filmmakers in light of the rise of Vladimir Putin were also discussed in one of the parallel activities of the festival, during a discussion under the title "Focus Russia: A conversation on post-communist Russian cinema" with the participation of artists, scholars and the public.
Discussions like the one mentioned above bring me to the second topic that I wanted to address within this report from Göteborg's film festival. It appears that the organizers have been particularly interested in sustaining a climate of collaboration between people from the film industry and academics by holding discussions that are open to the general public. In this way, they encourage an atmosphere of dialogue and they create a space for an exchange of experiences between the areas of "theory" and "practice". Indicative examples of this effort include a discussion about the gender balance in the Nordic film industry (1), a conversation on Icelandic cinema, a talk on Roma filmmaking and the representation of the Roma people in films, as well as conversations and master classes with filmmakers and other artists. These events constitute an integral part of the film festival and disclose an encouraging climate of convergence between several factors who contribute to cinema's conceptualization as a complex medium; the creators, the audience and academia. Intentions, analyses and responses find in these occasions an opportunity for negotiation, enriching at the same time the educational remit of the festival and adding to it the character of a useful resource for researchers.
One of the main drawbacks of this aspect of the festival is the fact that many of the events were held in Swedish. The language barrier unfortunately limits the degree of access to such interesting debates which provide the audience with useful and diverse insights on topics such as the ones mentioned above.
The third important feature of the festival, that I would like to comment on, is its strong interest in providing space for the discussion of recent developments and trends in the field of television production. In the all-day seminar "TV Drama vision" the participants were presented with upcoming projects and an overview of what has been going on in the area of drama production, with an emphasis on the countries of the Nordic region. More specifically, the focus this year was placed on examples of fictional programmes which managed to attract international appeal and strategies that can help a production to transgress national borders and to be exported in international markets. It is true that the Nordic television industry has recently attracted international attention mainly because of the successful case of contemporary Danish television drama and series such as Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge (2). The seminar was mostly presented in a "works-in-progress" format, but because of the large number of presentations, many opportunities arose for the discussion of diverse matters such as content patterns, the successful paradigm of exportable Israeli drama, the case of Icelandic drama, and funding opportunities for the production of drama in the Nordic countries.
The "TV Drama vision" has already established itself as a meeting point for individuals coming from a variety of fields and it may prove as a useful resource, not only for people from the TV industry who are looking to follow the most recent trends in the field, but also for scholars who are interested in the general area of TV fiction, especially with regard to production policies and content trends. Apart from this seminar, I also attended the launch of "Nostradamus", a research project which aims at documenting and predicting industry changes, or to put it in the organizers' words: a "curated resource for finding solid information, a platform for meetings and discussion, and a framework for identifying problems that need resolving or support structures that are needed while the industry transforms". The “Nostradamus” initiative is interested in studying closely the release models by taking into consideration the process of media convergence and consumers' responses. Focusing on a three-to-five-year window, the “Nostradamus” project assumes that “five years from now… the complex ecosystem between the authors and the audience will be different from today”. Hence, Nostradamus predicts major changes in the production and consumption patterns of film and television (3).
Before concluding this report, I would like to include a reflection on the presence of two Greek films; September by Penny Panayotopoulou and The Enemy Within/Ο εχθρός μου by Yorgos Tsemperopoulos. Both films attracted a satisfactory amount of audience partly because of the popular interest in the situation of contemporary Greece as the epicenter of the Eurozone crisis, but also partly because of the large number of Greek migrants and students who live in Göteborg and always show great enthusiasm in supporting Greek culture. If one were to make a comment comparing the reception of these two films, it is possible that Tsemperopoulos' negotiation of the ethical dilemmas and contradictions in the life of the modern Greek was met with more sympathy than Panayotopoulou's stifling illustration of loneliness and lack of communication in modern-day Athens. From a discursive perspective, both films were framed as taking place against the contemporary setting of a country in crisis, emphasizing the individual's experience of a social reality that challenges people's relationships, ideologies and ultimately the sense of one’s self. It is also worth noting that one of the screenings of September was introduced by Swedish film critic Annika Gustafsson who described the film as belonging to the "weird wave of Greek cinema", another indication that the term has already been established in the language of the critics, but also perhaps a fact that should put the all-inclusiveness of the term into consideration.
Other key moments of the festival, which managed to attract special attention either on the basis of their content or by means of the way of their presentation, included the following:
- A screening of Koyaanisqatsi (originally released in 1983, directed by Godfrey Reggio and produced by Francis Ford Coppola) with live music played by Philip Glass and his ensemble, accompanied by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony Chorus. The audience was captured by the unique combination of images and music, as well as the atmospheric vocals.
- Days of Gray: In a dystopian future where language is for some unknown reason absent from people's lives, a young boy becomes friends with an outsider and starts a silent but powerful revolution against the social structures and rules that were imposed but never fully explained to him. Ani Simon-Kennedy's first feature film was screened at the historic Stora Teatern accompanied by a live performance of the film's score by Icelandic orchestral band Hjaltalin. "Our concept from the beginning was to invoke the communal experience of the silent film era", explains the director whose film was met with a long warm applause from the audience who showed great appreciation for this special experience.
- Of Horses and Men: It could be described as the most popular film of the festival, as it managed to win popular and critical acclaim by winning both the audience award and the FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics) prize. Benedikt Erlingsson's debut film and Iceland's Oscar nominee is a peculiarly humorous comment on the relationship between human and nature set against the ethical codes of a small Icelandic community.
What is more, the residents of Göteborg and the numerous visitors had the chance to attend a master class with Ralph Fiennes, who was the recipient of the Honorary Dragon Award during the opening ceremony of the festival. Another event that received popular attention was the screening of Terry Gilliam's latest film The Zero Theorem, also followed by a master class.
In my view, the festival's tagline "500 films, 500 different ways of looking at the world" summarizes the Göteborg International Film Festival's vision about the effective combination between quality and quantity in terms of experiencing a cultural event. It is of vital importance that a festival retains films – the artistic expression through the moving image – as its central feature. Nevertheless, I found it particularly refreshing that a follower of the festival had the opportunity to become involved with different modes of experiencing such an event. In this sense, the Göteborg International Film Festival proved successful in retaining its connection with the social reality, truthful to its initial intention about remaining relevant and providing space for contemplation within a world of overabundance.
(1) A detailed version of the topics discussed in this very interesting seminar can be found in this report, accompanied by a significant amount of statistics.
(2) For more information see Bauer, M., Hochscherf, T. and Philipsen, H. (2013) “Introduction: Contemporary Danish television drama: A dossier”. Journal of Popular Television, 1 (2), pp 221-226.
(3) You can read more about the “Nostradamus” project in the first publication of the project as a year 0 “where we are now” report.