From: David Tetzlaff (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Feb 18 2011 - 15:21:26 PST
If festivals really are flooded with thousands of entries that can accurately be called 'experimental' my first question is, why is so much stuff being created? Not how is it able to be (cheap camcorders, ubiquitous computer editing, etc. etc.) but WHY? Why do these folks want to make things? Why do they want to make moving pictures? Why do they want to make 'experimental' moving pictures? Not rhetorical questions... I'm really asking, and I'm hoping for some kind of explanation beyond cliches about the fundamental human need for expression blah blah blah.
My second question is why this vast body of work is being submitted to _festivals_? What are makers looking for? What do they imagine the rewards of having a piece selected for an 'experimental' program might be? There are other ways to get things seen. Why go through an expensive process with a low success-rate, in order to obtain a single screening at some far-off place where maybe 35 people will be in the room, give or take those wandering in and out? Makers who earn their keep in academia need a festival record to secure tenure and promotion, and for independent artists, having had work screened at festivals certainly must figure in grant applications and the like. But are there really _thousands_ of CV builders out there?
As other posts have noted, I don't think most festivals can just screen 2 or 3 times more work. Resources are limited, there are limits to the potential audience, and we have to allow programmers some curatorial discretion in knowing when enough is enough for their goals and their their viewers' expectations. And I don't think the amount of work shown would really address the main issue, which is how what does get shown gets chosen.
I am not at all persuaded by the posts from festival folk who claim their system and staff handle massive volumes of submissions fairly and effectively. I have done some judging, but only among fields that were small to begin with or already winnowed. Even at this, with a relatively small bag of tapes or discs to review I could become easily overwhelmed. Pieces start running together and its hard to see them for what they are. So it has hard for anybody to handle the huge bags of entries these festivals must have.
Which brings up the question who is doing the reviewing and what standards they employ. As a 'Film Professor', I had not only an 'expert's' knowledge of the form, but training in how to look at work with a critical analytical eye. How many of these festivals have enough people available with the kind of background that enables them to make valid evaluations of this kind of work in the quantity in which it is received? I asked Bart Weiss about this a few years ago, and he said he decided he can't trust volunteers at all so he watches every single entry to Videofest himself.
So, once the thousands of entries have been divied up amongst the over-burdened and under-experienced staff, a process of winnowing must take place. With thousands of entries to handle, how many submissions get viewed by more than one person before the first cut? And even so, what does a second opinion matter? For, inevitably, consensus comes into play, and the greater number of staffers who 'like' a piece the better it's chances of moving forward. And what this means is that, unless the maker is an already recognized 'name,' anything challenging or different in a less than spectacular way will draw mixed opinion, and lose out to something more broadly 'likable.' This is not just sour grapes on my part (though it's consistent with how things I've worked on have been received), but my observation of the selection process of a large festival for which I have been a judge. This event gets a lot of entries, which are whittled down to a manageable number of finalists in various ca
tegories through a series of public pre-screenings, where basically anyone who shows up gets to have a say. The narrative and documentary finalists that emerge from this process are pretty strong. The 'experimental' work, though is mostly superficial stuff expressing some kind of oddball quirkiness through 'how did they do that?' production gimmicks. There had to be better stuff in the pool. Sure enough, I got to see a little of what else was out there in other venues (curated 'new-artist' screenings - not open submission festivals). But, you know, back at the fest I'm sure too many of the pre-screeers just didn't 'like' them, and there's this whole pile here that almost everybody thought were swell, and all our volunteers are such good folks and work so awful hard so we can't just discard their collective opinion even if we did have time to watch everything, and discuss it, and tease out merits and flaws that might not be obvious on a quick once over, which we certainly do
not (have the time to do, that is).
Now, do I have any grand plan about how to FIX this? No. But I'm wondering about the idea of new media salons. Basically these would be webpages that aggregate an updated list of links to pieces hosted on YouTube, Vimeo wherever that are judged worth seeing by the salons's proprieter(s), and fit the criteria by which that salon choses to define itself (cameraless film? feminist avant garde? ???) They'd have to be curated by people who knew their asses from a whole in the ground: artists, teachers, scholars, writers. To keep things managable, they'd probably have to be like Facebook or Linked-In: you'd have to know someone who was already in to get in, to be vouched-for before getting a look-see of your piece. The idea being that new work and especially new makers could get some context for evaluation outside of the festival cattle-calls, which the fests could employ somehow in sorting their piles as and if they might see fit. FWIW...
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