For many filmmakers the fun begins with a festival screening. Adi Iskandar talks to four filmmakers to find out what that’s like.
Making films is not exactly the easiest of endeavours. It may be the fulfilling of childhood dreams for many, but the process of realising it can be as arduous as anything. Looking for ideas, developing and (re)writing them, looking for friends with (film) benefits, finding the money to make it all come to life, the long days on set with malfunctioning mics…it can add the stress up fairly quickly.
One thing most filmmakers will agree on, though, is what comes after. After having finished their films, exhibiting it in credible venues becomes a rat race in its own right, but being selected for a film festival brings with it different kinds of joy.
“Being able to attend a screening of my own work was mindblowing,” said Edmund Yeo, whose feature film debut ‘River of Exploding Durians’ was selected for competition at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival. Here he refers to his first festival visit as a director, representing his short film ‘Chicken Rice Mystery’ at Dubai International Film Festival in 2008. “I was so excited to know that the hard work of my cast and crew was recognised by a film festival so far away.”
Kirsten Tan, a Singaporean filmmaker, feels much of the same. “The first one [festival screening of her own work, ’10 Minutes Later’] I attended was the Women’s Film Festival in Seoul. It was interesting to gauge the reactions of audiences our of your home country and to see how moments in a film are received differently by foreign audiences.”
Such screenings and discussions can be exhilarating, to the point where once is never really going to be enough. “It was fantastic going back with a film in competition,” said Bradley Liew, a Malaysian filmmaker currently based in the Philippines. Having previously attended the Busan International Film Festival representing the directorial works of others, last year his short film Xing was screened in competition. “You really feel your growth as a filmmaker, and in a way it is also nice to know your work is appreciated internationally.”
Many film festivals utilise volunteers to bring the show into town, and Sebastian Ng was one of them back in his student days. “I signed up as a volunteer and mostly worked as an usher,” he recalled of his experiences in the 2007 Los Angeles International Film Festival. “It allowed me to earn free tickets to go catch some of the films. It didn’t feel any different from going to the cinema in general, except that I was watching films that weren’t widely available yet.”
That exclusivity is a point Kirsten agrees with. “If you’re a film geek, it would obviously be exciting to see the premiere of new auteur works.” Bradley goes one step further, suggesting that these films are the potential building blocks of your own works. “I put heavy emphasis on being able to watch the feature films in competition,” he said. “Those are priceless opportunities to be among the first people to watch films that are challenging ideals and pushing the boundaries of cinema.”
That’s not to say, though, that all the films available are good. If anything, you’re just as likely to end up with an unattractive affair. “Films that turn up at film fests are often untested, and all you get to go by are the synopsis and cast and crew lists,” Sebastian continued. It’s worth it for him, though; he saw Whiplash prior to its general release, and the payoff is just that bit bigger: “When you find a good one you’re all the more surprised and happier for watching it. You get a stronger sense of epiphany.”
Beyond that, experiencing the viewing culture of another country is also noteworthy. This writer had the pleasure of watching the Palme d’Or film ‘The Class’, a French film screened outdoors at Busan International Film Festival in 2008. More to the point, he was surrounded by many people he had not figured to be fans of European cinema: old age pensioners, for whom such fares fuels a good night out with friends.
Kirsten had a similar experience in at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014. “Due to the popularity of the festival films, they only allow tickets to be purchased in person,” she said. “Berliners actually wake up at 7am to start queuing for film tickets and often by 9am, screenings are sold out. I was blown away by the reaction that the general public has for cinema in Berlin.”
In the midst of all the fun, work is still work. Kirsten was in Berlin to workshop her script, ‘Popeye’, selected for the screenwriting lab Script Station. “Due to the clout of the Berlinale, they were able to bring in some of the world’s best script doctors and it was a humbling experience to say the least to have your script read by one of the advisors there.”
Beyond being selected for the workshops, the chance to network, even informally, is something that is too good to pass up for many. After all, knowing how to game the system is a part of making it. “If you really want to make it internationally, you need to meet and know the right people,” said Bradley, “watch international quality films and understand how the whole system works.”
All that networking might be good for your career, but just like anything else, too much of something can be just as bad. “I think festival fatigue can be quite real, especially when you’re attending a festival for its full duration,” said Kirsten, whose works have been screened in over 15 countries including the United States, Germany, Russia, Austria and Argentina. “You’re constantly meeting new people, watching films and going for parties.”
Bradley agrees with this point. “You need to have the stamina and perseverance to be able to attend three or four networking parties a night over the span of maybe ten days.” Putting forward the best of yourself is therefore key. “You never know what programmer, buyer, or distributor you might be able to meet.”
Cost is also another issue. For the filmmakers, some of whom are independent for a lack of choice, it can mean the difference between being present and absent. “My first film screened in an international festival was ‘Sunrise’,” said Bradley, of a festival in Sweden. Most filmmakers would be keen to attend that first international screening, but as the organisers did not cover the flight, he had to give it a pass.
The situation is trickier for those merely attending as a film fan, as the financial side of things is a key factor for many. “One of the main reasons I attend Busan so often is that it is just about the cheapest film fest one could attend,” said Sebastian, who generally spends around RM2,000 for the ten-day trip. “I’d love to attend Toronto, for example, but the cost of flying there, accommodation, and the film fest pass would eat up a huge sum.”
Of course, what’s films and filmmaking without the glitz and the glamour? Star gazing is very much an activity for many attendees, and for filmmakers, walking down the red carpet can be a surreal experience. “Everyone looks like they came out of an Armani ad,” said Bradley of the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. “Everyone’s selling something and trying to be seen. It was pretty cool at first but towards the end it felt like a big seduction game.”
Sebastian was certainly seduced to a certain extent. “The Bourne series was my favourite action film series so I was especially thrilled to have the chance to tell [its producer] Frank Marshall how much I enjoyed the films.” He also counts meeting other directors such as Wayne Wang and Kevin Macdonald as highlights, but a particular standout was a brief encounter with Danny Boyle, whose ‘Sunshine’ featured Malaysian Michelle Yeoh. “I chatted with him about her, and he also briefly mentioned his next project, an oddly-titled film that was to be set in India.”
Ultimately, though a film festival can be fun and games, you’re not doing anything if you’re not advancing yourself. For Edmund, that’s the endgame. “I wanted to know what were the very best films in world cinema at that particular time. I wanted to learn from the best.” More to the point, the meeting of others as a part of the festival experience can help to strengthen the resolve and motivate the self. “We would realise that as different as we are from each other, we are similar too. It is a beautiful feeling.”
Originally published in the third issue of CQ Magazine, which you can read here or download as a PDF file. We previously interviewed Edmund, Bradley and Sebastian; after this article was published, Kirsten was featured on CNN as one of their Ones to Watch.
Featured image credit: Reel Destinations