question of the weekend: have you ever attended a film festival? (and if not, would you like to?)

Cannes Film Festival 2021

Perhaps the most famous film festival in the world, Cannes, wraps up its 2021 edition today. (The image here is from a Cannes photocall for The French Dispatch, with, from left, Timothée Chalamet, director Wes Anderson, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray. The photo has gone viral.) And this weekend, I’m involved with mini-fest Woman with a Movie Camera Summit. (If you haven’t already gotten a ticket, sorry: you’re too late.) With this little coincidence in mind:

Have you ever attended a film festival? (And if not, would you like to?) If you have attended, do you have any particularly good — or bad — memories of the experience, perhaps of certain films you got to see that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to, or of the overall vibe? Would you attend again, or have you?

(I’m reviving my “questions” posts — just on a weekend basis — as an experiment, to see if there’s any interest in them. I’m also posting these as free posts at Substack or Patreon. You don’t need to be a paying subscriber at either service if you’d prefer to comment at either of them, but you will need to register with either site to comment.)

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Sat, Jul 17, 2021 5:22pm

Back in the mid-late 90’s, unless you went through the process of getting fansubs (combing through message boards, mailing out blank VHS tapes and a money order to complete strangers, then waiting three to four months for the fansub group to copy their often dubious translation from a laserdisc deck onto your tape and mail it back… *shakes fist feebly at imaginary teenager* and whippersnappers these days can’t be bothered to google the answer to a simple question!… but I digress), most Americans’ only exposure to Studio Ghibli films was the dubbed and censored My Neighbor Totoro from 1993. A few Animation nerds had seen Nausicaa in the theaters in 1985, or watched the VHS of it and Grave of the Fireflies in 1995, but that was about it when it came to Ghibli.

Very few anime (or Japanimation as it was often called at the time… oh no, I’m turning into Grandpa Simpson again) movies, shows, or OVAs (short series of mid-length shows with high production values financed by large electronics companies to sell Laserdiscs and Laserdisc players) were licensed and released in the west because there was no market for them here.

OVAs in particular were often extremely misogynistic and violent to appeal to the target Japanese audience, and 80-90% of them are unwatchable garbage with gorgeous art, but the hammiest writing/actng and most abrupt editing on Earth. Many of the best shows and films were never released here because the small population of anime fans in the west was originally dominated by people who sought it out specifically for the graphic violence and female objectification.

So, back in college I was a casual fan of animation – I’d seen Wings of Honneamise, Akira, Macross Plus, and Grave of the Fireflies at the UC Theater, and wondered why most of the anime at Blockbuster was so bad, when there were clearly studios making serious efforts. My nerdy otaku friends had a few imported LDs and VHS fansubs, but I never had much interest outside of Ranma, Lodoss War, and Bubblegum Crisis. One day after summer school, I was walking through campus and saw a poster for a Studio Ghibli Film Festival at the Pacific Film Archives. Disney had just purchased the rights to all the Ghibli films and was preparing for a theatrical release of Princess Mononoke, so Buena Vista financed a couple small festivals near major U.S. cities to build some buzz.

They were showing subtitled versions of the entire Ghibli catalog over the course of a couple weeks, and I thought “sure, why not buy tickets to a couple showings? Grave of the Fireflies was pretty good.” As soon as I saw the first flying scene in Porco Rosso, I was hooked and immediately I bought tickets to every showing at the festival – all of which were packed with sold out crowds of people of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnicities having a blast. There were guest speakers who shared interesting bits of trivia about the making of the films and Japanese culture and language. Keep in mind, this was back when DVDs were still the domain of wealthy cinephiles, so commentaries like this were only available to the average person at conventions, festivals, or in specialty magazines and newsletters.

It was an exhilarating, educational two weeks that opened my eyes to the fact that anime was a medium and not a genre. Shortly after, I watched the U.S. theatrical premier of Kon’s sophisticated, creepy critique of idol culture, Perfect Blue, (I’d already seen the fansub by then) and got to meet Satoshi Kon himself before his unfortunate death. I went to a couple of the early Otakons, met two of my closest college friends, and amassed a huge collection of fansubs. Most importantly, my newfound appreciation led me to seek out an independent video rental store called Movie Image that stocked a wider selection of anime (Werner Herzog and Ridley Scott sometimes stopped too by which was so cool!), and the owner of the store, Roland, wisely arranged the tapes by director, era, and country which led to my love of classic and international films. I eventually even got to visit the super cool and cute Ghibli museum in Mitaka.

I wouldn’t mind going to a small film festival again one day, but something like Cannes, SXSW, or Sundance would be too overblown for a cynical introvert like me. Today, although the average standards for writing and editing have improved (and the average animation quality has dropped), I still think 90% of anime is juvenile, regressive, sexist garbage (to be fair, at least 90% of live action movies are similarly awful). Nevertheless, I’ll always have a soft spot for well-made anime, because going to that first Ghibli Film Festival was an essential catalyst for my love of film and art in general. My current job is in aviation, and whenever I see a plane rotate and lift off, my heart flutters, and I still get a little hit of residual romance from seeing a pig fly for the first time that summer in Berkeley 22 years ago.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Jul 18, 2021 3:46pm

Your entire comment is amazing, but this is what I am taking from it:

cynical introvert

Might need to be my new tagline. :-)

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 23, 2021 2:37pm

yeah thats totally me, too.

Sun, Jul 18, 2021 1:40am

For many years, my family and I happily attended the New York International Children’s Film Festival, where we’ve seen many wonderful films—some of which went on to wider release, but many of which I don’t think we could have seen anywhere else. Off the top of my head, I remember: The Prophet, Wolf Children (we saw the post-film director Q&A’s for these as well), Your Name, Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells, some of the later Studio Ghibli films, and some anthology showings of shorter films (both live and animated), often grouped by theme (e.g. films about girls). We haven’t attended lately, now that our kid is no longer a kid, but really the festival has something for everyone at any age, and I’d like to try to go back sometime (post-pandemic)—I’m still on the mailing list, so I’m still in the loop. Nothing but good memories of the vibe and the films.

Sun, Jul 18, 2021 11:28am

I attended one of the early Tribeca film festivals, and it turns out that I’m not the sort of person who enjoys going to films without knowing what I’m getting into, just for the joy of discovery. I actually prefer the filter of reading reviews and articles about a movie before I see it. I chose films based on capsule descriptions and the people involved and was disappointed by just about all of them.

I might make an exception for The French Dispatch, but now that it’s been delayed a year, it’s no longer an unknown quantity.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Jul 18, 2021 3:48pm

it turns out that I’m not the sort of person who enjoys going to films without knowing what I’m getting into, just for the joy of discovery

This is very interesting. I suspect many people feel the same way. Thank you for encapsulating this.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jul 20, 2021 6:03pm

This is me too. You know the USA Film Festival happens here in Dallas, and I started taking an interest sometime in the 80s-90s, when I first started getting the schedules. I’d peruse them carefully and think what I’d like to see. Then I wouldn’t go because, you know, cynical introvert. It’s the same way now, only worse, since the past year has put me right off going to theaters (in answer to another question you posed). Streaming rentals are looking way better to me than ever before. Still glad the USA FF is carrying on.