This is a tricky question, with many answers. It’s a question I’m not particularly qualified to answer, either, but as I see it, the primary responsibility of a film festival is to provide an opportunity for cinephiles to see films that they otherwise might not – obscure films, arthouse films, foreign films. Retrospectives that reveal a new dimension of an established artist’s work, or that contextualise a cinematic movement for a contemporary audience.
But of course, there’s so much more to festivals. In addition to such films, they’ll include talks and panels with filmmakers, actors and critics. They’ll also include more mainstream films, films guaranteed of subsequent theatrical releases, acting as a preview of sorts for enthusiastic audiences. These decisions are undoubtedly driven by commercial concerns – while festivals are rarely profit-driven, they do need to sell tickets; big names and big films will do that – but they’re also associated with, as I see it, the primary remit of such festivals: to maintain and mature their host city’s cinematic culture.
In an era where pretty much every movie will make its way to eager audiences somehow – whether through a limited theatrical release, DVD/Blu-Ray or VOD, sometimes within mere days or weeks of their film festival premieres – it’s easy, if inaccurate, to regard film festivals as obsolete. But there’s a distinct difference between sitting down to Netflix or MUBI or whatever to catch the latest arthouse release and viewing it with an attentive audience in a darkened cinema. Film festivals help to create an inclusive culture where people are excited about movies, where people talk about movies, where people seek out movies. Sometimes, the atmosphere of the film festival – the buzz in the air, the hum of animated conversation – is as important as the films themselves.
I’ve written before about how the final Brisbane International Film Festival helped direct me from garden-variety film-loving towards eclectic cinephilia. In that piece, credited the mix of more accessible titles – 12 Years a Slave, American indies like Short Term 12 – with that transformation, and lamented the absence of such films from the upcoming Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, which limited its purview to films from Asia Pacific region. BAPFF came and went and featured plenty of great movies, but what it really lacked wasn’t just the mainstream features, but the electric atmosphere of excitement that comes with enthusiastic audiences. There were some exceptions – sold-out screenings of The Dead Lands, packed crowds at Asghar Farhadi’s Q&A – but by-and-large the festival felt enervating rather than enlivening, even after watching fantastic films.
The Queensland Film Festival – which opened this past weekend – was different. Granted, my attendance was brief (a bout of flu and Splendour in the Grass conspiring to keep me away), but the opening night at the New Farm Cinemas felt exciting. It’s not hard to celebrate the QFF program – a thoughtful mix of international, experimental and local films – but I’d argue the best thing about the festival is the co-directors’ decision to begin small, with a three day run of films and talks scheduled consecutively rather than concurrently. New Farm Cinemas made for a perfect venue: small but welcoming, a vibe somewhere between the prestige of Palace and the popcorn-commercialism of Event Cinemas. Rather than selecting huge theatres, QFF picked medium-sized rooms, balancing the risk of selling out with the risk of a near-empty cinema. While presumably the festival will expand next year – whether within Brisbane or beyond, per its title, remains to be seen – its modest beginnings were critical to developing an inviting atmosphere.
Perhaps comparisons to BAPFF here are unfair; after all, that festival was a rush-job through no fault on the part of its organisers. It’s to their credit that managed to pull together such an impressive program across a range of venues… but the tight timeline necessitated sacrifices, one of which appeared to be marketing. If we’re being optimistic, perhaps QFF will whet the appetite of Brisbane cinephiles and draw them from their hermit-y lairs to the other cinematic opportunities offered, whether it’s at GOMA’s Cinémathèque, BAPFF or even New Farm Cinemas’ Fright Night screenings.
QFF is a small part of that calendar, but it fills an important gap by providing an opportunity to see arthouse films and American indies that might pass BAPFF by while giving Queenslanders who can’t justify trips to Melbourne or Sydney a slice of the film festival experience. I have a couple minor quibbles with the festival – mostly associated with its date (I’d prefer to see it further apart on the calendar from SFF and MIFF, and especially not on the same weekend as Splendour) – but I’m very glad to see another piece in the puzzle that is Brisbane’s fragile cinema culture. ‘Til next year!