A host of thorny questions face film festivals wanting to retain their independence and integrity in a world where many would gladly co-opt them, a group of industry professionals said at the 26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival.
The recent controversy over whether festivals should ban films from Russia, as a group of Ukrainian filmmakers has publicly called for, is just one example of the dilemma, according to international festival programmers.
But this debate alone has led to splits among those who select festival films for a living: should they reject only films supported by Russian public funds? Or co-productions in which the Russian state is a partner? Or just those backed by Russian funds after the country invaded Ukraine in February? Should they also ban those made by Russian dissidents?
Viktoria Leshchenko, program director of the Docudays UA human rights film festival in Ukraine and a professional with 10 years of experience running festivals, had to carefully consider the arguments.
“You can’t cancel Russian culture, of course,” she says, but at the same time she argues “it’s good to suspend this collaboration until the end of the war.”
Leshchenko is not convinced that showing films of Russian dissidents living abroad is acceptable, she adds. “Russian elites,” as she calls them, have left their country and protested abroad, she says. “We really don’t think it helps”
Cíntia Gil, co-curator of Artistic Differences and doc consultant at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, retorts that supporting dissidents of all persuasions is a “fundamental” role for film festivals.
Also, banning controversial movies isn’t always helpful. “Big well-meaning actions” can make a dramatic statement, she says, but feels like a cancel culture that’s “only good for Facebook and Twitter for a week.”
It takes more courage to openly address controversy, Gil argues. “Open wounds should stay open,” she says, and tough talks are important to pursue because they’re better than a “strange peace under the guise of a bubble.”
But the discussion should be considered separately from promoting a film or its makers, festival programmers say. “I’m not sure if I put a Russian film in competition,” admits Gil, because in some cases “the awards mean more than the film”.
Ji.hlava head Marek Hovorka said that the question of which Russian films should be screened at the festival, if any, has been the subject of intense debate among his colleagues, calling the Ukrainian call for a ban on “the loudest call in years”.
“All conservatives have to face it and decide what their position is,” he adds. And the topics of the debated films cannot be left out, Hovorka points out. “If we find a film made by a Russian filmmaker that brings new context, we win.”
Hovorka acknowledges that the sanctions are important to counter Russian domestic propaganda, which tries to convince citizens “that nothing is happening”. When the impact of sanctions hits, he says, it tells those same Russians “something is not normal.”
Veton Nurkollari, artistic director of DokuFest Kosovo, agrees that the sanctions are important but stresses that film festivals have limited impact on national politics. “It’s much more important to ban Russians from playing football,” he said. “Then the world will see.”
Another ethical dilemma facing festivals is whether to screen films whose directors have been criticized by the media, programmers say. An example of this year’s Ji.hlava festival, the Ulrich Seidl The film ‘Sparta’ sparked controversy after a German publication published an article suggesting that the director exploited children in Romania by filming them undressed.
Ji.hlava chose to screen the film followed by a discussion on the subject of exploitation, says Hovorka.
Gil argues that the issues raised in this controversy extend far beyond a single Seidl film, citing the “colonial tradition of filmmaking” in which “rich, white countries film in less wealthy, less white countries.” , often with little sensitivity to the rights and dignity of citizens there. She calls the issue a systematic problem that undoing the culture won’t change much.
Film festivals can have more impact by lobbying than by making screening decisions, says Gil, pointing out that poorer countries often offer filming incentives to entice crews to invest there, but those these are not always fair to the inhabitants. Film festivals can play a role in shaping the incentives to make them fairer and prevent them from allowing exploitation.