Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Never Ending Film Festival

One of the challenges of studying film festivals is that the precise 'object' of study isn't always clear. Film festivals are, by their very nature, both abstract and material. They are simultaneously ephemeral and enduring. They are grounded in a specific space, but their impact can be felt globally. Indeed, as soon as you try to define precisely what a film festival is, it becomes clear that Bazin took on the easy question, asking merely "What is Cinema?"

Still, even if the concept of the film festival might present some methodological headaches, at a very basic level, we can at least confidently say that, for example, the Cannes festival runs for ten or so days in mid-to-late May in Cannes. The Toronto International Film Festival, however, cannot even offer us this small comfort — and, as a result, the 'academic' problem of defining the film festival has become a practical reality for TIFF.

As Keith Bennie, one of TIFF's Adult Learning coordinators, made clear in our meeting with him on Thursday morning, TIFF is an organization dedicated to offering film-related events year-round (i.e. screenings, academic lectures, traveling exhibits, high-school programs, etc). The challenge, of course, is communicating this information to a public that, understandably, assumes that TIFF is only a ten-day festival in September. Although TIFF had sponsored events throughout Toronto for years, the fact that the organization was more than a festival had never adequately seeped into the public imagination.

The construction of Bell Lightbox was the first major step toward consolidating and concretizing (quite literally) TIFF's identity (for more details on the inner-workings of this space, see Ben's post). As TIFF's central hub, Lightbox contains several theaters, two restaurants, a gift shop, an exhibit space and a research library.* Still, as Bennie admitted, the laissez-faire "build it and they will come" attitude toward the space has done little to change the public's conception of TIFF's primary reason for being. Furthermore, during the festival itself, TIFF has not been extremely effective at communicating its other functions to the public at large (the promotion of a new James Bond exhibit is the exception here) or of leveraging its other resources (its huge archival collection, for instance) in order to add to the festival.

Caught between the event of the singular festival and the concept of the enduring festival, TIFF enacts the difficulties of articulating the social, cultural and economic role of the film festival in general. TIFF's struggle to define itself and communicate an identity speaks to ongoing debates about exactly what a film festival is and what it can, and should, do. And if Lightbox stands during the festival as a physical manifestation of all that a film festival can do, it also haunts the city as a reminder of the work still to be done.

* As an interesting aside, Lightbox has 'incorporated' the Cinematheque Ontario. The cinematheque now only exists conceptually and refers to certain programming blocks rather than to a material space. The concretization of TIFF, in other words, has resulted in the abstraction of the cinematheque.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. It seems like TIFF has really invested in trying to create an identity for itself outside of the space and time of the festival. I wonder what is at stake for TIFF in trying to create or strengthen their brand identity this way? Your comment about TIFF's Lightbox absorbing the Cinematheque makes me wonder why it is so essential that film screenings and events throughout the year have to become part of TIFF's social/cultural/economic project. I feel like at a certain point of time, these events overlapped but were somewhat separate, run by different branches of the organization. It seems there's been a recent shift to create this really uniform brand identity around TIFF and the lightbox as something enduring. I wonder if other festivals are doing similar things?