International Film Festivals:
Do they matter?

Written by: Joe Yang

Films that win international film festivals...

Hmmmm. What's the appeal? And during a trailer for a foreign film or on the front cover of a foreign DVD, you've probably seen a logo that looks something like this:

international film festivals

Okay, it's not fair to completely dismiss and marginalize the role of film festivals. This article is about the merits of these spectacles, but it's also about how we, the viewers, must keep their relevance in perspective.

Why International Film Festivals matter: International movies shown at major festivals are generally more substantive than much of the garbage coming from Hollywood, which is a good thing. Those who make the films that get selected take their craft seriously, and set out with the intention of wanting us to get something out of their work.

Festivals also strike a balance between recognizing film as an art as well as a business. In addition to a positive or negative review, knowing how well a film did at a major festival such as Cannes is helpful.

The judging panels that determine whether or not a film is award-worthy are usually made up of accomplished film industry people who watch and/or make movies, talk about them a lot, and sometimes write books about them too.

Like sports commentators who dissect instant replays, the opinions of judging panels at film festivals should be respected because like John Madden, these folks are experts (supposedly) in their field.

And very often, international movies that win major awards turn out to be movies that many of us would enjoy. For example, films such as Cinema Paradiso, The Emperor and the Assassin, and Life is Beautiful, to name only a few, are loved by huge audiences and simultaneously applauded by major festival venues.

So it's safe to say those films, as well as many others, are rightfully deserving of their accolades.

In those cases, the International film festival as indicator of "good movies" in the realm of world cinema works.

foreign films

Why International Film Festivals don't always matter: However, just as some star high school athletes end up bombing when they get to college, not every Toronto Film Festival award winner or Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film will be universally embraced by the masses.

Whereas sports such as football or hockey operate within a specific set of rules that all players must abide by (where it's a little easier to evaluate a good team from a bad one), judging a good film from rubbish is more difficult.

Not every director has a huge budget to work with, not all filmmakers have access to the same resources, and not all can afford the sometimes exorbitant entrance fees to major festivals (assuming they even manage to cover the cost of completing their films).

And furthermore, the act of applauding or denouncing a film is largely subjective, based on the panels' personal tastes, or even political beliefs.

Take Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 911, which did very well at Cannes despite being proven to be full of factual inaccuracies and misleading statements (largely taken out of context). But that didn't matter to a lot of America-haters who couldn't get enough of it.

Had the judging panel at Cannes been full of pro-American, libertarian, people who are simply well-informed about world events, then Moore's film might not have done so well.

And let's have a look at the festival locations themselves. The Cannes Film Festival, for instance, takes place in a beautiful part of France where the parties are very fancy and draw big name stars, film news big-shots, and other industry insiders. The international media is there, so there's a worldwide spotlight on the event too.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with glamorous settings and parties where the wine probably isn't poured from a cardboard box. But I won't believe for one second that the glitz and prestige of a festival such as Cannes doesn't cultivate an attitude of intellectual and cultural elitism among many who are there.

And although I could be wrong, it seems likely that some industry insiders there might not help but develop a sense of self-importance by being in a position to define "good" world cinema for the rest of us.

Okay, so now what? So after I've both praised and bashed international film festivals for being sophisticated, what's a viewer to do?

Keep an open mind.

Noticing a major prize winner from some high-profile festival should warrant our attention, but we shouldn't make our viewing selections of international movies exclusively from the list of winners. Don't just listen to film snobs. Dig around.

There's a lot of talent out there that doesn't get recognized, and no movie, festival-bound or not, gets anywhere without you, the viewer.

For more useful articles, click the links below. Check back often as this list will be frequently updated...

Cannes Film Festival
Los Angeles Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival
Slamdance Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival

Click here to return from INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALS to the Home Page.