Film Festivals, Programming, and the Building of a National Cinema
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The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) 76-88



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Film Festivals, Programming, and the Building of a National Cinema



[End Page 76]

Film festival programming is a little understood or interrogated process. As Patricia Thomson recently noted in a Variety article, "Everyone knows that acceptance to a high-profile fest ratchets up the chances of a film's success. But few understand the mechanics of the selection process."1 How film festivals make their selections and the repercussions of these choices are complex yet underexamined phenonema.

As film festivals around the world steadily proliferate, the question of how film festivals and programming mandates contribute to global film culture, to the life of film festival host cities, as well as to the success of individual films and filmmakers requires serious consideration.

High-profile international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, and Sundance play a large role in national and international film culture, bringing concentrated [End Page 77] attention from press, industry, and the public to indigenous and foreign films. While each of these festivals provides a platform for showcasing their international selections, highlighting indigenous filmmaking is also common in programs such as Perspektive Deutsches Kino at the Berlin Festival, American Showcase and American Spectrum at Sundance, or Perspective Canada at the Toronto festival. Each of these forums undoubtedly plays a role in the formation of that specific country's national cinema culture as well as its reception and reputation abroad. To further develop this line of inquiry, I will consider what roles film festivals and film festival programming play in the process of forming a national cinema by paying particular attention to Canadian national cinema and the Perspective Canada series at the Toronto International Film Festival.

How might film festivals be considered one of the institutional mechanisms that contribute to the formation of a national cinema, and what issues arise from the intersections of film festivals, programming, and the building of a national cinema?

While the concept of film canons has come increasingly under scrutiny both within and outside the academy, the twin concepts of national cinemas and canonical great works continue to provide some of the primary ways we teach, study, and understand film history. National cinemas have been largely organized in terms of a body of great works by extraordinary filmmakers. This development of national cinemas in conjunction with auteur theory has been, by and large, readily adopted by film studies. In Canada, this conjunction of national cinema culture and auteurism has led to the canonization of directors such as Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Claude Jutra, and Denys Arcand, among others. Of course, the formation of a canon is not an automatic, innate procedure but rather a contested cultural process. The processes of inclusion in and exclusion from film canons share some of the attributes of, without being synonymous with, the selection process of film festivals. Film festivals provide an important site to help shape and confirm as well as contest the canon.

Canon formation, like film festival programming, necessitates a series of exclusionary practices. How a canon is formed and which films are excluded depend on a series of mechanisms, some of which Janet Staiger outlines in her essay "The Politics of Film Canons."2 Among the most important processes, according to Staiger, are critical attention, film scholarship, and inclusion in film histories. In addition to these, Staiger outlines how a "politics of selection" engages with various discourses of value, art, and exemplary works to inform decisions related to canon formation. Although Staiger does not discuss film festivals or festival programming, similar discourses are engaged in the [End Page 78] process of programming a festival. Selection decisions made regarding the canon sometimes correspond strongly with the kind of evaluative judgments made in programming. But before turning to this relationship, the other processes of canonization that Staiger proposes, such as scholarly film histories and popular criticism, merit consideration.

Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta
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Figure 1
Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta

The role of popular and scholarly writing on the formation of a canon in the Canadian...