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The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) 48-59

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Vision, Authority, Context

Cornerstones of Curation and Programming

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To most people film festivals are frivolous entertainment—at worst they are about celebrity photo opportunities, at best they are self-indulgent forums for people who consider themselves artists—they are not the stuff of daily life. While there may be truth to these perceptions in some instances, I am of the view that film festivals can be integral to life—not only to life in this city (Toronto) and country, but to the very life of the planet. This essay is a call to programmers, curators, and festivals to play a more deliberate role in presenting critical images and ideas in counterpoint to the increasingly dominant ideologies of the mainstream media juggernauts.

Most small and emerging film festivals are funded by two sources: volunteer labor, which often exceeds the value of all other contributions, and funding from arts [End Page 49] councils and other government sources. Unless one is selling a demographic to a corporation, for example, as last year's Teen Film Festival paraded the teenage audience for the benefit of Levi's, or one has celebrities whose very presence can be sold to people who want to hobnob with the stars, funding is very difficult to obtain.

One of the keys to getting private-sector funding is to convince Revenue Canada that your organization deserves charitable status, i.e., the ability to write receipts for donations that the donors can then use to reduce their taxable income. In essence, what appears to be private-sector funding is actually, in part, a form of public-sector funding, because the government (and the taxpayer) then foregoes potential tax revenues.

I refer to the funding context for two reasons. First, because it means that the majority of the funding for festivals comes from citizens, whether directly through their volunteer labor or indirectly through public-sector funding and tax incentives to donors. The tendency is to treat these citizens as consumers and customers, not as the diverse individuals to whom festivals ought to be accountable. Second, funding has profound implications for programming. When trying to keep a festival alive, there inevitably arise concerns about how to increase audiences—to prove to funders and sponsors that their money is being well spent or that their branding messages are reaching the requisite numbers of consumers. This is not to say that increasing audiences is not in the interests of media artists and programmers; it is to suggest that sometimes pressures to bring in commercial works and celebrities may overshadow any curatorial values that the festival programmers may aspire to.

In order to resist potential contamination of one's aspirations, festivals and programmers should clearly articulate their programming and curatorial values.

Why Films Are Like Running Shoes

First, I suggest that curators and programmers treat media artworks as tools, not products, and accordingly involve them in larger processes of social evolution. Each of us needs to be concerned about the context in which our running shoes and our films were created. And, just as a pair of running shoes is useless if it sits on a shelf, we need to consider the mileage that a film can achieve after it has been produced.

Films come out of specific cultural (and ecological) contexts, and some festivals do a decent job of exploring these contexts during the introductions to the films or question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers. But after the screening, after the [End Page 50] director leaves the building, there is no legacy. Films can have catalytic social power, and this is where many festivals are lacking.

At the Planet in Focus environmental festival, we strive to actively engage audiences and to offer them opportunities to appropriately act on the ideas and emotions that have been elicited by the films we screen. Each screening is introduced and contextualized by a facilitator, and the filmmaker as well when she or he is in attendance. Following the screening, the facilitator and filmmaker or experts on...


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