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Out of Comp: Should Critics Follow a Festival’s Big-Ticket Premieres, or Go Where Their Instincts Take Them?

Out of Comp: Should Critics Follow a Festival's Big-Ticket Premieres, or Go Where Their Instincts Take Them?

A panel discussion called “Half-Time: International Critics Take Stock” was organized halfway through the recently wrapped 64th edition of the Berlinale in cooperation with the German Film Critics’ Association (VdFk). The international film critics who took place in this event included Variety‘s Scott Foundas, who served as moderator, Esin Kucuktepepinar from Turkey (Sinema), Thomas Sotinel from France (Le Monde), Frederic Jaeger from Germany (critic.de) and Boris Nelepo from Russia (Séance). 

The discussion was opened with the debate on whether or not critics should follow the competition program, whether or not they see all the films in competition because they either choose to do so or because they have a mandate from their editors and publications to do so and whether they follow another path altogether throughout the festival. 

For instance, Boris Nelepo focused on the highlights that were expected in Berlin this year, the films that were the main reason for him to attend the Berlinale but he also tried the Forum, the Retrospective and other select sections “just to keep track.” 

Thomas Sotinel admitted being always caught in the dilemma between following the competition because it is this festival’s personality and trying to explore the other sections or the retrospectives, “it’s always a game you are certain to lose every time.” 

Every time Esin Kucuktepepinar comes to Berlin, she experiences what she calls schizophrenia (a word she cannot pronounce too well in English) because her cinephile side would like her to follow the side sections to discover gems or to follow retrospectives, but her professional side, under the pressure of the editors, reckoned that she should mostly follow the competition and do some interviews. 

On the other hand, Frederic Jaeger, who is from Berlin, had an entirely different perspective. Indeed, for him, the preparations for the Berlinale start in November-December and he sees the first films at the beginning of January. According to him, this festival gives the opportunity to see many different kinds of things, “lots of things you don’t like and lots of things you could like and it’s very tricky.” For this reason, one should learn to navigate the festival.

The competition gives the sense of personality of the festival according to Scott Foundas who, during his eight or nine years as a regular attendee of the festivals, has noted the fact that in Berlin there is more chance of a director at the beginning of his/her career being in competition sooner than he/she would have been at festivals like Cannes or Venice, who tend to favor the old masters. However, Frederic Jaeger did not share his opinion, stating that there was not a really clean-cut personality, especially with 400 films to choose from. But, both critics agreed on the fact that more unknown names have been included in the competition. In that sense, they mentioned Dominik Graf’s new film, Beloved Sisters, and agreed yet again on that being the highlight of the festival at that point, an observation to which Nelepo joined adding he had been groomed for this film by a Dominik Graft retrospective in Rotterdam last year, but unfortunately an unknown name in his native Russia. He added Alain Resnais’ The Life of Riley as another personal highlight. Thomas Sotinel’s subdued “cri du coeur” was Celina Murga’s La Tercera Orilla and outside the competition, Love is Strange by Ira Sachs which premiered in Sundance before being screened in Berlin. As for Esin Kucuktepepinar, Yann Demange’s ’71 and Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross were here personal favorites. By saying she did not particularly like Yannis Ekonomides’ Stratos, she turned the debate towards the selection criteria of the competition program, without however wishing to question everybody’s tastes. The business side of the selection makes her uncomfortable as a film critic, as she noticed there were many German co-productions in the end credits of many films screened in the competition although she pointed out she understood that “festivals are giant animals that need to be fed but they are also complex animals.”

While throwing more favorite titles into the discussion such as Love is Strange (again) or Poromboiu’s The Next Game, the critics asked why these two films were not in competition and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for instance, was even though both Love is Strange and Boyhood have had their premieres in Sundance. Nelepo stated that this dilemma is not always a matter of business and not only Berlinale’s problem but that of Cannes and Venice as well. According to him, every competition section has a format and asked why the competition in Berlin couldn’t be riskier. 

This is where Scott Foundas retorted with an interesting observation: “We are all sitting here above the red carpet and we all understand that with a festival like this it’s much more exciting for the people taking pictures down there be to have Jennifer Connolly and Mélanie Laurent then Corneliu Poromboiu and his father.” Foundas continues with an anecdote: a Greek critic had told him that morning that Celina Murga’s film, one he enjoyed very much, was the kind that is only for film festivals, that no one will see this film in a commercial cinema. So, his friend’s dismissal on those grounds led him to ponder on whether this was an issue worth discussing and asked the following question: “Do we, as critics, go to so many film festivals and see so many films that are outside the mainstream that we lose the perspective over what the general audience might be interested in seeing?” 

Thomas Sotinel replied to this question with another one: “What is the point of really reviewing the films that the general audience doesn’t know?” When coming to Berlin, his idea was to try to give his readers an idea of what of was going on in the world of cinema at this particular moment and, according to him, Berlin has the privilege of concentrating enough movies to give a pretty vivid image of what is cinema right now at the beginning of 2014. This is what all the critics were there for, not only to give an idea of the artistic work films but also that of what their lives will be after the festival, now that we are at a point where the VOD and streaming on demand are completely changing the way people can access films and Celina Murga’s film being a pretty good example. 

However, Frederic Jaeger was tired of this argument and according to him, if only films that will make it to the screens were shown in Berlin, “that would be the worst festival ever.” In his opinion, festivals are needed in Germany as there and in many other countries, cinema and world cinema are not represented at all and many films that will even win prizes and awards at different other film festivals will never be shown in Germany. Festivals are needed to give them a bit of an audience as “films deserve to be known” he said.  

For Esin Kucuktepepinar, the crowds also need attention, especially “the hi-tech crowds, like Jennifer Connolly just walking here in a nice dress and people are looking” but at the end of the day, as a cinephile, she likes to read what the film is about as well as the impact the economic struggle has on films. According to her, if Nymphomanic makes publicity stunts like it did in Berlin, there is little critics can do as those stunts fill the papers’ headlines. On the other hand, Frederic Jaeger considered Monuments Men as the kind of film where he felt the need to write about the business side of the festival, since everybody agreed that the film had no place in the festival (even though it was screened outside competition) and should have perhaps been shown in the Berlinale Special section but everybody understand that the festival needs that and will benefit from it. 

The question of a member of the audience prompted a discussion on the film critic’s influence on a film’s life outside the festival circuit. From the perspective of the trade publications, Scott Foundas, was sure that there are distributors and other festivals that look at those reviews for some indication of whether or not a movie might be appropriate for them but he reckoned that at the end of the day there is not much of an impact on what movies do or do not get made or do get on a program. Thomas Sotinel asserted that nowadays the reviews in newspapers are much less influential than they used to be and that the influence of the film critic has been declining steadily ever since the appearance of the Internet. Frederic Jaeger accounted there was also another purpose to film critics and that is the one he hopes to have on his readers: to have an influence with people when they already have seen the film, “not necessarily to drive them into the film or not but just to give them an opportunity to see what someone else thought, to give them an analysis from my point of view.” In that sense, Boris Nelepo may be the harshest one, stating that he refuses to write for media who ask critics to grade films with stars, adding that film criticism has become a niche activity. 

The critics returned to the previously discussed VOD platform with a conversation on virtual film festivals: they mentioned Unifrance’s myfrenchfilmfestival.com, where for ten days audiences can visit the website and view in streaming recent French films and give out a prize; the Sundance across America initiative with which the festival sends one film to ten different cities in the USA to small art-house theatres; the closing night of the 2013 London Film Festival with a premiere in Leicester Square of Saving Mr. Banks, that was being shown at the same time in twenty other cinemas across the UK; the Sala Web of the Orizzonti section in Venice that allows the audience to watch the films online on the day of the premiere in a virtual cinema that has 500 tickets on sale; the Festival Scope platform, a professional streaming website directed to programmers, critics, that screens online films from festivals the same day as the premiere or the same week. 

In Esin Kucuktepepinar’s mind, it is a matter of choosing to watch a film on a “big spectacular screen” or on a laptop or TV. As the word “festival” indicates, it is a time of festivity and therefore a ritual that involves watching films together – critics and audiences hand in hand –. In fact, it is not merely about watching a new film, which is not like reading a book, all-alone, but “it’s something else”. For Frederic Jaeger, the way filmmakers are being paid when they show their films at film festivals is crucial and he considered a problem the possibility that VOD platforms might be taking films away from markets or hinder them from getting a distribution as the most adept cinephiles would have already seen the movie. In that sense, he shared Esin Kucuktepepinar’s opinion about it not being so much about films being screened on the Internet but about really wanting to see those movies in a cinema with other people.  But if we take out all the exclusivity out of the festival, then it takes something out of this viewing experience as well, “I don’t think that any more films available all the time help cinephilia.” Like for everybody else, for Thomas Sotinel it is also about seeing the film together, the festival being also the place where we see the people who made the films, which is very important as well. In his opinion, non- professional audiences do not ask so much about the films the critics will see at a certain festival as whether or not they will see a certain star or director, a very important dimension that can’t be done without. He maintained that a virtual festival could not exist on its own other than as a marginal phenomenon for cinema but these virtual extensions can have their lives. 

But Boris Nelepo criticized the fact that in Cannes the critics watch a new film that the audience look forward to but it will be released only in one year when the next Cannes Film Festival starts. 

Ultimately, Stratos, Things People Do, In Order of Disappearance, Nymphomaniac, The Better Angels, The Decent One, Monuments Men, Between Worlds were listed as their least favorite films. What is interesting is that none of these critics even mentioned, not to say anticipated, any of this year’s winning films — which can in turn, stir up a new conversation.

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