Of Festivals and Films

You probably knew this already - it's something for your trivia collection - but we owe the whole idea of film festivals to, of all people, Benito Mussolini. Back in the 1930s Il Duce, no doubt taking a page from the Rodney Dangerfield jokebook, thought to gain a little respect for his fascist regime by funding an international film festival in Venice. And so it started.

Today, in close to one hundred countries, there are more than five hundred recognized film festivals, of which mine, the Spokane International Film Festival, is one of the smallest and least-known. But we do have a claim to fame: We are what you might call a festival of festival films. That is, I choose films that I've seen and liked best at other festivals. In the course of my annual tour of festivals, I get to see between one and two hundred current movies from around the world that have already been selected by other festivals as worthwhile. This is both good and bad. Good because it gets me out of the house, bad because so many of the films are just not worth screening.

And that's an interesting point. Because there are now so many festivals, it's hard for all but a few to get the kind of recognition, and worldwide media play, that comes to Cannes, and Venice, and Toronto - all of which happen to be subsidized heavily by their governments. So what's another festival to do? Well, the Seattle International Film Festival, for example, now calls itself the largest festival in the world. It runs 24 days at five venues, from morning till after midnight, and screens more than 300 films before it's done. Other festivals choose a different route: they specialize just in certain kinds of films, like documentaries or animation or shorts, or films from only one region, say, Latin America or Asia, for example.

The problem with great size is that in any given year there aren't anything like three hundred worthwhile - call them festival-quality - films made anywhere in the world. So a festival like Seattle is confronted with having to knowingly choose fifty, one hundred, maybe even more films that shouldn't be playing anywhere near there, in order to fill up its schedule. This just demeans the films that are worth programming, by putting them in with so much that isn't.

One festival that's bucked the trend is Telluride, sitting at the head of a box canyon 8,500 feet up in the San Juan mountains, in the most remote town of the lower 48 states, in southwest Colorado. Telluride is what my own festival aspires to be when we grow up. (Although we're at just 2,000 feet with little likelihood of getting higher.) It's short - four days - and each year screens fewer than twenty new movies, most of them the pick of the year's festival crop. It can then offer a whole range of supplementary, call them educational, programs: forums, historical tributes to great figures of the past, and sessions with important film people of the present.

Our festival, in Spokane, will program just fifteen films in 2005, over eight days from February 3rd through the 10th. We'll show as broad a range of films as we can, anad since the big distributors don't pay attention to us, we don't have to open with mediocre films like "Being Julia," which somehow got to be the gala opening film at Toronto last month. If you're interested in what we'll be programming, you can visit the festival's website at www.spokanefilmfestival.com, and see the schedule as it comes together.