Bilbao Film Fest 51, complete webisode and conclusions (a personal view from the festival)

Zinebi51 posterSo now the dust has settled on Bilbao and I have returned to the UK – on the flight home I made some notes about my experience at the festival. This is a very tough blog to write as I am not someone who likes to criticize other film makers or festivals as I know how much hard work goes into it all. But I feel compelled to voice my opinion regarding the actual films screened, the judging (and by extension, the programming committee)

First and most importantly, I wanted to be clear that the organisers of Zinebi 51 were fantastic and they really looked after all the film makers. It really was first rate! The venue was terrific too, and the film makers who attended and whom I met, were all wonderful people who were very passionate about their work (and open minded enough to sit through days of other film makers work too). And of those film makers who became my friends over the week, I liked almost all of their films, and two in particular were stunning pieces of art that impacted powerfully on audiences. We were all very happy to discuss our films and both give and take  criticism. Usually over long breakfasts, lunches or in a club in the wee hours of the night. This was terrific fun.

Zinebi51And the film that won the big prize at the festival, while I would say is no work of genius, was a fine documentary. I would not have chosen it as a winner but it’s certainly worthy of that mantle.

OK… So what’s on my mind?

Anyone who knows me will understand that I am no fan of arthouse cinema. So to sit through around 45 arthouse short films was, for me, a significant endurance test and a huge commitment.

Here are some of my personal views and experiences.

Only two films I saw made me smile. One was ‘Gone Fishing’. The other the closing animation. The rest were uniformly downbeat.

At every program of shorts that I attended (usually a two hour program with about 10 short films), I witnessed audience members leaving midway. On occasion, this could be about one quarter of the audience. To me, this spoke volumes about the films being screened.

More upsetting was the appearance of the judges when they announced the winners at a press conference. You can see a bit of this in the video above.

I considered how I might feel if I were a judge. What would I look like if I were awarding a prize to a film maker, whose work I thought worthy of a trophy? (and to be clear, this is an Academy Awards Festival so the winner gets into the Oscars longlist as well as a fat cheque for many thousands of Euros). I think I would have been very excited. To me, standing at the back of the room, the jury looked more like a group of people announcing a firing quad, ‘these are the film makers who will be shot at dawn…’ It was filled with the most awkward of silences too ‘Any questions…?’ …. silence… And not a single smile. Nothing.

It upset me quite a lot. Not because we didn’t win with ‘Gone Fishing’, I had accepted that as an eventuality way before the announcement, but because the whole process of screening and judging these films seemed to suck the very joy and life out of everyone – audiences, fellow film makers who were present, and clearly the jury too.

Being exposed to 50 or so of the programmed films myself, I came to understand that many of the film makers simply did not care about the experience of the viewer. They were too busy making a point, a point that all too often was lost in their over self indulgence as artists. When each film began, inside I was screaming out, please let this be the one that I can connect with, and have some kind of emotional reaction to, other than either complete ambivalence or anger as the film maker had been so extreme as to make the whole viewing experience unpleasant (aka dull and boring).

I was also stunned at just how cliché much of the work appeared to me to be. If the UK comic group ‘The League Of Gentleman’made a TV show where an arthouse film festival were run in Royston Vasey, many of these films I expect would fit right in. The only times I laughed was when a film actually did that ‘arthouse’ cliché thing that I had seen so many times before…

I hear many people complain about cliché in Hollywood movies. What I saw in Bilbao was equally cliché. This is very sad, as if anything, art should challenge convention and views.

Here are a few common symptoms that many of the films suffered from…

Symptom One – Refusing to make any point at all, preferring to present a succession of images that amounted to, well nothing I could discern*. This is not just my opinion, but that of many of the other film makers who attended (and who like me were at first politely smiling, assuming it was just them that didn’t ‘get it’). (*it’s possible I had a severe break with reality during some of the films)

Symptom Two – Refusing to have an end. Many of the films just stopped. Including at least one of the winners. Just plain stopped without warning. Not at the end. Just at the point where the film maker chose to stop making a film.

Symptom Three – Refusing to make any sense at all – be it literal, allegorical, ephemeral, interpretative… I am being way to kind here. Some films made no sense, and rather appeared to enjoy making no sense too. Maybe the point they are making is that there is no point, if so it was successful.

Symptom Four – Employing the theme that ‘life is crap. And then you die (or are killed by some random agent or a loved one)’. Actually, some of them made that film, quite literally.

Symptom Five – Refusing, while kicking and screaming, even throwing toys out of their prams, to attempt to make the audience laugh, giggle, chuckle, even remember what it must have been like to smile in life before this film was screened. My only giggles came as a kind of mental breakdown when I realised that it was going to get worse, and it was already edging on intolerable (I often left for the lobby to regain my composure)

Symptom Six – Being so aloof as to consider itself above reproach and criticism.

Symptom Seven – Persuading roughly a quarter of the audience (at some screenings) to get up and leave half way through.

Symptom Seven – Extreme close up shots that linger on objects designed to shock and repulse simply to push the boundary of taste.

My overall feeling is that the films and
the jury (and by extension the selection committee) all had some kind of funny bone removal, entertainment bypass or other such quasi operation that resulted in them choosing to present a body of work that was largely (though not entirely) comprised of films that acted like a kind of vampire on ones soul. Rather than challenge me, as good art should, they just depressed me with cliché, obvious contrivances and relentless incoherence.

It was only on the way home that I remembered the excitement, the thrill and the adulation I experienced at other festivals in the USA, such as Rhode Island, Sedona or Heart Of Gold in Australia.

The films and jury that I saw in Bilbao were soooooo serious, serious, serious… and anyone who knows me, knows that I am pretty serious myself. So to be out-seriousnessed is something amazing!

Now, the bad news is that none of this helps anyone.

Many of the films I saw help only the film makers onanism, and a handful of co-artists who buy into this nonsense.

My rant here does not help anyone else either. Well, maybe it helps me as I get it off my chest, but it continues to paint a negative picture of independent cinema in Europe – ‘cultural’ cinema (often state supported) that refuses to connect with mainstream audiences. This is something I am not happy about and I bit my lip for a long time in Bilbao until I had a mouth of blood over this experience, and it was time to spit it out.


Maybe this is all just a taste thing. I like rock music, they like jazz music. I think it probably is. And there is room for everyone and everything too.

So it’s time to move on…

OK! So… This Friday, Gone Fishing is playing in central London, supporting a Steven Spielberg film! RESULT! Already I feel better. Yes, ‘Gone Fishing’ is playing as a support to JAWS on Friday night, and a doc about JAWS on Saturday night. You can get tickets here…

See you there!

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author

6 Responses to Bilbao Film Fest 51, complete webisode and conclusions (a personal view from the festival)

  1. Karen December 1, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    If you ask an audience to watch your film the least you can do is entertain them, or at least pay them a bit of respect. What you have described sounds very depressing indeed. I think you’ve just reminded us that one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is to remember your audience and to cater to them, not to expect them to sit there and placidly admire your brilliance.

  2. Chris Jones December 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Thanks Karen – I wish you would have been there to see some of the films!

  3. Chris Jones December 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm #

    Just go this email from a writer I know…

    Just had to say your last blog entry was really funny. Was watching a bit of that TV show, ‘School Of Saatchi’ the other day – like X Factor for modern artists. One girl got through for hanging a referee’s whistle off a toilet handle. That was it! Tracy Emin was going on about how it had ‘sexual conitations’. It actually made me proper angry. The worst thing about these ‘artists’, film or otherwise, is that if you say it’s crap, they just dismiss your opinion as an ignoramus. For me it’s a self perpetuating little clique of pretentiousness for people with no talent who want to pretend they have vast inner depth – The type of people who think David Lynch is too commercial. A bunch of souless ‘high society’ rich people give their support in the hope that some personallity will rub off on them and, hey presto, you have Damien Hirst and Banksy. Anyway, very funny. The 7 Symptoms is like something I could imagine Adam and Joe doing as a guide to making an art house film.

  4. Jude December 1, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

    This blog entry articulates a problem with films so well. Chris, you write in a very balanced, considered way.

    You write “They were too busy making a point, a point that all too often was lost in their over self indulgence.” But I think Symptom One hits the nail on the head – too many “Art Films” (shorts or features)are pointless.

    I’m not adverse to film as art. I don’t have an automatic aversion to work which is abstract or experimental. What I do object to is self indulgent “celluloid masturbation” (can I say that?). Certain filmmakers, audiences and critics are all too keen to praise the Emperor’s new clothes, than risk objecting to his nudity.

    Which is easier: 1) cut together a series of unconnected (perhaps pretty)shots, perhaps linger on them, maybe have a confusing voice over, chuck in a provocative image or two. 2) craft a considered work where the images and sounds have some sense of form and coherence, the work connects with the audience and resonates with them, managing to elicit a variety of satisfying emotional responses?

    FROM CHRIS – Thanks Jude, I agree with all your points. Been getting emails all day about it! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. ron December 1, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Well, I’m ther lone voice of disagreement I’m afraid. Firstly, if you want people walking out of shorts try Raindance. Nothing wrong with their programmes, but everytime I’ve been at a shorts programme people have left after each short, leaving the filmmakers and a couple of people left for the last one (and the audience was pretty much just the filmmakers to begin with). Whereas Bilbao, as you said, had large audiences, so the fact 75% of a large audience stayed would, I’d suggest, mean they were doing something right.

    I’ve been to festivals all over Europe, and yes, they do tend to be more serious than US festivals, but that’s no bad thing. I prefer that kind of film, you don’t. I really don’t see why you can’t just let them have their choices without trying to pick holes in what they do or find fault with the way they run it. I’ve seen your film, it was OK in my opinion, not really my kind of thing, but I’d never get you to try and change it, it’s what you do. So why have a go at Bilbao? It’s just what other people like, and what a dull place the world would be if we only had one thing to choose from. (and I’m just a filmmaker in the UK, nothing to do with Bilbao or their festival)

  6. Mark December 2, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

    Hi Chris

    I guess there is a place for these kinds of film to express themselves and they wouldnt be there if they didnt want to be. the one problem I have is when art filmmakers look down on anything that people want to watch. Or worse, judge you or hold you back because your not one of them while they enjoy getting grants help etc based on the fact its allegedly art. I really hate it when the judges start to show how clever they are by making judgements that show they have insight. It then becomes about them and not the efforts by a film maker who has spent endless months making a masterpiece only to be thrown out for being to commercial to mainstream or to normal. Someone smart can make a film that plays on this. Maybe a hidden point like a crossword puzzle may tempt the judge to spot and show the world how clever he /she is by awarding it first prize. I love it when a judge influences other judges to do the same as they’re doing..

    Prizes shoulf go to judges who could be awarded a clever clogs award by the audience. Maybe a reason to stay and watch after all.

    I can see a film in this!


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