Deconstructing Festivals: How much do we want what we say that we want?
Jemma Desai / Olivier Marboeuf


Olivier Marboeuf:  I recall that we evoked something that truly hit a note with me last time we spoke, the idea that in some way cinema could depend on its reception, on its audience. In other words that one of the operating forces in the transformation of cinema was what the audience wanted to see and to know about what it was being shown on the screen, the audience’s desire to question what it was (apparently) being led to believe while it perceived, felt, intuited something else. And so, in a way, that festivals in their current form – a collection of films that are often recent, exclusive, etc… – participate in the limitation of what the experience of cinema could be – sensitive, political, imaginative – by not trying to dig any deeper than the surface of films.

Jemma Desai: I think what I hear in your question today is the question of relationality in our work in the making and circulating of cinema. 

I think what I want to say in connection to what you’ve expressed is something I have been sitting with for the last year. How much do we want what we say that we want? What is the current way we are relating to showing work (privileging elite access and  newness, but also repetition through the ways programmers and films circulate between events, spectacle and competition) feeding and what is it starving?

And I extend this question to filmmakers, to audiences, to critics, to programmers and funders. How are we all collectively contributing to limiting what is possible to see through all programming / or distributing a certain kind of filmmaking between and for our ‘friends’ or an inner circle? How are we limiting what is rendered ‘legible’  (through not admitting that most criticism is not as politically situated or literate as it may appear). What barriers are we putting up to what is even made (by a lack of meaningful dialogue between critic, audience and artist which might distend the realm of all that is ‘possible’?)

In short, how can we better help each other to demand more of each other but also ourselves? 

Right now we are as you say often only operating at the surface level of what is possible and part of this is related to another question – what are we willing to give up when we profess our desires and will to transformation or change? As a programmer I want to show work that is meaningful to me, but as a programmer in relation with other programmers, critics and audiences I am also thinking about whether people will think it is ‘good’? Will my judgement be deemed sound? Will my taste be called into question? Will my lack of historical knowledge or my lack of deference to what has come before make my judgement seem less credible? How much are festival directors programming for other festival directors, programmers for other programmers? 

Perhaps it is as simple as letting go of ego, but in a system where visibility is part of a freelance, precarious programmer’s ‘payment’ and is tied to our credibility, truly risking being misunderstood or dismissed, going ‘against the grain’ is not as easy as we sometimes hope. And conversely,  in this system I wonder if we delude ourselves into thinking we are being ‘riskier’ than we really are when we are too embraced or celebrated for our efforts.


OM: In our conversation last spring, we considered the question of festivals. This was prior to the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival (BFMAF) that you led this year. What have you learned from this edition of the event in terms of your reflections on the stakes and limits of the festival format as it currently exists? Did you try to develop any particular strategies this year?

JD: This last year after seeing and experiencing models of mutual aid and the solidarity economy both within and outside our ‘industries’, the programmers at BFMAF convened around the idea of ‘mutuality’ 

I recently attended a seminar with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten On collaboration within practice research. In it, they talked about the importance of etymology in revealing the entanglements of different positionalities in undertaking any forms of collaborative work.

At one point they pointed out the words ‘owe’,  ‘own’ and ‘know’ were all entangled. Listening to them talk transported me back to the first film I saw in the programming process for BFMAF this year which was Jordan Lord’s Shared Resources. The film is about many things, but for me it really sharpened (and continues to sharpen) my thinking around the gulf between intention and practice when we try to change the format, or structure of things. 

In the film Jordan Lord is interested in ideas of debt, within the family but also in the field of documentary filmmaking. These ideas are well traversed in writing about filmmaking and will be familiar to those inside programming meetings. The idea of what is owed to ‘subjects’, the meaning of the positionalities of filmmakers, and the ability to receive work outside of lived experience is not new, but so often we rarely go beyond analysis into the practice of what such an analysis requires us to actually do. In Lord’s film I found an experiment in praxis which revealed the stakes of such attempts.

In a pivotal scene Jordan uses a release contract to explore, through practice, what it means to ‘owe each other everything’ – the very basis of what we understand as the unconditional love of the structure of family. But what if our ideas of debt, duty, love are rooted in different ways of seeing the world?. In the scene of the release contract, Jordan attempts to turn this intention of ‘owing’ into a practice and to discard an older practice of ‘owning’. Using what they know of contract law within their field of filmmaking and what they feel about what they owe to their father (who paid for the education that made that filmmaking possible) they attempt to give up what they own of the film they have made. 

And their father resists this. Even though a system of accumulation that he had dedicated his life to (as a debt collector) had not worked in his favour, he did not wish the indignity of the loss in social standing that accompanies material loss in a capitalist society on his son. How much is this protectionist paternalism present in the ways we defend or disavow certain practices in the film industry? How much of this is defended as rooted in love?

In our attempts to consider the practice of our intentions during the programming practice, the programmers and I circled around language often. We wondered what histories of colonial extraction haunt words like ‘submission’ and the carceral implication of assembling a ‘jury’ to demarcate those works most worthy of attention (and subsequently further funding). What space is there to practice freedom and mutuality when these words are doing their work in the background? We considered what would happen if we took those words away – how would our practices change? How might our values realign? 

We shared some of these thought processes in a statement and a document that was freely available to comment on. We held a public discussion in a gesture and an acknowledgement that for these ideas to move beyond content, they must circulate and be built on by others, collectively. 


OM: I have the feeling that the limit of the current ‘festival’ format is even more marked with the appearance of films related to the South(s) and minorities in the North. In this case we have the sensation that the film is an act that fits into a vaster context that would require an accounting of the stakes of power and autonomy present in the processes of production and diffusion. As if the film was the visible event of a much larger event that remained hidden for the most part. And thus the occasion of an event with the potential of being exponentially more vast than the classic screening and Q & A.

JD: I think about this a lot, and I wonder about the frame in which we watch things turning into an act of capture in itself. What is neutralised in the format of a film festival? When we assemble films in a programme we are often high on the ideas and connections that their assembly has triggered. But what then do we do with these connections if we place them in the dissonant structure of the film festival which I have described above? 

I think the ecosystem that you talk about contributes to keeping things the same. We pass around the same films, the same pieces of criticism. We go to the same places to find our films. Your observation that  “the limit of the current ‘festival’ format is even more marked with the appearance of films related to the South(s) and minorities in the North” made me think of  Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s celebrated aphorism “We are here because you were there.”

Playing with these words made me think of how the films we receive and recirculate become ones that preserve the idea that travelling between those familiar spaces of ‘exploration’ is a valid trail. At the same time as I’m sure you know in your role as a producer, there is a colonising effect to this. In a recent article Indian film critic MK Raghavendra convincingly and importantly articulates the ways that Indie films making waves at global film festivals is often a sign of them subscribing to the Western idea of ‘India’.

So the ‘arrival’ of these films along with the ‘arrival’ of critics and programmers from the diaspora or from the global South(s) that are willing to participate in the framing of these films in the context of the ‘capture’ of film festivals is something that I think is worth examining. We all want these films to be seen, but what is being permitted? And what is being neutralised and assimilated in this process? How can we participate and at the same time resist these forms of capture? This is a real question, and a question that is barely given space when we are distracted simply by the politics of representation, inclusion and completely pointless pursuit of ‘equity.’


OM: I know that you are very interested by the question of performance and in The Living Journal we’ve chosen to examine the question of forms of speculative cinema in the Global South and the South of the North from the perspective of voice, language, sound, bodies, gestures, other perception of time and hallucination, of an ensemble of practices that precede the modern techniques of western cinema and its instruments. What are your thoughts on this?

JD: I think this is an urgent question and I am really drawn to the idea that there are ways of working, doing, watching and understanding that are outside of narrative structure, outside of the confines and limitations of language and that work on us in a more embodied way.  There is a part of me that believes that a more liberated way to use film lies in that method which is why I have always, in addition to appreciating and learning from narrative cinema, been deeply affected by filmmaking that does not position itself as narrative. But in my journey with film, narrative structure has provided so much solace, so much validation and identification, often across differences. These experiences have been the basis of my political education too. 

Mostly though on this subject I want to lay down that I am both drawn to and I am wary of fetish when we speak about form, and the preceding of modern techniques, and I am wary of my positionality as a diaspora programmer especially in the curatorial contexts we are speaking about.  What does it mean for me to desire (as I sometimes do) a form of ‘return’ to another way of being and seeing when I am encultured into certain forms of storytelling as someone that grew up with the English language and education system? And what is anti-colonial about programming this kind of work in the elitist settings that they so often circulate? 

This year I also learnt that the ways that we programme, the volumes of work we are expected to see is often hostile to a serious appraisal of the kinds of work you describe. During a global pandemic where everything felt turned upside down I felt my brain fry at times as I yearned for narrative, clear meaning and linearity even as I saw all around me that these desires for certainty did not free us. 

Further to this, what is a programming practice that can hold space for the journey towards a spectatorship that includes more than just those that have the head space and the stamina required to the practice of watching such work when we have been trained to crave something completely different?


OM: How would you envision a broader form of film festival, another type of event, another way of assembling and imagining together with film as the connecting thread?

JD: I have been thinking about the assumption on which many events rest about the value of cinema to bring audiences together, the idea of connecting filmmaking ‘communities’, the power of cinema to effect hearts and minds, the importance to local communities and their national and international standing. If we truly invested in the things required to make all of those things (and not just some) meaningfully true, would we really have film festivals with juries, with competitions, with external programmers? Would we have q&as on stages? Filmmakers staying at different hotels and offered different levels of hospitality? In short, would the event that actualised from the practice of our intentions be a film festival at all?

I brought with me to Berwick a belief that relationality was central to the ways that festivals functioned and that making the stakes of those relationships more visible, and creating a literacy around this might help to move forward a conversation about what festivals are really doing and what we want them to do. What I hadn’t accounted for was the role of desire, and how this is both collectively structured and can also be collectively disavowed. What I mean by this is that sometimes our desire to be seen to want something can obscure our lack of commitment to realising it. The noise around criticism of the need of premiere status, hierarchies, lack of transparency, hide our implicit commitments to those practices whilst we display our explicit commitments to undoing them. These implicit commitments are tied to desires to continue to belong in industries that are rooted in imperialism and colonialism. We will to them to  ‘decolonise’ and be ‘held accountable’ but at the same time we celebrate new hires in senior positions, individual winners of competitions, drool over the ‘newness’ of festival programmes and dismiss those that just assemble things we have heard of (but often not even seen).  

We are stuck in a cycle of repetition based on a culture that leaves no time to think, to breathe or to heal. It blinds us constantly with the brightness of spectacle and burns us out with the fire of urgency. 

I would like to imagine a cycle of festivals that left enough time to reflect on the lessons that are learnt, that didn’t repeat or ‘reform’ without reflection, like a circular argument, but that cycled through thinking, slowly, steadily discarding the things that no longer served it or us, and opening out to things that could reshape it, re-orient its direction.


Jemma Desai is based in London. Her practice engages with film programming through research, writing and performance. You can find more about her work here.