What’s the Point of Film Festivals?



Director Ross Whitaker, who recently programmed this year’s IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival, writes about two experiences that reminded him why festivals are so special.


It’s not unusual for filmmakers to question what exactly a film festival can do for them and whether or not they should engage with festivals.


The festival circuit can be tiring and even tiresome and that’s for those who have made successful films (with competition so strong these days, rejection from festivals is the more regular experience). And one often notices producers and directors travelling less with their second and subsequent films than they do when drinking it all in (literally and figuratively) the first time around. Filmmakers can get a little jaded.


But two experiences recently showed me exactly why festivals are great. It was attending film festivals that made me interested in filmmaking in the first place but I maybe needed a little reminding of the good things about the festival experience.


Firstly, I was lucky enough to programme the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival this year and while it was my second time programming it this year, it was the first time under my short watch that I felt that it really came together as a fully fledged festival. Over the course of the weekend, over thirty filmmakers were involved in some capacity with the festival, whether that was by presenting films, hosting Q&As or taking part in panels.


A festival is not just about filmmakers, though, the event is as much about the audience, but funnily enough it seems that the proliferation of guests correlated with audience numbers increasing on the previous year. And having great audiences at the festival certainly put a spring in the step of the filmmakers who felt like their work was being well received. The festival really worked and the audience fed into the filmmakers and vice versa. For both contingents it was clearly an enjoyable experience and filmmakers were learning about their own work while audiences were learning about them. There were brilliant Q&As and at least one standing ovation.


The other positive effect of participation was the little conversations that were happening at the side of the festival. One filmmaker took the opportunity to interview another guest for a future documentary and there were at least two commitments to consider further coproduction opportunities between Irish and international filmmakers. Just by being at the festival, opportunities were presenting themselves.


The Stranger Than Fiction experience really fed into my following weekend when I changed roles and flew to New York as a filmmaker. Kindly supported by Culture Ireland, Aideen O’Sullivan and I went to New York to present our film When Ali Came to Ireland at New York Irish Film. There were great opportunities in travelling to New York as there are so many people working in the industry there but the best moment of the festival came during the Q&A for the film.


We had put the word out about the screening and two people came along who we weren’t really expecting. One was experienced boxing promoter Don Elbaum who had been in Dublin for Ali’s fight in 1972 and the other was Thomas Hauser, Ali’s brilliant biographer. We asked them would they join us on stage for the chat after the film and they required little prompting.


What transpired could only be described as a kind of entertainment show as Don and Tom batted back and forth stories about Muhammad Ali that fully showed what a special and funny man the great boxer had been. The biggest laugh was for Hauser’s story about Muhammad Ali on a plane. When asked by the stewardess to buckle his seatbelt Ali responded, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess gave Ali a look that could kill and responded, “But Superman don’t need no plane. Buckle up honey.” Everyone laughed.

A special event like this could only take place at a film festival and it makes a festival screening a completely different experience to a regular screening at your local multiplex. There is something a little special about film festivals and while it can be easy to forget that, sometimes a little reminder goes a long way.


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