Beyond Submissions: Are Transparency and Accountability Possible in Film Festivals?
“Film Festival Accountability” Conversation Recap
On April 3, Distribution Advocates held a nearly 2-hour discussion on “Film Festival Accountability.” This panel convened a month after a group of Muslim and Arab filmmakers wrote an open letter to Sundance demanding “deeper conversation” and “concrete steps towards more ethical curatorial practices.” The letter followed Sundance’s public “note” of apology for programming Meg Smaker’s Jihad Rehab, which received criticism on social media for how Smaker presumed the guilt of four Yemeni men in involuntary “rehabilitation” in Saudi Arabia after unlawful detention at Guantanamo Bay. The letter also lays out serious concerns for the safety and “continued consent” of the participants, whose freedom of choice in their present environment is dubious at best.
Having talked with panelists Jemma Desai, Orwa Nyrabia, and Chris Boeckmann beforehand (whose biographies are included at the end of this piece), moderator Abby Sun clarified at the beginning of the panel: “We do not think this is a uniquely dangerous film, or uniquely blind programming decision that is only affecting or has implications on the one film festival, Sundance, where this film premiered.” With several years of experience in programming and artistic direction at festivals like IDFA, BFI London Film Festival, and True/False, every speaker attested to having screened numerous films as harmful or problematic as Jihad Rehab.
From the panelists’ firsthand accounts, I gathered that the processes film festivals obscure from the public are often ill-defined even to their workers. How do we then hold accountable a broken system whose steps neither party can retrace? And is there anything material to be gained from challenging film festivals rooted in the marketplace? Rather than definitive answers, the panelists’ posed a series of questions and provocations that complicated our evaluation of film festival programming processes. Key takeaways from the conversation have been compiled below and edited for length.
What are programmers actually assessing in the programming process?
Desai: In my experience, most programming teams don’t spend a lot of time considering this question. There’s an assumption that we’re looking for the best work and we’re all in the room because we can recognize it. Even if we’re having very rich conversations about the work, it still comes down to the binary of good and bad. I don’t think that we admit that. This idea of whether the people in the room have enough knowledge to receive the work with the care in which it was made becomes really complicated when acknowledging that these teams comprise precarious workers. There’s a lot of talk in the chat about submissions transparency, but the actual decision-making process is often not transparent to me when I’m on a programming team.
Nyrabia: The story of filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius is very relevant to what we’re discussing. Generally speaking, organizing festivals is much safer than making films. People who work at festivals in the first world, compared to filmmakers, are better paid, although film programmers are generally not well paid at all. So the accountability question starts for me from the point of remembering that we are serving, that we are not the ones who own the golden steps, the red carpet, or the stage at the end. Sometimes we shift in the direction of proving that a film is not in itself a valuable artistic expression, but rather its value is derived from its social impact. Of course, it’s more complex than that. There are festivals with fancy money, red carpet, big IP… They need the stars and rich people donating money to their enormous fundraisers to be happy. Programming metrics change according to such factors, the festival’s identity and its economy, among others.
How do films travel through the film festival submissions process?
Desai: This word submission is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. [Desai elaborates on this in the Best Girl Grip Podcast.] At London Film Festival, there were very few films that ever made it through open submissions. Most of the selected work came through distributors, sales agents, or other festival screenings. That is absolutely not made clear. In a small team, do you really have the capacity to generously view all the films you’ve invited in as submissions?
Boeckmann: Very few films from the submissions pool ever made their way into the lineup at the festival I worked at. It would be a miracle if a feature or two truly came through without any connections. In the programming room, you can predict how fellow programmers will respond to certain works, which can result in a level of self-censorship, where you realize that a movie you love just has no chance in the room.
The assumption is that the reason you’re paying a submission fee is that there’s labor associated with the act of screening your film. Within the system I was working in, that excuse has some credibility because programmers and some support staff were paid to be part of that process. But it falls apart when you learn that people who screened for the festival weren’t paid for their labor. I’m curious how much other festivals are relying on that submission budget line.
Nyrabia: IDFA went from a numeric rating system to a rating system of “Good,” “Maybe,” and “No.” There’s a new option that I think is very important, which is “Not for me,” which sends the film to another programmer to receive a second opinion.
Desai: I don’t know how filmmakers can find solidarity with programmers and audiences without being invited to a festival. At Berwick, we also created this option of sending the film for a second opinion, and it was also really hard because it created a lot of work for the whole team. I’m not saying it wasn’t worthwhile. But how many festivals have the capacity to give a film a chance beyond one person’s individual subjectivity?
Who is accountable in this system?
Nyrabia: Being transparent about the process is the key element to being accountable. Nobody knows exactly what the festival’s responsibilities are or the exact procedure to prevent mistakes that might harm a community or a person. There is a certain high adrenaline moment about these topics that demands sensitivity screenings, which I find to be a very questionable idea, or corporate approaches that don’t offer any serious, organic solutions, leaving programmers scared that they cannot know the context of every country in the world. How can they? What is the limit of their responsibility? These are difficult questions that should not be taken lightly. Solutions need to be based on the complexity of the process and on making sure we do not fix one problem and then find ourselves in another, such as self-censorship or conformism.
Boeckmann: I think when you invite a movie to a festival you are taking on the responsibility of contextualizing that film for an audience. In that process, it’s important to be transparent and not hide from the criticisms.
Desai: Do we actually have the resources for honesty and transparency? Do you even have time to look at your systems based on what happened the year before? Often you don’t, because you open your submissions back up after you’ve had a little break. There is value in having flashpoints where people reveal how things have been working so they can be evaluated. But it can’t just be reaction after reaction. When we demand a statement and an apology, what exactly does that do? Often we don’t know what the material demands should be, because we don’t know how these decisions are being made. What community is forged? Are we even having the same conversation? Often what large festivals are tending to is questions of filmmaking when the open letter is asking for the pain of Islamophobia in the work context and the day to day to be tended to.
Nyrabia: Do we actually want to destroy the career of a filmmaker who caused us pain? Do we want this particular festival to apologize for selecting this particular film this time? The French initiative “5050 by 2020” initiated a charter and asked film festivals to sign a pledge that they will have a 50/50 gender parity in their program by 2020 and report publicly every year about the representation in their programming, board members, and team members, so everyone can see how serious the work is or not. We shouldn’t reduce this big, historical problem to one film.
Desai: I think the conversations have been much more expansive. But institutionally that is how it’s received, as a complaint about one film that needs to be addressed. Are we just demanding a resignation or the new hire of a programmer from a certain perspective? In this case, many people said that’s exactly what they did not want. When we don’t ask for things that make it easy for institutions to say, “This is the list of things we’ve done,” it becomes messy relational work. It reveals how thin the relationship festivals have with their so-called community is because the conversation becomes customer service. Can a festival context even hold this kind of request for accountability, self-examination, and care for different perspectives? These festivals are extremely gentrified, elite spaces where conversations are not had in the commons where everyone has something to say, but in very hierarchical private conversations. That’s not accountability.
The panel ended with Sun acknowledging audience member Marjan Safinia’s last message to the chat, for which there was unfortunately no time left to discuss: “I find it interesting that we have barely heard the words ‘safety of participants,’ ‘duty of care’ or ‘ethics; in this dialogue. This was never about passports and identities.”
Jemma Desai is based in London. Her practice engages with film programming through research, writing, performance, as well as informally organised settings for deep study, and her work experience spans distribution, cinema exhibition and festival programming. Her most recent body of work is "This work isn't for Us", an autoethnographic exploration of institutional racism in the UK arts sector. She has previously worked at the BFI and British Council and is interested in the ways imperialism replicates itself through institutionalised work processes, translating into the ways we relate to one another through art. She was Head of Programming at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival in 2021 is and is currently the chair of the feature film programming committee at Blackstar Film Festival for the 2022 edition. She is also a practice based PhD candidate at Central School of Speech and Drama thinking through practices of freedom in cultural production. She has written for ART Papers, Sight & Sound, SEEN, ARTWORK, BFI Online and Dazed & Confused.
Orwa Nyrabia is the Artistic Director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s leading documentary film and new media festival. Before IDFA, Orwa co-founded Syria’s first independent film festival, DOX BOX, with Diana El Jeiroudi, and was a producer with credits that include Republic of Silence (Diana El Jeiroudi, Venice 2021), Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi, Venice 2020), Silvered Water (Ossama Mohammad and W. Bedirxan, Cannes 2014), Return to Homs (Talal Derki, IDFA 2013) and Dolls, A Woman from Damascus (Diana El Jeiroudi, IDFA 2007) a.o. His work was recognized by awards such as the George Polk Award, the HRW Courage in Filmmaking Award, and the Katrin Cartlidge Award, a.o. An actor by training (Gate of the Sun, Yousri Nassrallah, Cannes 2004), he started his film career as 1st AD of Ossama Mohammad (Sacrifices, Cannes 2002) and worked as a journalist at the same time until he co-founded his first company in Damascus 2002, then followed up as he moved to Cairo and then to Berlin where he co-founded No Nation Films in 2014.
Chris Boeckmann is a story consultant, writer, and programmer from Missouri. He is working on Subject, a research project looking at the long-term repercussions nonfiction films have on their participants.
Abby Sun is the Director of Artist Programs at IDA and a graduate researcher at the MIT Open Documentary Lab where she edits Immerse. Most recently, Abby curated the DocYard for three years and co-curated My Sight is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film & Video with Keisha Knight. Expanding on the latter's programmatic urges, they launched Line of Sight, a suite of artist development activities, in 2021. Abby has bylines in Film Comment, Filmmaker Magazine, Film Quarterly, Hyperallergic and other publications. She has served on festival juries for Dokufest, Cleveland, Palm Springs, New Orleans and CAAMfest, as well as nominating committees for the Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye. Abby has reviewed applications for grants from BGDM, NEA, SFFILM, LEF Foundation, Sundance Catalyst, and has spoken on and facilitated panels at TIFF, NYFF and other film festivals. Her latest short film, Cuba Scalds His Hand (co-directed with Daniel Garber), premiered at the Maryland Film Festival in 2019. Abby is a member of Distribution Advocates.