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Lights, camera, inaction: is Moscow International Film Festival doomed to mediocrity?

Lights, camera, inaction: is Moscow International Film Festival doomed to mediocrity?

Despite Brad Pitt's recent appearance on the red carpet, Moscow International Film Festival has been on a steady decline into irrelevance. Film critic Anton Sazonov highlights the problems and suggests a recipe for renewal

25 June 2013

It’s that time of year again: the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) is back. But the return of Russian film’s biggest international event hardly gladdens the heart: every time the festival comes back around (this is the 35th time), it seems to have an even weaker line-up and be even more peripheral to the global film scene. Can MIFF be saved from mediocrity and irrelevance? And is it even worth trying?

The festival has had its ups and downs: after its debut in 1935, it didn’t run again until 1959. It was then once every two years until 1997, when it became annual. It received its much-cherished Class A rating from the International Federation of Film Producers Associations in 1972. But whether the festival still deserves that status is a big question, and one that needs to be looked at from a number of angles.

MIFF has all manner of different problems, but let’s start with the overarching one: it has screenings, but no film market. Moscow is perhaps the only international festival not to have an industry-facing section: Cannes, Berlinale and Venice all do. To fulfill the purpose of a film festival and popularise cinema, it’s all well and good to have viewers (which Moscow does), but the real challenge is for the films at the festival to get picked up for global distribution. That’s how a festival can change a director’s career, and the fate of a film, completely. Historically, Moscow has never been good at this and it’s certainly not happening now.

“It’s very rare to see marquee names among the competitors these days”

The lack of a market creates another problem — a weak competition. Imagine MIFF wants to invite a director or producer to take part. Their film is only going to be seen by locals, it’s only going to be written about in the local press (you can count the foreign journalists at the festival on the fingers of one hand). So the most a director can hope for is some local buzz. So would you decide to hold the global, or even regional, premiere of your movie in Moscow? Of course not.

Thus, every year MIFF takes enormous pains to get hold of top movies because the festival’s “high status” demands an international cast list. Yet, despite their efforts, it’s very rare to see marquee names among the competitors these days, and memories are fading of the Soviet period when Coppola, Bertolucci, Kurosawa, Fellini and others all took part. Now, as a consequence of the weak international field, homegrown movies often stand out from the crowd and take the top prizes (Russian films have taken the top prize four times in the last decade). Good Russian directors aren’t so worried about the festival being parochial.

Another big problem is organization. MIFF is open to professionals and walk-ins, so anyone can buy a ticket, assigned to a specific seat. So every screening begins with a tussle between the punctual punters and the latecomers. Some tardy ticketholder will come in, demand their seat, and kick up fuss until they get what they want, while everyone around them mutters bitterly and the film is ignored. And why are there latecomers? Because, unlike at any other festival in the world, you are allowed to come in after the beginning of the film. Try sneaking into a screening at Cannes after the start: you won’t even get into the lobby. The freedoms afforded by MIFF have encouraged the appearance of a squad of journalists who only watch bits of films, sometimes squeezing in ten “viewings” a day by sneaking out halfway through. It’s a miracle actually that they manage this many, considering how often the screenings are delayed. At least this forced crowding in the foyer (which some say is deliberate) gives the festival some sense of energy and excitement, even if it is entirely artificial.

“Shutting it down entirely would be overkill”

Another running sore at MIFF is the culture of film watching. Or, rather, the lack of it. No one holds back. Phone ringing? Of course they’ll answer; some whisper, others don’t even bother. Don’t like the film? Tell the world. Comment on what’s going on, chat with your neighbours. Eat. It’s as if they’re watching the film at home. And then halfway through the film, people start leaving in droves — underinformed locals who hadn’t got what they expected.

But a bigger question hangs over the whole festival: does even Moscow need a class A festival? Well, it’s one of the two oldest festivals in the world (the other is Venice). And shutting it down entirely would be overkill: the screening programme gives Muscovites a chance to see a great selection of old movies on the big screen and the documentary competition is genuinely world class. So what can be done to get the festival moving in the right direction?

First off, it needs a new president. Director, actor and politician Nikita Mikhalkov, the most prominent member of a Russian film and culture dynasty known for films like Burned by the Sun and latterly for his support of President Vladimir Putin, is, for better or worse, a figurehead of Russian cinema. But he has been running the show since 1999 and, though he’s had a certain amount of success, now he’s just coasting. He’s not interested in the nitty gritty of festival management; all he cares about is how the festival looks and his chances of getting some good PR by standing on the red carpet with Brad Pitt. You wouldn’t see this sort of self-promotion from Thierry Frémaux (Cannes) or Marco Müller (Rome): both are pretty high-profile festival presidents, but they’d never try to pull the spotlight from the festival on to themselves.

The Act of Killing, dir. by Joshua Oppenheimer (2012)

Secondly, the festival needs to have a working film market that can attract foreign industry insiders as well as Russians. If that can be made to work, then everything else will follow. The selection committee will find it easier to invite big-name directors. And maybe, just maybe, at some point these top directors will start proposing their films themselves.

“If the film market works, then good, significant films will appear of their own accord”

Thirdly, it’s time to bring some fresh blood into the team putting together the main programme. If the film market works, then good, significant films will start to appear of their own accord. Then there will have to be a forward-looking, insightful, internationally minded selection committee to sort through the proposals and pick the line-up. There are good young professionals working at the festival now, but they’re confined to sideshows like the short film competition.

Finally, efforts have to be made to create a culture of film watching. No talking and no eating, please. Watch from the beginning to the end. That’d be enough.

If these four things can change, MIFF will immediately move to another level. And there’s plenty of local examples for the festival organisers to look to for inspiration: every year Moscow plays host to a number of small film festivals like Tomorrow or 2 in 1 that are set up this way: an international competition, non-competition screenings and retrospectives. They can’t, of course, afford world premieres and a professional section, but they’re much better run and more enjoyable to attend and rewarding for all involved. Every year there are rumours that there are going to be big changes at MIFF, and some new faces behind the scenes. But there’s no real sign of them yet. And so we wait.

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