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Festival of what, precisely?

Publicists Total Exposure have announced a “Festival of Festivals”, showing at Ster-Kinekor’s Cinema Nouveau theatres from November 2: “For two weeks in November, Johannesburg will be transformed into Cannes and Cape Town into Venice when some of the world’s most acclaimed new films will be screened at the first annual Festival of Festivals,” goes the press release. This festival, it continues, “brings to South African cinema-goers some of the best films screened at this year’s Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Cannes film festivals … Audiences will get the chance to see some of the best films of the year long before they go on general release in the country.”

That last sentence is the giveaway. If you thought a “Festival of Festivals” might perhaps gather up the best or most popular of the films shown at any of the various embassy-sponsored festivals at Cinema Nouveau (French, Japanese, Italian etc), or might offer us some of the winners at overseas festivals — well, you’d be mistaken.

“In future years it is our intention to include many top films from these festivals that do not get released on circuit here, with the Festival of Festivals being the only opportunity to see them” — so the release quotes curator Paul Burton. In “future years”, note. Let’s keep hoping. For the moment, all but one of the films on this “Festival of Festivals” are movies due here in coming months anyway, so it’s not like this is a chance to see movies you wouldn’t otherwise get to see on our screens. The films to be shown are Atonement, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Away from Her, La Vie en Rose, The US vs John Lennon, The 11th Hour (which the press release unaccountably confuses with Breach, released months ago), The Darjeeling Limited, Juno, The Savages and The Walker.

The only one of these that I can’t see on the release schedule going up to May 2008 is Juno. None of them won any prizes at the festivals mentioned; simply to be shown at a festival is no particular distinction. The only non-Anglophone movie here is La Vie en Rose (its title preposterously translated as “Life in Pink”).

It would be really wonderful to see some of the international festival hits of the past year or so, but this “Festival of Festivals” is not where you’ll see them. It seems mostly to be an attempt to generate some early word-of-mouth for films the major distributors are releasing anyway. A cursory glance at some of the festival winners of the past year shows how much we’re really missing, or for which we are still waiting:

Cannes 2007
Palme d’Or for Best Film: 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) by Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
Grand Prix: Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest) by Naomi Kawase (Japan)
Special Jury Prize: Stelle Licht by Carlos Reygadas (Mexico/France/The Netherlands) and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (France)
Best director: Julian Schnabel for Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) (France) (coming to South Africa March 2008)
Best actor: Konstantin Lavronenko for Izgnanie (The Banishment)(Russia)
Best actress: Jeon do-yeong for Secret Sunshine (South Korea)
Best screenplay: Fatih Akin for Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven)(Germany/Turkey)
Special 60th Anniversary Award: Gus van Sant for Paranoid Park (United States / France)
Un Certain Regard: Bikur hatizmoret (The Band’s Visit)by Eran Kolirin (Israel/France)

Venice 2007
Golden Lion for best film: Sanxia Haoren (Still Life) by Jia Zhang-Ke (China)
Special Jury Prize: Daratt by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Chad)
Silver Lion for Best Director: Alain Resnais for Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places) (France)
Silver Lion Revelation: Emanuele Crialese for Nuovomondo (Golden Door) (Italy/Germany/France)

Vancouver 2007
People’s Choice Award for Most Popular International Film: Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi of Iran and Vincent Paronnaud (France)
Kyoto Planet Climate for Change Award: Directors Michael Stenberg, Johan Soderberg and Linus Torell for The Planet (Sweden)
Honorable Mention: Young People Fucking by Martin Gero (Canada)

And that’s not even to consider Toronto, Berlin (where the Chinese Tuya’s Marriage won this year), San Sebastian, Locarno, Tokyo, Cairo or any others — let alone the pan-African festival in Ouagadougou (where the Nigerian film Ezra took top honours this year). Maybe we’ll get something interesting in years to come, if Burton’s promise holds true, but for now this “Festival of Festivals” feels to me like part of the general decline of what Burton calls the “exclusive art circuit” in South Africa — where “art movie” basically means anything that’s not a big-budget big-star Hollywood production.

(Thanks to Alternative Film Guide for information.)