Saturday, April 26, 2014


NOTE: This editorial is solely the opinion of the author, who is vice president, board member and a programming committee member of the Chesapeake Film Festival. 
This year there is a new Programming Committee screening films for the upcoming 2014 Chesapeake Film Festival.  The new committee is under the very able leadership of Tracy Beckett.  Tracy has worked in the White House as Director of Communications for Clinton administration Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta.  She has also worked in the private sector as Vice President of Development and Regional Production for the National Geographic Channels International in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a consultant for All Roads Film Festival Tour, Gospel Music Channel, Wag TV, and as a US representative for a UK-based production company.
The Programming Committee plays the pivotal role in determining which films make the final slate to be shown in our annual Chesapeake Film Festival.  The idea is for each of the committee members to screen all films, share their opinions with other members, and ultimately to vote on which films we accept.  Discussion is had and votes are tallied at monthly meetings.  It is a more democratic process than in the past.  Formerly, the committee would go through the motions and then the director would exercise what were essentially dictatorial powers to accept or reject the will of the committee as a whole.  So now, whereas there used to be one “decider” with the façade of democracy, the new Programming Committee is more of an exercise of democracy-in-action – or is it?
This year’s Programming Committee is made up of ten members.  Unfortunately, of these ten members there are only a handful who actively screen films; of these, hardly any report their reviews back to the other committee members; and only three or four turn up for meetings.  The problem, of course, is getting volunteer committee members to abide by their commitments to actually do what they have each agreed to do; one cannot easily chastise a volunteer.  And so, what began as a revamp for more democracy-in-action seems to have reverted, due to the apathy and inaction of uncooperative members, into a kind of oligarchical clique who now decides on the final acceptance/rejection of films.  
Moreover, the Programming Committee also determines critical policy as to whether to establish rigid acceptance criteria for the submission of any film being proposed.  The acceptance criteria issues, which led up to a canvassing of the Programming Committee members, are two: 1) whether films should be limited to only recent ones that have premiered only in the past two years, and 2) whether a film should be excluded from consideration if it can be watched for free online.  Tracy was in favor of initiating such rules.  Programming Committee member Kurt Kolaja, a Chestertown filmmaker (and also a board member) agreed.  Of course, the inactive members were sought out for their vote on policy too.  But these folks either fell in line by sheepishly siding with the clique-in-charge or offered a non-committal response.  And so the imperfect democratic system slogs on. 
Now, it seems, films which have fallen through the cracks and are discovered too late are perpetually doomed as no-go festival material.  Thus, films such as Resonance: Beings of Frequency (2009), a British exposé that educates the public about the toxic microwave environment that has been created all around us, have been relegated to the dustbin for being too old and available for free online.  Similarly, films that are not a part of the corporate distribution machine and just want to educate people to the truth of what is happening to their constitutional rights, such as Molon Labe (2013), are excluded from consideration because they can be watched for free online.  Molon Labe is the definitive treatment on the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the treachery of gun control.  In other words, films that challenge the status quo, whether due to corporate profits that trump the well-being of people, or the mad rush by New World Order types to disarm the citizenry, are first marginalized by the mainstream, only to then get sidelined because of the CFF’s new “acceptance criteria rules” proposal.
One board member, against showing films that are more than two years old, suggested an exception: “No to older films with exception of something unique.  Sophia Loren attends CFF to give a talk and show a film.  No rules apply in such a situation.”  OK, to this board member Sophia Loren constitutes “something unique.”  Sounds awfully subjective to me.  
Another board member who seemed equally opposed to films over two years old also tried to carve out an exception: “In the "old days" we had a one year shelf life policy. We wanted to keep the programming fresh. This is even more important with UTube. [sic] Take them some place they have never been. We made exceptions for arty classics like Cassavetes.”  Then comes a further exception qualifier:  “That said, if there is an amazing package that draws a great speaker or community tie in, then think about how big a splash you can make.”  This was the same Programming Committee member who, some four years ago, sponsored Ashes and Diamonds, a 1958 film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda (1958). 
Two other committee members stayed on the fence on the issue, one willing to “go along with whatever the consensus is.”  Another suggested that we offer a “guided presentation using video material available on the Internet” of online free films (as part of the mini-treatise emailed on the subject).  Another disjointed email by that same member discussed Molon Labe via such a schizoid analysis I wondered whether this contribution was the result of multiple martinis. 
If this were a democratic election process, a referendum that seeks the vote of our movie-watching constituency would be a better way to accept or reject such rules.  Ah, the democratic process! – it’s clumsy but it works, I suppose.  
The bottom line is this – if a film is germane to a current issue, even if that film is five years old – and this film does a good job educating the public, it is a worthy film.  The CFF cannot and should not be a rubber stamp for the mainstream media or mainstream culture.  Even if a film can be viewed for free online, viewing a film with others in a theater format is different, especially if experts are on hand to offer a stimulating panel discussion following the showing of that film.  This is the rationale for charging a fee to view a film that is otherwise free online. 
Certainly a film festival should premier new-ish films.  But a film festival is more than just a showcase for new releases.  Its festiveness is all about the wonders of film, truth, and new dimensions of reality they impart to us.  Classic films have timeless qualities and much to teach.  Documentaries too.  So why not leave the acceptance criteria open a crack?  That’s all this is about and it seems the consensus is moving in this direction.  That is, no absurd rules to hamstring us! 
Therefore, I argue that to establish rigid rules on acceptance criteria, as has been proposed, does nothing but bind ourselves and the Chesapeake Film Festival into a straight jacket of our own design; it is a form of self-censorship that rivals modern politics in its ability to shun the past and the lessons of the past in favor of something “new and improved!”  And to this I, for one, exclaim, just as Gerard Depardieu did in the film Cyrano, “No, merci!”

No comments: