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Film Festival Directors Discuss State of Cinema

What’s the state of cinema right now? Who better to ask than the artistic directors of many of the world’s most important festivals, including Venice’s Alberto Barbera, Toronto’s Cameron Bailey, Sundance’s John Cooper, Busan’s Kim Ji-seok, Karlovy Vary’s Karel Och, and San Sebastian’s Jose Luis Rebordinos.

Would you say that the state of international film is healthy and on the rise?
Barbera: The U.S. is still the leading film industry and biggest market, but it’s facing an uneasy situation with a lot of blockbusters that don’t meet box office expectations, too many sequels, a lack of originality, and a fear of taking risks. It needs to be a little more audacious, trusting in an excellent bunch of filmmakers. The Chinese film industry is growing fast, but unable to make films that can travel abroad. Asian cinema is generally in a similar situation: too thin to play a role in the international market, though with excellent filmmakers in almost every country. European cinema is facing a big crisis: France and the U.K. are still relatively strong, but otherwise I don’t see any national film industries developing growth strategies. This isn’t the case in Latin America, which is really experiencing a sort of “new wave.”

Bailey: I’m as optimistic as ever about the quality of films being made around the world but worried about how and where audiences get to see them. Even of the roughly 500 independent films that launch at the world’s top film festivals, only a fraction make it to commercial release beyond their home country. More can be found on streaming services but only if audiences know to look for them. The biggest challenge is carving out space for individual international films in a marketplace noisy with franchise movies and small-screen serials, some of which are very good.

Cooper: I’m optimistic about the state of international cinema. More than ever before, the newest voices and work get more visibility at festivals and online, which lets other rising directors and writers and storytellers around the world see and engage with those projects.

Kim: The major film festivals in the world and public/government funds are making various efforts to protect the “diversity of cinema,” but the reality is unremarkable.

Och: Those who cover the relevant festivals will inevitably find out the international cinema indeed is healthy. With so many professionals [festival programmers, producers, sales agents] digging for talent, it’s easier for an aspiring filmmaker to emerge, let alone the seasoned and accomplished ones to confirm their qualities.

Rebordinos: It’s hard to judge the health of cinema around the globe because there are lots of different cinema cultures arising from different situations. Cinema is going through big changes, yet while it may seem to be the contrary, these changes are not bigger than the transition from silent to sound films, though they’re extremely rapid and the film industry has to react to them instantly.

Which country or region has the most exciting emerging filmmakers?
Barbera: The most promising region is Latin America, with the most exciting filmmakers coming from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, but also from smaller countries where film industries didn’t exist. There has been a lot of investments in films in recent years in all these countries, and now the quality is meeting the quantity of the production.

Bailey: I tend to think in terms of cities, so I’d name Montreal, Seoul, Lagos, Copenhagen, and London as places where I find exciting filmmaking right now.
Cooper: We’re seeing a lot of exciting, boundary-pushing projects, both narrative and documentary, coming out of Latin America and the Middle East. Personal struggle and triumph in the face of institutional adversity or opposition is an enduring theme. Much of the most provocative work originates in one place, but engages with another — telling personal stories of globalism and interconnection from unique cultural perspectives.

Kim: 2016 reaffirmed the strength of Chinese cinema. Some remarkable newcomer Chinese directors — Zang Qiwu (“The Donor”), Wang Xuebo (“Knife in the Clear Water”), and Yao Tian (“500m800m”) — all appeared at once.

Och: Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe are definitely strong right now, and I don’t say this just to promote the region we have been focused on for a few decades now and because the last two foreign-language Oscars went to films from Poland and Hungary, respectively. In Locarno, films from Bulgaria, Poland, Romania took four out of six main awards. San Sebastian had a Polish debut in the main competition this year, and films from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe in the New Directors competition. These are exciting times for the post-communist countries.

Rebordinos: I think that there are a great diversity of proposals and remarkable creativity coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe.

What are the highlights of the past year?
Barbera: After “Neruda” and “Jackie,” nobody can doubt that Pablo Larraín is one of the most prominent, personal, and strongest film directors of tomorrow.

Bailey: Will Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth,” Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” and Uda Benyamina’s “Divines.”

Cooper: Two films from our most recent Sundance Film Festival really stand out for me: Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm” and Babak Anvari’s “Under the Shadow.” It’s interesting that both take place in the Middle East and concern personal identity, safety, and freedom but in very different ways.

Kim: A problem is the Chinese film industry pushing to join the world stage with Hollywood, but risking a distortion of the structure of the film market. Pressures by anti-democratic, counter-cultural politicians and bureaucrats on festivals’ freedom of expression happened in Busan, Istanbul, and Cairo in the past year. Busan overcame this oppression and preserved its identity, with the fortunate support of filmmakers around the world.

Och: Highlights for me are Mohamed Siam’s outstanding Egyptian documentary, “Whose Country?”; my favorite Cannes film, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” from the Finn Juho Kuosmanen; and “Zoology,” by Russia’s finest talent, Ivan Tverdovskiy.

Rebordinos: Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” because the director proves that he is in top form and Isabelle Huppert shows that she is one of the most interesting actresses. Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name,” a powerful animated film able to reach audiences across the world. Plus, two of the most breathtaking debut films I’ve seen this year: William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” and Emiliano Torres’s “El Invierno.”

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