The WFF, or now, The Worst Film Festival?

O How the Mighty Have Fallen

by Peter Rist September 16, 2016 9 minutes (2080 words)

The 40th edition of the World Film Festival (WFF)/Festival des films du Monde (FFM) ended on Monday night. I have attended every single edition of the festival, and after the first (1977) and the second festival in 1978, when the competition was inaugurated, I watched as many films as possible, even though I would travel from New York City and London, Ontario, until I moved here permanently in the summer of 1989. My dear late friends Bunny and Grace and I (joined by my partner Shelley in 1982) would line up at the Cinéma Parisien headquarters to buy our tickets from 1979 into the early 1990s, when the festival was in its prime. All along we realized that there were problems with the organization of the FFM, but we ignored these because we enjoyed our screenings so much. During the first year of Offscreen (Vol. 1. no. 7) I recognized the festival as being the event where I first saw a Korean film, Im Kwon-T’aek’s Adada in 1988, and in January 2003, I wrote the first part of an (unfinished) article on the first 25 years of the competition, highlighting eleven “great’ films from the competition’s first twelve years that didn’t win prizes (Vol. 7. no. 1). Since then, while the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has grown to completely dominate the Canadian film scene, Offscreen contributor David Hanley and myself have still considered the FFM to be a place where some gems could be found amongst the generally uninspiring selections. Within some groups, especially the local film critical establishment, the FFM has become something of a laughing stock. Nevertheless, there are many local filmgoers who have remained devoted to the eclectic, truly global, but largely “middle brow” selections of the FFM.

Unfortunately, with the incredible meltdown that occurred this year, it is time to highlight the negatives. With The Hyatt Regency hotel and Odeon Cineplex cinema chain pulling out their facilities at the last moment, and many key staff members resigning just two days before the 40th FFM was about to commence, chaos reigned. David and myself had applied as usual for press accreditation, hand-carrying our materials well in advance of the Thursday start, but when we showed up, the new, temporary volunteers in the FFM offices just couldn’t deal with the overload. We were asked to apply again online, since all accreditations had been lost (or sabotaged) and return the next day, as we did. On my return I met three student visitors, from Victoria, BC, Germany and Israel, who all learned that, having paid their own way here to Montreal, discovered they had no accommodations set aside for them, and worse still, their films were no longer being shown. The catalogue and schedule had been cancelled (perhaps sabotaged) and with only the Cinéma Imperial available for screenings, the new unpublished schedule only allowed for all the films in the main and first film competitions to be shown, once each, along with a few other films, including almost all of the Chinese films. On these two registration days, it was clear that the Chinese filmmakers were given preferential treatment. We later learned that only three major sponsors remained: Air Canada, Québecor and the so-called Gold Finance Group, who had earlier promised $1 million in festival prizes, and who were likely providing most of the subsistence for this year’s festival. In short I was deeply troubled by these student filmmakers being abandoned to their own devices.

Before making my main point, I should note that the festival workers who stayed on, and the many other people who volunteered their time and effort, must be commended for holding the fort. They have been heroic and I salute them all. One of the reasons that the staff quit is that they hadn’t been paid. For years, I heard stories of some having to wait months to be paid for the previous festival, and last year the two people who were running the so-called “film market” left at the beginning of the festival, having not been paid for 2014, even. Like the good people they are, before quitting, they trained the replacement (unpaid) student volunteers.
As is fairly well-known now, this year, the out-of-town young filmmakers wrote a letter on Facebook to festival President Serge Losique asking for their films to be shown to the public, and requesting an apology from him. The letter is reproduced here:

[An Open Letter From the Filmmakers of the 40th Montreal World Film Festival]

Dear Mr. Serge Losique, Mr. Denis Coderre, Mr. Luc Fortin and Mrs. Mélanie Joly,

We are the young filmmakers whose films were selected to screen at the prestigious 40th Montreal World Film Festival. Many of us flew great distances from different countries including Finland, Colombia, Germany, Czech Republic, Russia, Israel and the USA with great excitement to see our films shown on the big screen.

However, when we arrived at the festival offices and found out that our screenings had been cancelled without any prior notice, we felt humiliated and outraged. Most of us found out after we had already landed in Montreal. The few remaining festival staff members insisted that they had sent cancellation notices, but none of us had received any such notices, and no news was posted on the festival website. Filmmakers were left in the dark and many proceeded to embark on their flights as scheduled. But others were lucky and found out in time to cancel their flights, unfortunately amounting to hundreds of dollars in cancellation fees. Although many of us suffered financial losses due to this turn of events, the loss of our festival experience was the greater misfortune. For many, this would have been a first festival experience: an opportunity to see our work projected on the big screen, to connect with new audiences, to see the work of other young filmmakers, and to make connections with future collaborators. It’s a huge loss to say the least. Your negligence and mismanagement has closed those doors for us, Mr. Losique.

Currently, neither you nor anyone else from the festival management has officially taken responsibility or has made any public apology. We understand that festivals hold the right to not screen films that have been accepted into their festival. But our frustration does not lie in the simple fact that our films were not screened: it’s about the fact that this all could have been avoided, that the festival’s downward spiral was known. The FFM has been doomed for a while. And you, Mr. Losique, have been stubborn and negligent, plowing ahead to satisfy your delusions and not meeting the demands of the festival. Even after SODEC and Telefilm stopped supplying funding to the festival in 2014, you continued to arrogantly manage the festival despite the insufficient resources. The following year, in 2015, this financial turmoil led you to be unable to pay your employees. Consequently, this year, four days before the festival’s opening night, the majority of your team quit because of the unfavorable work conditions you submitted them to. Two days after, Cineplex had to back out as well due to the disorganized state and financial uncertainty of the festival. The festival crumbled under your command. We are upset at your outright lack of respect, transparency, and organization.

In the midst of all of this chaos, the festival continued with the opening night and the small fraction of other screenings throughout the following days. After investing so much time, effort and finances into our films, we feel deceived, insulted, outraged and humiliated. We feel we deserve better answers from the organizers of the festival and you, Mr. Losique. You have not even tried to communicate to us. We feel frustrated and saddened by the lack of leadership, general atmosphere of indifference and denial of our predicament. There is almost no staff to organize anything in response to this turn of events, no publicity, no audience, no film market, no one to talk to, no answers, and worst of all no screenings of our films. And we realize that we are not the only ones to suffer this loss. We understand that there are dozens and dozens of other films that were cut as well. Many filmmakers have been left in the dark.

We are deeply upset by what has happened but we have also been relieved by the support that other organizations have offered us in the Montreal community: notably the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University, the Goethe-Institute, the Israeli General Consulat and the Segal Center. We recognize that Montreal is a center for the arts and cultures, but we believe that you are no longer the person to organize such a community. Despite decades of success of this festival due to your initiative, you clearly no longer have the capacity or the public trust to run this on your own. It is time to give a chance to other members of the arts and cultures community to create space for filmmakers like us. If you truly believe in your project, Mr. Losique, it will have to not be in your hands.

We ask that the festival management, in particular you Mr. Losique, make an official, public apology with a clear statement of what has happened, acknowledging your neglect, mismanagement and arrogance in the festival’s organization this year. We ask that a formal press release take place to acknowledge all of the films that were accepted and subsequently cut from the festival program. And we ask that you, Mr. Losique, seriously consider passing the torch onto someone else.

Signed,

Zoé Arthur
Yang Zhang
Moriya Benavot
Eric Brunt
Farhad Ghaderi
Tyler Ritchie
Andy Alvarez
Mintie Pardoe
Estelle Abou
Aline Hochscheid
Lee Nechushtan
Juan Sebastián Martínez Mora
Igor Poplauhin
Ali Ajmeri
Phillpp Fussenegger
Erez Mizrahi
Sahar Shavit
Boris Kuboff
Katharina Rivilis
Chorong Kim
Nathan Starzynski]

I can’t ever remember Serge Losique apologizing for anything very much, and I doubt he will do so this year, to anyone. On the other hand, every time I met a student filmmaker from out-of-town, I apologized to them for myself and for the citizens of Montreal. Thankfully, the letter did have an effect, because all of the films in the student competition were shown at the Cinéma du Parc at 10am, in two of their three cinemas, before their regularly scheduled programme. The titles and times were posted inside the windows of the Cinéma Imperial, but nowhere else. However, thanks especially to the German and Israeli students I mentioned before (Katharina and Moriya), the Goethe Institute and the Segal Centre had both scheduled a screening event well before this, the latter of which, apparently had no empty seats in the room!

In truth, it has become increasingly difficult over the last few years to defend the FFM, and now it is impossible. After pretty much ignoring it, the English media have really taken note this year of (arguably) the worst ever example of a major international film festival. And, all the blame must be laid at the door of the founder and president Serge Losique. When facing criticism over the years, especially of how the FFM has completely lost out to TIFF in terms of prestige, he always claimed that his festival is “all about the films” and not the star actors and directors who show up in Toronto. And yet, he was nowhere to be seen until Willem Defoe and then Isabelle Adjani came to add some glamour to his festival. While he always takes the spotlight, the really hard work (often unpaid) is seemingly done by others, behind the scenes.

Very cleverly, and probably to avoid law suits being laid against the festival by filmmakers whose films had not yet been projected publicly, the Theatre Outremont came through with some screenings, and right at the end of the festival, five theatres of the Cineplex Forum, at 10am only, and the Dollar Cinema at other times, showed films that hadn’t been screened, possibly to no audience members at all at the Forum. With support from all levels of Canadian government having been withdrawn over two years ago, and unlikely to return, and with so many Montrealers now being totally embarrassed by the farce of the 40th (and 39th competitive) edition of the FFM, it is surely time to declare Le fin du (FF) monde!

Read Sandro Forte’s own (partial) insider account of the debacle: cine-talk [https://cinetalk.net/2016/09/12/the-40th-ffm-disaster-in-10-chapters/]

The WFF, or now, The Worst Film Festival?

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

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