First Encounters: Cafe OTO, Vortex, BFI and National Gallery

Spotlight

Discovering a venue is like entering a new universe: if they got it right, their identity – the type of art they programme, the values they carry, the experience they create – is palpable right from the front door. This is how I felt recently about Cafe OTO, an experimental venue in Dalston, East London, where I went in September to see Rodrigo Constanzo (with whom I’m currently working on developing his dfscore project) perform with Distractfold as part of the Kammer Klang series of contemporary chamber music.

Here is Rodrigo performing one of his composition, iminlovewithanothergirl, a solo piece for snare and microphone, right at the end of the set.

The austere feel of the venue – basically a warehouse – creates an edgy focus for the music and makes the listening experience that much more intense. The acoustics are not even that good, there’s a loud fan that comes on between each set, and I can’t describe the seats as comfortable, but the space creates an intimacy not just with the performers but also between audience members: I was on my own, but I could easily strike a conversation with people sitting near me.

Not long after, I was at the Vortex, just round the corner, also for the first time, for what I can only describe as a journey through abstraction and emotion with Electric Biddle, a Jazz Shuttle project (Jazz Shuttle is a creative scheme supporting new Franco-British bands that I’ve recently started to coordinate on the UK side). A team from Paris venue Le Triton was there to film a documentary about the band, and here’s an extract from the first leg of the tour, filmed in France.

My latest encounter with a venue is a double one: I was invited to the BFI to watch the latest documentary by Fred Wiseman, who spend 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. He filmed everything from guided tours to executive meetings and restoration work, and condensed 170 hours of footage into a 3-hour film that celebrate both the art and the institution that hosts it, in all its complexity and contradictions.

I’ve never actually been (yet) to the National Gallery, so this was a formidable virtual encounter. The spotlight is of course on the paintings, but also on people: those who make, buy, care for and admire the art. We’re privy to debates amongst staff over the purpose and limitations of restoration, or on the tension between ‘inclusion’ and ‘excellence’. We also get to eavesdrop on the vast array of education, engagement and participation activities that take place within the National Gallery: from guided school tours to teacher training, a life-drawing class, or a session for visually impaired people observing Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night through touch and words.

National Gallery is a journey through art and humanity told with a multitude of fragments that continue to resonate and build a meaning long after the film is finished. The most powerful moments are wordless juxtapositions of masterpiece portraits and the people observing them: a mise en abyme that connects past and present, art and life, and artist, sitter, museum-goer and film spectator, in an infinite jeu de miroir of “who’s looking at who?”.  I was also reminded of Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, a series of large-scale images showing museum-goers engaged in the process of observing paintings at several institutions, including the National Gallery (below).

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

The film is out in the UK in January 2015. Meanwhile, I’ve been back to Cafe OTO for another great night hosted by Kammer Klang, I’m off to the Vortex for the Emile Parisien Quartet in November, if not before, and I’m planning a visit to the National Gallery in the next few weeks. I haven’t said much about my experience at the BFI, but it inspired my to start a weekly film club at the Cat’s Back, the South West London pub I run with my husband, so surely that’s their job done!

Rani Sanderson, Film Programmer

5 questions to...

After my ‘5 Questions‘ to the Manchester Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director and to the Toronto Design Offsite Festival executive team, I’m sharing insights from Rani Sanderson, Film Programmer at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Rani is also a video artist and an arts educator for children, specialising in digital storytelling and creative writing programs.

1. Hi Rani! Your next festival opens on 11th April. What’s a typical day right now?

Right now, since all of the films are programmed and set, I’m just preparing my introductions for the screenings I will be presenting.  Trying to remember what the films were about, researching any guests who will be attending and coming up with potential questions to get Q&As going.  It’s quite fun to relive all the films I saw so many months ago and remember why I liked them so much. In a few cases, I haven’t seen the films, so if I have time I will try to see those before I introduce them.  Otherwise, I’ll speak with programmers who have seen them for any input and insight they can provide.

2. You’ve been programming for TJFF for 3 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

I’ve been a full-on programmer for the past 3 festivals, but before that I was a junior programmer for a few years (with a 3 year break in between when I went back to school).  I don’t know if anything actually gets easier or more difficult…  I guess writing about the films gets a bit easier.  You could say my confidence is stronger each year, and my belief in my own opinions /critiques of the movies.  And perhaps, if anything, I’m a bit more picky about what makes a good film and what doesn’t, as the years pass.  Oh, and I always get nervous speaking in front of large audiences, so introducing films only gets easier as the festival goes on, but each year I’m equally petrified for my first few presentations.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

Probably during the festival is the most fun and most rewarding.  I love the energy during the festival.  It’s a bit manic, but you end up running on adrenalin the entire time.  I love when people enjoy films I particularly love – especially when it was a riskier film to choose – when audiences appreciate those movies it’s worth taking the chance.

4. What other festival would you love to attend as audience member?

I’d love to go to South by South West.  Music and film together is a dream festival for me.

Other types of festivals – there’s a hot air balloon festival in Quebec (and one in New Mexico) that I’d love to go to because I love hot air balloons – a whole bunch of them would be so pretty (me and my camera would go crazy!) and I’ve always wanted to go up in one.  And I’d also love to go to La Tomatina one day.

(And of course, if there’s ever a dangerous foodstuffs festival* I’ll be there.)

5. How did you get into film programming?

I went to film school so I had the background, from an academic and technical standpoint.  Back then, I got a job at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, when it was a small organization with a very small staff, managing the box office and assisting the programmer. From there the film festival got much larger and my role there evolved.  I was always involved in one way or another over the past 15 + years and then, as I mentioned, I took a short break to go back to school and after I completed my master’s I was invited back as a programmer.


* This is an oblique reference to the recent UK ban on triangular flapjacks.

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The 21st Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from 11th to 21st April 2013. Artistic Director Helen Zukerman concludes her Welcome note with a lovely nod to the long tradition of festivals:

“Movie-going has changed, but the magical, larger-than-life communal spirit of a Festival has never changed.”

Festival City 1: Cannes

Spotlight

It’s officially spring, and this means one thing: Cannes season is approaching. Growing up in France, there was a sense of the cycle of life, always and never the same, in the yearly media coverage “en direct de la Croisette”, with all of our six national TV channels – those were the days – reporting daily on the films, the stars, and the topless starlettes on the beach.

For a strictly invitation-only event, ‘le Festival’ is big business: according to City of Cannes website, it “provide[s] both the city council and all sectors of activity in Cannes with a very large proportion of their annual income. (…) Local businesses see a ten- or even fifteen-fold increase in turnover. Shops stay open longer – some even for part of the night – and employ twice the number of staff. This increase is not only noticeable during the Festival period, but also during the various conferences held each year at the Palais, and more broadly in the million tourists who visit the city throughout the year. Cannes is second only to Paris as the French city that hosts the greatest number of conferences, and this favourable position comes as a result of the film festival.”

Cannes Film Festival was created to make up for the lack of tourists in low season. The first festival, planned for 1939, was postponed by the war and eventually took place in 1947. The original vision included right from the start a purpose-built venue, the first Palais des festivals, opened in 1949. The new Palais, inaugurated in 1982, has a total surface of 35,000 m² and spaces for all purposes, from a 2,000+ theatre to multiple reception rooms for cocktails and galas, huge exhibition halls and a terrace overlooking Cannes’ marina.

The Palais plays host to many other festivals and events throughout the year, such as the MIDEM, a 7,000-delegate international music industry conference; the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, an 11,000-delegate advertising festival; and major events programmed by the Palais itself, such as the Festival International des Jeux, a free fair all about gaming which attracted 175,000 visitors over 3 days in March 2013; the Festival de Danse, a contemporary dance biennial ; and an annual performance series, “Sortir à Cannes“, which 2012-2013 season highlights included Alvin Ailey II, Amadou et Mariam and the stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses directed by John Malkovich.

The management structure of the Palais des festivals is a public-private partnership quite common in France: a single entity, called the Société d’Economie Mixte pour les Evénements Cannois (SEMEC), is in charge of managing the Palais des festivals, leading the municipal tourism strategy and programming cultural events. It’s run like a private company, but funded at 80% by the City of Cannes and under contract to deliver its public service mandate of economic growth and cultural excellence: in other words, a heavy public investment into the cultural life of the city, with the understanding that it will improve its reputation, bring visitors, increase spending and create jobs.

There’s a festival for everything in Cannes, from Flamenco to Fireworks, and even one dedicated to the art of shopping – which turns out to be a rather classic Fashion Festival with lots of coupons. Most of these festivals are publicly funded and managed, and the oldest and most famous of them, a non-for-profit organisation created upon the suggestion of the pre-war Minister for Education and Fine Arts, Jean Zay, sees half of its €20 million budget provided by the Ministry of Culture (via the National Cinema Centre), the City of Cannes and other regional authorities. Cannes Film Festival’s economic impact was estimated between €130 million and €200 million in recent years.

Pierre Viot, Festival President from 1984 to 2000, has a simple and pragmatic way of describing this impact:

“Le Festival, c’est la culture plus l’économie.”

For a more poetic vision, Jean Cocteau has the perfect quote:

“The Festival is an apolitical no-man’s-land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could make direct contact with one another and speak the same language.

And just for the absurdity of the analogy:

“The Festival is like the telephone. One may criticise it, but it is useful.” Louis Malle.

The City of Cannes website features a great selection of quotes, figures and anecdotes about the Festival.

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The 66th Festival de Cannes runs from 15th to 26th May 2013, with Steven Spielberg as Président du jury. The Great Gatsby by Australian director Baz Luhrmann will be screened on the opening night, in 3D (out of competition).