"In person!" Some notes on film criticism

18 February 2014

Some thoughts on writing, film criticism, festivals, and more...

I wrote the following on January 20, in response to some questions posed to me by Nour Abdul-Hadi Haba, a journalist covering International Film Festival Rotterdam's Young Trainee Critics Project for IBCoMagazine. You can read Nour's article here. (You can watch my video response to IFFR and its Trainee Critics Project, for Festivalists, here.)

I'm publishing my entire response to Nour's email because I think in answering some of these questions, I'm possibly covering stuff that many other young critics think about without knowing where to turn for guidance and advice.

Hi Nour,

Thanks for getting in touch. I'll respond to each point individually.

I was wondering what you can tell me about your experience with such film festivals.
I live in the northeast of England, quite removed from the central hub of UK film culture, which is in London. If you want to make money from film journalism short of moving to a city as expensive as London, there are several ways: getting known by distribution companies in order to access screeners, or by subscribing to an on-demand streaming service like Festival Scope. But the best and most exciting way is to attend film festivals, to go overseas and actually meet people.

There's this terrible and growing assumption, in the UK at least, that writing isn't labour, that it should go unpaid. There are still some outlets out there that pay, but many of them are found in Europe or beyond. You have to seek them out. Speculative emails haven't worked for me. But follow-up emails after a brief handshake have.

There's also an entrenched pressure and prejudice in the UK that by the age of 21 or so you have to have a career set in stone, an expertise and a path all made out for you. It's never put that way, of course, but 'young peoples' initiatives in the UK tend to set 18 or 21 as their cut-off. For obvious reasons this puts many people at a disadvantage; people graduate from university - especially those with degrees in the arts and humanities - without much of a concrete idea of what they want to do. That's fine, but there seems to me to be no support network for them; so they either extend their education (and student debt), or take some shitty 'stop-gap' job in the hope they'll find enough time and sustain enough high spirits to look for something more rewarding.

When I applied to the Locarno Critics Academy last summer, I specifically mentioned this, and noted also that I was at the wrong end of such prejudices in my own country (I was 25 at the time, I'm 26 now). I found the academy's call for 'college-age' applicants refreshingly fluid. It was based on talent and skill. The Young Trainee Critics Academy at IFFR is similarly open to people up to the age of 30. It allows for that weird and scary grey area between having experience - even as a paid journalist - but not quite having the network required for regular work. It resists that dreadful assumption that professions like this develop overnight, that they have a go-to blueprint by which to secure a way in.

How did you get into films?
Like anyone, I got into films from a young age and have been watching them as far back as I can remember. The first film I saw at the cinema was My Girl, and I remember noting all the blemishes on the print, and that little burn in the corner that signified every reel change. I didn't know what they were, but I do remember them.

I think now I might be romanticising it somewhat, but the film I always attribute to getting me into watching films more seriously is The French Connection - though why I was interested enough to record that off the TV one night and then watch it the next day I don't know. I think by that point I must have already been what you might call a 'cinephile'.

I'm the kind of person who has a system: lists, spreadsheets. I used to be a completist and an auteurist. I watched The Godfather, discovered Scorsese, then Godard through him, and so on. But something has changed. I don't really get excited by any particular directors anymore, and the way I remember films these days has less to do with the names behind them.

How long will you be in Rotterdam and what films are you especially looking forward to?
I'm in Rotterdam for the entire festival. I'm looking forward to the Heinz Emigholz stuff.

Also I was wondering, how do you see your role as a film critic in the whole scope of this festival?
One of the joys of being a film critic is that it covers a number of functions simultaneously. I don't see myself as a tastemaker or as part of some kind of cultural vanguard but it would be disingenuous to say I'm not part of that whole factory. I like the curatorial potential of criticism, of highlighting overlooked films that might not otherwise get distribution.

Of course, that that curatorial aspect exists in the first place indicates some kind of problem with regard to distribution, so as a critic I think it's important to question everything, the whole system: its profiteering, its conservatism, the fact that more and more film schools are belching out more and more expert technicians and craftspeople who nevertheless don't seem to know how to intervene upon the world, or else seem totally uninterested in changing it. That contradiction - between a superbly made film that rings rather hollow - needs to be confronted. It has material causes.

We also need to think of ourselves as writers, not just film critics, to imagine what we might do if the industry just suddenly collapsed; I think we have to focus on the ways in which films and film culture reinforce or resist the everyday systemic tensions by which people are socially and/or politically marginalised due to their class, gender, race, sexuality and so on. Sometimes I worry that all people do is watch films in some kind of vacuum. If someone writing about a film leaves the impression that they have no interest in changing the world, I kind of lose interest.

And if people are interested in becoming film critics, how should they actually approach the industry?
In person! Attend local festivals, wangle whatever freebies you can, don't be shy. Don't just talk about films. Don't hang out in the little cliques that gather between press screenings; the people you really need to talk to are already down the road to write their review or make an appointment. Make your first investment a batch of business cards, and get in the habit of handing them out.

Don't just talk to editors and people who will pay you to write. Meet festival directors - they're the ones who are going to invite you along to some beautiful pilgrimage town next month and arrange your flights and accommodation for you. Google names and remember faces, and look at the publications that your favourite critics write for - those are the ones that actually pay people to work.

More than anything, find out very early if the outlet pays.