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Compact Cinematics
Compact Cinematics

Pepita Hesselberth

Pepita Hesselberth is associate professor in cultural theory and film at the Department of Film and Literary Studies, Leiden University, the Netherlands. With Thomas Elsaesser she edited the textbook Hollywood op Straat: Film en Televisie Binnen de Hedendaagse Audiovisuele Cultuur (2000). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Maria Poulaki

Maria Poulaki is Lecturer in Film and Digital Media Arts at University of Surrey, UK. Placing contemporary cinematics within the realm of complexity theory and neuroscience debates, she has contributed to Screen, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Film-Philosophy, Cinema & Cie, Projections, and a number of edited volumes. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017

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Book chapter

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The Viewser as Curator: The Online Film Festival Platform

DOI: 10.5040/9781501322297.0015
Page Range: 85–91

Over the last decade there has been a major transformation in the film festival world with regard to the mechanism of the films’ outreach. An increasing number of film festivals have decided to explore the potential of digital technologies and build customized video platforms where they upload smaller or larger parts of their annual selection. While the content of the festival can be archived, connected, or distributed, the overall ambience and constellation of an offline festival cannot easily be transposed to the standards of an online environment. Focusing on the time-condensing aspect of the film festivals in particular, this chapter addresses the changing role of the festival curator in the transition from offline to online film festival events, claiming that in the online festival viewer/users (or viewsers) are more and more often interpellated to perform functions that in traditional film festivals define the curatorial role.

In her book Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (2007) media scholar Marijke de Valck describes the specific temporality of the festival as an “event of short duration, where films are shown in an atmosphere of heightened expectation and festivity” (22). Arguably, any film festival thus provides a condensed and compressed experience in terms of time, space, and content. It is an ephemeral event of limited duration, periodically programmed in a concrete time frame, with a dual scope: to showcase a distillation of recent film production and to bring together different agents involved in distinct stages of production during a short period of time in a local, site-specific environment. Every festival aspires to increase revenues, maximize the facilitation of professional networking, and intensify the overall feeling of exuberant ambience, while minimizing its assets, exhausting venue capacity and compressing more—often simultaneous—activities in the given period. The challenge of film festival curatorship, then, it can be argued, is perhaps primarily a matter of temporality: How does a curator handle a network of simultaneous interactions between viewing subjects and viewed objects in an ephemeral event?

It is a commonplace in film festival jargon to call festival curators program­mers. Though the terms curator and programmer are often used interchangeably, especially among peers, the latter term is more often used and perhaps for a good reason. Just as a computer programmer develops the detailed instructions that allow devices to perform their functions, a film festival programmer develops modules that facilitate the operations of different interested parties in the film industry. The primary task of a curator in charge of (a particular subsection of) a film festival is to select, and then efficiently program, the autonomous units of cinematic time in a schedule that brings them together in a meaningful way, often resulting in a complex structure that can be reassembled in multiple ways. In addition, the curator is called upon to act as an intermediary agent, balancing the needs of different groups—from filmmakers and festival audiences, to distributors and benefactors—investing as much in the festival content as in the interpersonal relationships and role conventions that sustain it.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to envisage such a lively social event, like a film festival, migrated to the online realm, this move makes much more sense when taking into account the event’s compact and modular nature. Film festivals entered a new era in 2005, when DivX Inc. announced the launch of the first online film festival under the name Green Cine.[1] The company, which at the time provided the most widely diffused video compression technologies, planned and promoted a festival whose program was linked to the extensive roster of an online DVD rental service of the same name that counted more than 35,000 titles and 9,000 titles of video-on-demand. The audiences were not only allowed, but even encouraged, to download the finalists’ films in high fidelity through a secure channel, albeit within a limited time window. Each download from a different IP address was counted as a vote for the audience award. Now fully automated, the films could hence only reach competition standards after an act of data transfer from one computer system to another. It is no coincidence that compression was the main commercial service that DivX Inc. first introduced to this platform. Since then, compression has become a modality for online film festivals.

Green Cine Festival stopped operating in 2015 due to financial complications, but within the decade of its existence, it had already left an important legacy in the film festival world, as different agents (from directors and film buffs to producers and cultural institutions, from individual film professionals and independent companies to teachers and students) had become poised to fully deploy the potential of Web 2.0 to connect different remote users and provide access to undifferentiated content. Various individual viewers grew the habit of using online film festival platforms (such as Festival Scope) as tools to broaden their knowledge of emergent, state-of-the-art filmmaking worldwide, to spot new talents, and to exchange expertise and insights among peers. Green Cine’s initiative was thus an important milestone in the online festival’s development, but it can be argued that the ground was already fertile for change.

In the transition of film festivals to online platforms, the parties involved in festival networks were called to confront the cinematic’s changing site, and to question whether they would interpret the traversal from online to offline (and back) as an undesirable dichotomy that would force them to make radical choices, or as a challenge that would enable new, hybrid media practice. Major institutions like the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival made the deliberate choice to start exploring the possibilities of streaming and festival-on-demand at an early stage, with the “personal user” and his or her perspective in mind. In addition to content streaming, these festivals, and soon others also, began to add parallel features in their program, with the aim of building a model of remote participation of both filmmakers and audiences to be incorporated in the local festival event. The resulting Tribeca’s Filmmaker Feed (a “button” designed to aggregate various social media of specific filmmakers) and Tribeca Q&A (an open online forum that enables remote audiences to pose questions that emulate the typical interview sessions following festival screenings) are features that enable direct communication between home viewers and filmmakers without the interference of a host, expert, or curator. As Chuck Tryon has noted, these developments, indeed, “reinforce the idea that the festival is no longer tied to a geographical space but is, instead, a global phenomenon, one that invites everyone with internet access to participate” (2013, 162).

How do these developments, then, affect the role of (and meaning given to the term) curator within this era of the film festival enriched, and at times even replaced with, online activity? In her comprehensive essay on the practice of film curatorship in the digital age, film scholar and programmer Roya Rastegar (2012) elaborates on the downside of accessibility and participation. The main challenge for the curator in film festivals, besides his or her own impending disposability, Rastegar argues, is the issue of abundance. As digital technologies have permitted greater access to the networks and means of film production, thus arguably democratizing the system, the ensuing rapid growth of filmmaking activity has resulted in a growing number of films created, disproportionate to the number of the films that can be catalogued and streamed, in both traditional analog and digital, online and offline channels.

In Rastegar’s view, the result is what she calls a curatorial crisis, by which she refers, with some urgency, to the impossible task curators see themselves confronted with, of having to at once filter the enormous body of production, and account for increasingly more knowing and fragmented audiences with progressively more complex infrastructures of collection and exhibition, both online and offline.

The emergence and thriving of online film festival platforms today can be interpreted as a side-effect of, and possibly a solution to, this curatorial crisis, invoked by the abundance of moving image production, resulting from a plethora of available digital resources.

Where the curatorial practices of selection in film festivals are largely invested with (and subjected to) what de Valck calls a “dogma of discovery” (2007, 20), the view(s)er in the online environment of a festival platform is similarly invested with a discourse of navigation and exploration, in a network of interwoven peers that appears egalitarian and fluent.[2] As each view(s)er applies his or her own customized practices of outlining categories (using simple tools like bookmarks and folders), and documenting (using feed buttons and screenshots), now made possible on every desktop, a classification emerges that enables multiplicity and difference, thus lacking the strong sense of liability to which the traditional role of the film festival’s curator subscribes.

Online festival platforms interpellate their users by prompting them to sign up, login, post, share, comment, in total compliance with the principles of media convergence.[3] Though their technology is often developed around user experience, the personalized tools provided by the online search engines do not primarily aim to present individual profiles, but, rather, strive to disseminate visual information among an abstract online community, thus moving data analytics and numerics a step forward. The modalities of interacting with these websites are based on the amplification of personal choices and voices by way of user-ratings and comments. By introducing these multiple channels for choosing, sorting out, uploading, downloading, evaluating, and analyzing video content, the user’s engagement with these websites, I would like to argue, assimilates the status of curatorship, albeit of a different—more personalized, and yet still strongly interpellated—kind. Transposed into the fluid and hybrid environment of the online festival platform, moreover, the premediated circulation of film material seems to undergo a dynamical transformation when compared to the traditional film festival’s programming schemes. Transformation now happens with each single “refresh” action, carried out by a multitude of individual users and facilitated by the technological apparatuses that are personalized-by-design.

Filmmakers seem to comprehend the potential of these platforms as regular exhibition spaces, allowing them to circumvent the established curatorial authority that pervades the process of collection and circulation in offline festival environments. Moreover, the network of professionals that mediate between the film and its audiences (or, if you will, between the various parties involved in the chain of production, distribution, and exhibition, itself undergoing a significant transformation) seems to be replaced in online festival platforms, at least in part, by network technology. Within this network structure, the exposure and potential distribution of a filmmaker’s work no longer seems to be (solely) dependent on the expertise and filtering acts of an individual human being, that is, the festival curator, but is an outcome of a chain of computerized actions in which both humans and technology partake.

A case that helps exemplify these mechanisms internal to the mixed reality of the curatorial praxis in online film festivals is the well-known Canadian National Screen Institute (NSI)’s online Film Festival,[4] an event that no longer is defined by a limited calendar period, local venues, and the physical presence of both material infrastructures and people (filmmakers, curators, audiences, etc.). The festival was initiated in 2009 and is part of a vast array of cultural activities supported by the NSI, one of the largest cultural institutions in North America. It unfolds on a year-round basis and comprises a selection of Canadian films that can be submitted to compete for an award throughout the year. A different jury is appointed every three months. By expanding the duration of the festival indefinitely, and enabling a different structure of reward, the NSI Festival challenges the ephemeral aspect of the traditional festival event. It also undermines the customary programming scheme by enhancing its modularity, allowing films to be viewed as stand-alones to be watched singularly and not as part of a program slot that is redeemed in a ticket value (a permission, the critical reader might be inclined to add, clearly ingrained by the prospect of the user’s unremitting impulse to click on). In a string of curatorial gestures afforded by the platform system, the user is invited to condense and systematize its otherwise dispersed content, in acts of clicking, posting, sharing, and so on.

Perhaps not coincidentally, from the point of view of the overall theme of this book, the submission guidelines of the NSI Film Festival (which is nowhere identified as a short film festival) reads: “We’re not looking for any particular ‘type’ of film”; however, “the film must be less than 30 minutes (the shorter the better),” while it is “imperative” for the film to be available on YouTube or Vimeo. The implications of this statement are threefold. First, it positions the platform’s filtering mechanism in relation to massive online video resources such as YouTube. Second, it exposes the “big data” logic behind these filtering mechanisms, where “the shorter the better” is first and foremost suggestive of a quantification of data that increases disposability (on/off), making the process of filtering easier and, certainly, less humane. Third, what is perhaps most interesting within the present context is that the website’s precondition of brevity in place here, seems to be more important than the thematic clustering and contextualization of filmic content that demands the expertise of the curator’s “handpicking.”

The fact that online film festival platforms like the NSI on the one hand try to keep themselves distinct from massive video platforms like YouTube, but on the other hand derive from, share, and filter their content, highlights the ambiguous nature of their curatorial process. Like YouTube and other massive websites that feature an abundance of videos, the NSI site interpellates the view(s)er, not by framing the content of the visual material with semantics, but by building habits based on the quantification of data and calculative informatics. For example, the home page of YouTube is an apposition of “recommendations” that are based on numerical comparisons: What was mostly watched in the last couple of hours? What did people with similar viewing profiles to yours select to watch in the course of time? Thus, under the pretext of the personal user owning his own channel lies what Wendy Chun (2011) calls a “programmed vision,” a vision that Chun writes “shamelessly use[s] shifters—pronouns like ‘my’ and ‘you’ that address you, and everyone else, as a subject” (67; italics in text).

In a wide spectrum of software-based online and offline activity, and of quotidian explorations of the web associated with data mining and commercial exploitation, the diagrammatic possibilities opening for curatorship in the fluid space of the online film festival—a hybrid reality of sorts—are yet to be studied. The question is, however, what kind of curatorship we are talking about: the curator as programmer or the program as curator?



[1] For more information on DivX Inc. initiative, see their press release. Available at: http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/DIVX/0x0x51344/b6254f83-b495-4506-bb2f-009ec7f2c78f/DIVX_News_2005_6_1_General.pdf (accessed May 18, 2016).

[2] For an elaborate analysis of the link between curatorial practices and larger discourses, see Rampley (2005).

[3] A key term in Rastegar, interpellation (Althusser 1977) makes an indirect reference to Marxist (film) theory and its critique of institutions embodying ideologies, which she applies to the festival institutions. Film festivals, she argues, interpellate individual viewers to enter ready-made schemas and predetermined collective experiences. As mediator of (and subject to) this interpellation, the curator of film festivals, Rastegar attests, needs to acknowledge the importance of her mission and to justify her choices, “accounting for the specificity of these audiences [which] reveals the culturally defined categories driving film selection and production and, consequently, film culture” (2010, 310–11).

[4] Available at: http://www.nsi-canada.ca/film-festival (accessed May 18, 2016).