Sometimes I think I’ve always had the wrong idea about film festivals. I’ve been attending, in a variety of roles, for more than 25 years. I started out while I was living in Philadelphia, buying festival passes that would allow me the opportunity to just walk into theaters to see whatever I wanted. I would spend hours building my film schedule as if it were the perfect beast.
One of my finest memories from those days was being able to see all ten parts of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog, his 1989 TV mini-series of stories based on the Ten Commandments. By the time these screened at the festival, Kieslowski was making waves with The Double Life of Véronique and his trilogy of films based on the colors and political ideals of the French flag (Blue: liberty, White: equality, and Red: fraternity). Film was about ideas and to my post-collegiate mind, a festival was a place where I could pursue these philosophical notions like a feverish young lover.
Somewhere along the way, I began to construct a bit more on this foundation of filmed narratives. The week-to-ten days of screenings evolved into personal events, beyond the scope of anything formally laid-out by the festival programmers. I wasn’t interested in their talk backs or parties with celebrities on-hand.
I curated my very own experiences. I splurged on more expensive dinners than I would under normal circumstances to accompany my movies, whether with dates or solo, it didn’t matter. I know for a fact I enjoyed my own company back then more than that of others, especially those who weren’t as devoted to film as I was. Take this as the portrait of a film snob as a young man.
When I moved to Cincinnati and began covering film, festivals became a beloved work obsession. I would attend, applying a slightly modified attention to detail, focusing on finding the perfect films to cover. I needed to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time by missing out on the hot festival ticket, the film everyone would be talking about, that regional readers would need to hear about from their critic, the guy who was representing them. I berated myself when I saw a dud, a misfire that would never play in our market. What was I thinking? The pressure…it was driving me away from the experience of watching and searching for more than what was readily available up on the screen.
A few years ago, I started to mellow out a bit, recognizing an error of sorts in my ways. Streaming services contributed significantly to this change of heart. Suddenly, any number of films would be available, so I could let readers know about smaller films and foreign titles that tickled my fancy or left me cold, without any guilt or shame. Yes, I watched these films; now maybe you can (or won’t have to).
I also returned to my snapshots, those carefully tended frames of experience outside the theaters. I found solace and connections – to the films themselves – in the arts and conversations teeming around me. The festival homes, like Toronto, and their people assumed the roles of characters in this new production. I’ve met artists who discussed how film influences their work; one who literally plays movies while she paints, like background music. I can’t wait now to talk to people from around the globe who make the pilgrimage to this hallowed city each year.
As a festival programmer, my perspective makes another gradual transition. I’m watching with viewers in mind, attending festivals with an eye similar to a crate-digging hip hop beat maker. I’m curating a visual (and thematic) groove for festival attendees. Intersectionality speeds up the rhythms, allowing me to remix narratives with seamless precision. Films layering disability on top of elements of faith or identity guarantee a more inclusive experience for everyone.
Yet, it doesn’t end with film. I now find myself returning to my earlier days and those adventures outside the theaters. I want viewers to see moving images and then rush out to collect others, in the realm of fine arts, or music, maybe dance. Better still, why can’t people settle down around a communal table and share a crafted meal or drink, tailor-made to expand upon the film they watched?
Yesterday, a somewhat typical festival day (three flawless screenings – one that brought slow-rolling tears to my eyes), took a refreshing turn at the end. I ventured out of the safe comfort zone of the theaters to check out one of the Tribeca Talks events at the Festival Hub. I had been intrigued when it was first announced, via email that Questlove of The Roots would be sharing the stage with Boots Riley, the director of last year’s mind-blowing release Sorry to Bother You. Both men are so much more than any one project they have been associated with.
They are the epitome of what it means to be multi-hyphenates. Musician. Activist. DJ. Filmmaker. Record Collector. Political. Visionary. Curious. Daring. Each one is also tied to a local scene, a community that formed and grounded them, whether they have remained rooted in that space continuously or not.
Riley is best known as a proud resident of Oakland, but he shared with the audience that he was born and spent the first six years of his life in Detroit (which makes sense). He’s been so many things to so many people, especially in that community over the years, that his embrace of his role as an artist seems to matter most, because it is a role he has chosen for himself. He is an Oakland creative.
Questlove is Philly through and through. He grew up in music and the city and he is brotherly love. His day job (as leader of the house band for The Tonight Show) keeps him in New York, but you can’t take Philly out of him. He is the city and the city is him.
Both men have ties to film, which they discussed during a wide-ranging and furious attempt to share just a few nuggets of their overall experiences as artists and men, but what this time was truly about was their multi-hypenateness, if you will.
Born in and of diverse cities, they represent the clash and merger of styles and thoughts, the real celebration we dream of when we talk about inclusion. And place matters.
That is how I see the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival. We are about a place. OTR is a multi-hyphenate neighborhood, one full of history and stories. My aim is to add a few more frames of reference for locals and our guests.
Let’s give them something to talk about. Disability, diversity, faith, freedom, identity. Film and so much more.