The Big Picture

Critics pan the changes at the St. Louis International Film Festival but hope that things aren't as bleak as they seem

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When the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) debuted in April 1992 with a modest slate of 25 films, local cinephiles looked on with cautious optimism -- thankful for the festival's existence, skeptical of its long-term survival, typically divided about its specific achievements. In a somewhat churlish post-fest assessment, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Pollack chided that first effort: "I had hoped that the festival would have a theme -- honoring a director, perhaps, or a genre, or a period -- and not be what it was, a week of what amounted to sneak previews of a wide assortment of films from small distributors or independent producers, without rhyme or reason." At the time, I thought Pollack's comments unduly harsh (especially given that he hadn't actually attended a single film). In my view, the programmers -- Barbara S. Jones and RFT film critic Robert Hunt -- had assembled an intriguing selection of movies, including Lars von Trier's Zentropa, Guy Maddin's Archangel and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, despite the obstacles posed by the fest's scant funds, minimal institutional support and lack of track record.

Eight years later, however, Pollack's criticism has more resonance. Although the festival has continued to grow -- last year burgeoning to more than 100 programs, including four sidebars (essentially subfestivals organized around specific themes) and a half-dozen special events -- it has failed to mature in some fundamental ways. Instead of sharpening its focus by more precisely defining what it wants to accomplish, its organizers continue to echo Hunt's long-ago defense of what Pollack called the fest's "purposelessness": "I was thinking of local audiences. I wanted to let them see films that they otherwise would not see." New film-program manager Chris Clark essentially restates that when he says, "We'd like to offer the public an opportunity to see these things that ... we probably won't get or may get late or have to drive 400 miles to see it."

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that goal, of course, as long as the films we "otherwise would not see" are legitimately worth watching: fresh, innovative, challenging, provocative, intelligent. Our inability to see a film does not automatically confer on it some special status: Yes, sometimes we're denied access to great films because distributors or local art-house exhibitors judge them too arcane or difficult or depressing to be commercially viable (Gianni Amelio's brilliant Lamerica, for example, which played in the '95 fest), but others -- many, many others -- fail to appear here because they're mediocre, inept or flat-out bad art. Too frequently, in ratcheting up the number of films offered, SLIFF has abandoned strong critical standards, including so-so movies simply because they're available and making the desultory rounds of the festival circuit. Over the years, the New Filmmakers Forum (NFF) sidebar, which attempts to spotlight promising work by first-time directors, has been especially guilty of featuring films that are arguably the best of a bad lot. Good movies have certainly appeared in the NFF ('98's Miss Monday, '97's Wonderland), but however admirable NFF's intent, the results have too often been substandard. Promisingly, the NFF will apparently take a new tack this year, no longer soliciting submissions but choosing from among first films that have played other fests. SLIFF needs to tighten its overall selection process in the same fashion: It needs to get better, not bigger.

SLIFF also has to articulate more precisely its mission. The fest needn't limit itself too severely -- Pollack's early suggestion of "honoring a director, perhaps, or a genre, or a period" is clearly too circumscribed -- but SLIFF would benefit from developing some ongoing specialty areas. Jones made an attempt in the festival's early years to promote American independent film, but Sundance's outrageous growth and the mainstreaming of the indie movement have made such an approach moot. However, during her final two years as artistic director, Jones was moving toward establishing a strong European flavor to the fest, and that remains a potentially fruitful approach, particularly because foreign-language films play so rarely even in today's art houses. Focusing strongly (but not exclusively) on a national or regional cinema each year would help separate SLIFF from the increasingly generic fests of its kind throughout the U.S. And if St. Louis is home to significant immigrant populations from the country or countries featured, the fest can work with them to ensure a certain built-in audience. (When Webster U.'s film series showed The Decalogue earlier this year, for example, the screenings' unexpected success owed as much to Poles as to film fans.)

If nothing else, a sidebar on Japanese cinema or Latin American cinema or Eastern European cinema would not duplicate already established efforts. In the past few years, SLIFF has experimented -- again with the best of intentions -- with sidebars on African-American and Jewish film. Although SLIFF obviously shouldn't exclude black and Jewish movies, instead of devoting poorly curated sidebars to the subjects, the fest would be better served by partnering with Nebula Communications (which mounts an annual Black Film Festival) and the JCC (which runs an ambitious Jewish Film Festival) to expand and improve their existing programs. It's possible that neither of those organizations wants SLIFF's help, but a sharing of resources and expertise would work to everyone's advantage -- the audience's, preeminently.

SLIFF would also benefit from a partnership that allows the fest to have a continuing year-round presence in the community. Working with the St. Louis Art Museum (which criminally neglects film art) or the Center of Contemporary Arts (which once hosted a fine film series curated by David Kinder), SLIFF could establish a small-scale cinematheque that runs programs throughout the year. The Toronto Film Festival's relationship with Cinematheque Ontario would serve as an excellent model. Although it's doubtful that St. Louis will ever support the kind of ambitious programming offered by Toronto, a more modest venture that features retrospectives of filmmakers, programs on film genres and movements, and occasional premieres of neglected work would both fill a significant void -- repertory cinema has almost entirely disappeared here -- and boost SLIFF's profile. Perhaps even more important, it would provide a venue to educate a new audience in noncommercial, so-called serious film. The fact that nine of 10 people are unaware of the festival's existence is to some degree irrelevant -- even if they know about the fest, they're still unlikely to attend. SLIFF's 12,000 attendance figure of the last few years probably represents the ceiling of the current St. Louis audience for art film. More aggressive marketing of the fest will accomplish nothing if a new audience of young people interested in quality cinema isn't nurtured and educated. A cinematheque that features as part of its programming material targeting that audience (Japanese anime, say, or Hong Kong actioners) would help ensure the festival's long-term survival.

All of this requires a real curatorial vision, not the sort of haphazard, little- of-this-and-little-of-that programming of the past. Fortunately, Clark's comments indicate that he recognizes the fest needs retooling, and his desire to downsize the number of programs and to make it possible to move easily from venue to venue by staying within the U. City/Forest Park axis would represent major first steps. I'm less concerned than Jones by Clark's inexperience: It may cause some serious difficulties initially, but he's by all reports an enthusiastic, intelligent man with an abiding love of film. If he applies himself, his on-the-job training should provide abundant opportunity for him to grow into a savvy programmer. The major question is whether the decision-by-committee approach SLIFF currently employs will allow him to do that. Although Clark should welcome the selection committee's recommendations, if the fest is to develop a truly distinctive personality, its programmer's perspective should ultimately prevail.

Long years after the fest's premiere, I remain a cautious optimist. But it's time for SLIFF to stop teasing us with coming attractions and start the feature presentation.

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