Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A big thing I never told you about

You probably think that I fill you in on every minor detail of my life as a cinephile, between either writing about what I've seen or simply recording it in list format to the right of these words. But I've been keeping a major aspect of my cinematic life a secret from you for about eight months now. It's finally time to tell all.

Starting in September, I began watching as many as six movies per week as one of the programmers for the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), a Melbourne-based festival that also tours an abbreviated version of its schedule in other cities around Australia after its initial two-week Melbourne run. Here is the website if you are interested in taking a gander at the program or learning more about the organization. The viewings themselves ended in mid-February, and now opening night of the festival is tomorrow night.

I am probably not going to opening night, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Why was I keeping this a secret from you? Well, I'll tell you.

We weren't meant to tell anyone what we were watching for the festival, as it was supposed to be confidential. I guess that's to protect the people whose films were considered but ultimately rejected, or possibly something that has more of a legal basis than just being wary of hurt feelings. In any case, we were asked to keep our discussions of the films limited to weekly team meetings. (We'd also usually watch a film at these meetings.)

So I ran into a bit of a logistical problem. See, I'm nothing if not set in my ways, and my ways include always updating my Most Recently Seen For the First Time list on the right side of this page, without fail and without exception. I could continue to do that ... as long as I didn't tell you why I was watching these movies. Or so went my rationale.

Now that this list hasn't contained one of these movies for something like ten weeks, I figured it was finally safe to tell you about my experience. I hate holding out on you.

My wife saw that they were looking for volunteer programmers for HRAFF around the end of August, and encouraged me to apply. As a person who does not naturally gravitate to human rights films, I didn't consider myself a strong applicant for the role. But my wife persevered, pointing out that serving as a programmer for a film festival would look good on my resume if I were ever seeking paying work in this type of field. I could not argue with that logic.

After meeting with the festival coordinator and festival director, I got excited by the idea ... but was also wary. They told me up front that the role would include five additional films of "homework" per week, beyond the film we would watch once a week as a group. Given some of the commitments I already had on my schedule -- like, watching lots of movies for the film series on this blog and for my year-end list -- I doubted I'd be able to manage it. But they offered me a spot on the team, and again my wife said to just try it out -- I could always quit if it were too overwhelming.

Well, it was too overwhelming -- but the last thing I wanted to do was quit. I'm not a quitter, but more than that, I was loving being part of this team.

I was one of eight programmers, which included two other men and five women. We were divided into groups of two, and your partner and you would watch the same films each week and include comments in a spreadsheet that we would all jointly update. You'd give each film one of four ratings: Lock, High Consider, Low Consider or Pass. Then include a sentence or two (or in my case, six or seven) singing the praises or bemoaning the shortcomings of each film. That way, every film that we were considering -- either because it had been submitted to us for a fee, or because it had been cherry-picked from other festivals -- would be seen by at least two people. If the film were really good, the director and the coordinator might also watch it, as might the other six programmers. If the film were really bad, it would never be spoken of again.

What tends to happen is that you give any film you are not really sure of a High, "to keep it in contention." In other words, to let someone else be the bad guy who ultimately passes on it. A Low or a Pass is basically a death sentence for a film, though I did give one film a Pass that ultimately ended up making it into the program. (I won't tell you which.) A Lock is meant to be reserved for films where you want others to prioritize watching them as soon as possible because you feel that there's no doubt this should be part of the festival. So you are not meant to be careless with your Locks. The result of this scoring system is that sometimes people will give a film a High/Lock or a High/Low, to try to suggest a subtler gradation to their feelings about a film. But since we are asked not to do that and since I was one of only two people who actually obeyed those rules, I ended up giving out a lot of Highs and significantly less of the other three grades.

I loved going to our weekly meetings and hobnobbing with the others who had been chosen, all of whom were interesting people with whom I could have seen myself striking up friendships. It's great to have your opinion on a film valued, and to be assembling your perfect lineup for a festival that intends to effect social change and call out tyranny. So there were societal benefits to what I was doing, it stroked my ego, it was rewarding socially, and it was also just plain fun.

But that's not to say it was not hard, and did not get incredibly tedious.

Fortunately, many of these films were only just over an hour long, and running times over 90 minutes were extremely rare. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 90% of them were also documentaries. So it was easier to squeeze them in than if I had been watching that many narrative features per week. But that was still at least five hours, and probably more like seven, of additional film programming per week, when I was also trying to maintain my regular viewing schedule and doing a side gig for a little extra pay. It was physically and mentally taxing, and I sometimes felt like Sisyphus pushing that boulder each time we got our list of links to five new online screeners each Monday. I had been hoping that there would be enough films of sufficiently low quality that I could turn them off after 20 minutes, and we were indeed allowed to do this. But I ended up doing that less than ten times out of an eventual 80 films I watched for the festival. (Eighty was actual the number I watched all the way through -- with the other ten or fewer, it was a total of around 90 that were assigned.)

So yeah, now you know why I set a record for most new films watched in 2015. And you also have an explanation for this post, which must have seemed pretty random at the time.

The cumulative effect of watching so many films about asylum seekers, repressed Muslim women, gay Israelis, people seeking voting rights and women being denied abortions is that you get kind of burnt out on films about asylum seekers, repressed Muslim women, gay Israelis, people seeking voting rights and women being denied abortions. I'm exaggerating a bit here to suggest that the content was limited to these five topics, as it certainly wasn't, and even if I saw a number of films about these topics, that's not to say they did not approach them differently and interestingly in most cases. But I wrote in this post from a year ago about struggling to summon enthusiasm for documentaries in general, even before my experience with HRAFF, and an influx of 70 more of them into my 2015/early 2016 viewing schedule probably drove me even further away from them, in the end. Even if I ultimately loved some of the ones I saw ("my baby," The Armor of Light, nearly made my top ten of 2015 -- I'll be seeing it again next week, this time on the big screen).

So yeah, it was a struggle at times. A lot of films were watched late at night between bouts of sleeping on the couch. Some of them are total blurs. Others were watched in 15-minute segments over the course of two days. When you are watching so many movies, you just fit them in as you can. It's an imperfect system and maybe we only should have watched three a week, but I also feel pretty sure that this method allowed us to choose the best of the relevant material out there at the time.

And this experience also opened my eyes to just how many films are being made each year that we never see/hear about. How many good films. How many good films just about human rights. It's kind of astounding. I didn't include many of them on my year-end list because films needed to fit certain release criteria in order to be included. A lot of these were films that had not yet been released theatrically, or at least not in the U.S. or Australia. Some of them were disqualified as 2014 films, or in a rare case or two even 2013. If I'd let them all in, I would have had nearly 200 films to rank from 2015 and my list wouldn't have been that relatable to the casual reader. So I let in about ten that had a U.S. or Australian release in 2015.

During the year, we had three special programmer meetings where we watched no films and only discussed our ten favorite so far, in trying to draft a preliminary list. These were my favorite meetings as they involved the most interaction between programmers and the most sharing of warm fuzzies about films we loved, and occasionally, bonding over the weaknesses of films we didn't. When the last one came and went in late January, ending the formal portion of my programmer assignment, it was not without some melancholy. The experiences that drain us the most can also be the most rewarding.

We've had one event since then, the program launch at the beginning of April. Here we got to enjoy free drinks with other industry types as the director announced which films had made the final cut. As I also wrote three blurbs about the films for the program, I also got to hear my own words quoted back to me as he announced the films with a slide show behind him. It was a nice reward to months of hard work.

Unfortunately, I disqualified myself from one of the other HRAFF spoils I should have enjoyed.

As an additional thank you for all our hard work, we were allowed one free ticket to any ten of the 30 sessions, as well as tickets to opening and closing night. In a decision I now regret, I released my right to my opening night tickets, in part because of the subject matter burnout alluded to earlier. Because there were more films being considered than any of us could possibly see, it turns out that as many as half of the films selected for the festival are ones you haven't seen. I'm correcting that with a couple films over the next few weeks, but one I chose not to watch was Chasing Asylum, the opening night film. Yet one more film about asylum seekers was just too much for me to handle at that point, so I decided to be magnanimous and let someone else attend the sold-out opening night.

I didn't give it a second thought until my wife said yesterday, "Aren't you going to HRAFF opening night?"

When I told her I had relinquished my right to my tickets, the fact that I didn't want to see the movie sounded like a particularly weak reason. I mean, this was my opportunity to swan about and enjoy the fruits of my labors, in addition to probably the only time I'll get a chance to see all the programmers together again. I immediately emailed the ticket woman to see if there were any "secret tickets" stashed away somewhere. As of this writing, I have yet to receive her response.

But whatever happens with that, I'll try not to be too disappointed. Instead, I'll hope to run into some of my programming colleagues when I go see Flocking next Wednesday, Ernest & Celestine next Sunday (as a part of a kids program -- I'll take my son), The Armor of Light the following Monday (I'll be bringing my wife), and then GTFO on Tuesday. Closing night is The Bad Kids, a film I've already seen, but you know what? I've decided I am going to that, because that will be the really last time I'll get a chance to be part of this experience.

Will I give myself the chance to be part of it again next year? Three of this year's eight programmers were returning from last year, after all.

It's hard to say at this point. I am probably leaning towards "No." After all, there were times that I thought it might kill me. And the cumulative effect has, indeed, been to numb me to the legitimate human rights concerns these people have, to dull some of the righteous indignation I should feel about their plights.

But maybe all I need is a rest. Maybe in August I'll feel differently.

And if I don't, well, this was an experience I'll never forget.

Now, off to enjoy the easy part of the experience ... to just sit back and enjoy the finished product.

No comments: