Sunday, May 21, 2017

The dangers of burnout

I saw a lovely documentary called Quest on Thursday night for closing night of HRAFF, the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, which I helped curate.

I should have seen it at the beginning of February, but, you know -- burnout.

I started watching this movie about an "ordinary" African-American family in North Philadelphia as one of my last movies to consider for this year's festival. It had debuted at Sundance, and our festival director had gone there to see it, as well as any other new films tackling the broad subject of human rights.

And even though I know she's fond of Sundance movies -- both for their increased marketability and to justify her long and expensive trip to Utah -- I turned it off after 20 minutes.

You know, burnout.

I will admit, even after the second viewing, that the first 20 minutes of Jonathan Olshefski's film do not give it its absolute best showcase. He follows the Rainey family, two of whom are pictured above (the film has no proper poster at this point), for a nearly ten-year period, the first few years without any idea what he was going to do with the material. That shows in the kind of rambling nature of the oldest footage we see. "Why are we watching this particular family?" I wondered at the time.

But when certain events in their lives really kick in, boy does this movie get going. And then there's the natural affection you start to feel for them just by spending time with them, which can only occur gradually over the course of a film's running time, increasing power and profundity the longer it goes.

I shut it off for two reasons:

1) Too much American content. Every time we choose movies for HRAFF, we seem to become acutely conscious, almost immediately, about how much good material we have from the U.S. As this is an international festival, and as Australia naturally has a bit of a "little brother" syndrome related to the U.S., we really try not to hit the American material too hard. Last year, that resulted in one of my favorite films we were considering being left off the program.

2) Too little, too late. When it's the end of the reviewing period, and the lineup is basically set, a film really needs to knock your socks off, or else you might as well just shut it off.

Quest didn't knock my socks off in those first 20 minutes, either time I saw it. But to have disqualified it so quickly discounts the possibility of a movie growing in power as it goes along. The conventional wisdom when reading a script is that if it hasn't grabbed you in the first 20 pages -- maybe even 15, maybe even 10 -- then it's never going to get any better. Movies must be front-loaded in order to get made. But that doesn't mean that a back-loaded movie can't be exquisitely satisfying, and Quest is one such movie.

I'm writing about this today primarily as a kind of apologia to Quest, which would have sat out in the cold if my advice had been followed. Advice that was based on an assumption formed after only 20 minutes, when any movie really deserves to have its whole running time considered.

But I'm also writing about it to suggest the practical limitations of any intense period of considering films for a festival. And HRAFF is, I have to imagine, one of the more intense out there, especially for a comparatively small festival (only about 30 features). Eight of us watch five dozen films over a period of five months from August to January, as many as five to six per week. If each contender were only being watched by one of us, we'd get through the lot more quickly, but it's an issue of fairness that demands each be watched by at least two people. That way, a programmer feeling a bit cranky that day can't single-handedly sink the fortunes of any particular film.

Or, a programmer suffering from burnout.

But we all suffered from burnout at one point or another during those five months, and I don't know that there's any way to avoid it short of considering fewer contenders overall. When I first started with HRAFF, I wondered how many human rights films could be made in any given year. The answer, as it turns out, is: a lot. And you won't really know if they're right for the festival until you watch them.

So now I'm questioning whether that's something I'll be doing again next year.

Two years should be sufficient to show myself as a seasoned festival programmer on my resume, should that kind of thing be necessary to any future career goals I have. But that kind of practical resume polishing wasn't the only reason I returned to HRAFF for a second year. Seeing the fruits of my labors in last year's festival, which included my three written pieces in the handsome festival program, and reveling in gala opening and closing nights that featured copious amounts of wine, I really felt the reward of all those months of grind. It was something I wanted to do again.

I suppose everything that is rewarding about HRAFF was rewarding again in 2017, if maybe to a slightly lesser degree. I was still proud of the blurbs I wrote about the films in the program. I still had my baby that I felt I had personally shepherded into the festival, Tanna this year on the heels of The Armor of Light last year. And opening and closing nights still consisted of copious amounts of wine.

But everything that is challenging about HRAFF was even more challenging this year -- and more challenging to a greater degree than it was more rewarding (particularly since it was slightly less rewarding). I think the burnout was a bit harder this year, and I think I have suffered even more of a setback in my overall desire to watch documentaries. That's not something I want. Sooner or later I will be far enough removed from watching 50 documentaries in five months that I will eagerly pop them into my DVD player again (or the digital equivalent thereof). But that day still seems pretty far in the future.

I guess there is a third reason I'm writing this post today: to sing the praises of Quest. Sadly, I doubt a theatrical release is forthcoming, and the director, who spoke about it at closing night in an engaging Q&A session, talked about it being most likely to materialize on public television. And while I would not want to denigrate public television, especially as it comes under threat from Donald Trump, I'm realistic in my idea of how many eyeballs it reaches in that capacity -- even though it should theoretically be available to everybody. Here's hoping it does eventually appear on Netflix or something, which will confer it some of the prominence it deserves.

The fact that we're living in Trump's America -- even if we live halfway across the world -- is all the more reason for a film like Quest to be seen. It's a film that celebrates the everyday exceptionalism of one underprivileged African-American family trying to navigate uncertain times, though it's not even explicitly about race or politics. Families that expect to be further marginalized under Trump deserve this kind of loving spotlight that doesn't preach at you, only showcases their messy, inspirational humanity.

That fact that we're living in Trump's America also gives me real pause when considering whether to come back for a third HRAFF, which will be kicking off all too soon in scarcely two months. While a part of me is inclined to reclaim the hours devoted to watching human rights movies, 80 percent of which won't make the festival, another part -- a stronger part? -- feels even more committed to doing my part to contributing art to the human rights conversation.

Even if it means debilitating levels of burnout.

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