Calling CPH PIX: The Idea of the Festival of Festivals

Posted by Robert Koehler on 7.23.2012

What’s popularly known about festivals flows from the awards doled out by the major, media-magnetic festivals. Cannes, Venice and Berlin, in particular, dominate the awards game, a fact of festival life that hasn’t changed in the past 40 years, at least. It’s why most festivals depend—beyond red carpets—on competition sections to generate media attention. Whether these competitions end up defining a particular festival is pretty much up to that festival and its aesthetic North Star. A great deal of Cannes' power to continue to drive the conversation on the state of international cinema certainly derives from the Palme d’Or competition and its irresistible attraction to critics, reporters, bloggers and tweeters worldwide.

But another organizing principle for the film festival tends to be overlooked and undervalued, despite the fact that it has played a central role for more than 50 years. The "festival of festivals" model follows the tradition of the exposition: A non-competitive display of the most vital films from the festival circuit. Like most ideas, this one developed over time and manifested in various incarnations, and has never been entirely pure.

The CPH PIX festival, held during the height of spring in Copenhagen, alongside its fall sister festival focused on non-fiction cinema, CPH DOX, has a program that’s roughly 90% festival of festivals and 10% competition, with a smattering of world (almost entirely Danish) premieres. Though only four years old, it already stands as one of the most interesting and useful examples of this hybrid type of festival weighted toward a non-competition global survey.

It also flows from an interesting history. Part of what made the creation of the New York Film Festival so compelling 50 years ago was precisely founders Richard Roud and Amos Vogel's adoption of the festival of festivals model. Roud and Vogel lived in a much smaller film festival universe than our own, and in an era when the Cannes-Venice-Berlin tripartite was even more dominant than it is now. It was thus an act of considerable nerve and confidence to determine that what New York needed was not a Cannes for America; one could argue that the Chicago and San Francisco festivals, notable for their competitions, were playing that role. Rather, the idea was a curated selection from the current festival universe, and no weighting toward world premieres, a huge temptation for festivals everywhere.


Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (NYFF '63). Photo courtesy of the Kobal Colleciton.

A glance at New York’s 1963 lineup illustrates the point. The following were selected by Roud and Vogel from Cannes '62 and '63: Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (as opening night), Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc, Ermanno Olmi's The Fiances, Kobayashi Masaki's Harakiri, Takis Mouzenidis’ Elektra, Tamas Fejer's Love in the Suburbs and Takis Kanellopoulos' Glory Sky. Their Venice picks included Polanski's Knife in the Water and Losey's The Servant, while they selected Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's The Terrace from Berlin ’63.

Further driving the point home, nearly half of the 26 films in New York’s 1964 main selection came from one of the Big Three festivals. The Cannes imports included Bertolucci's Before the Revolution and Alain Jessua's Life Upside Down. A Venice threesome included Tinto Brass' Ca Ira, Francesco Rosi's Hands Over the City and Losey's King and Country. Berlin served up the most with Satyajit Ray's The Great City, Rosi (again!) with Salvatore Giuliano, Susumu Hani's She and He and, in a slight retrospective move, Godard's 1962 A Woman is a Woman. Topping it all off was the opening night selection from the Moscow film festival—a strikingly brave gambit for an American festival to select a Soviet film at the height of the Cold War—Grigori Kozintzev's Hamlet.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s success with this model for its fall festival was secure enough that it has never swayed from it, quite disinterested in the syndrome that might be called "world premiereitis." This is in striking contrast to most prominent American festivals which emerged in the decades since; the indie-dominant Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals function heavily on the principle of world premieres, and their combined success has clearly exerted both a pressure and presented an alternatively successful model for smaller festivals to follow. With nearly every U.S. festival for which I’ve worked on the programming side or been intimately involved with, the debate over direction—world premieres, or no?—is often on the table for consideration.


Reproducing Larry Rivers' poster for the 1st New York Film Festival in 1963. Photo by Bob Serating.

Part of the underappreciated legacy of the New York Film Festival is its direct influence on festivals created within a decade after it was founded. The most profound example I know of is a great, influential and sadly deceased festival, Filmex, whose full name says it all: The Los Angeles International Film Exposition. Founded in 1971 by Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams, Filmex was instrumental in opening up the floodgates of world cinema to the so-called "film capital of the world" by exhibiting a curated selection of what was deemed (primarily by Essert) the international movies that mattered. Forbidding any competition, the two and then three-week event blended some showbiz pizzazz (a parade of elephants trotted down Hollywood Blvd. on the first year’s opening night at the Grauman's Chinese) with a sophisticated, attuned and challenging programming sensibility. Filmex, for example, remains for me the only place where I’ve ever been able to watch a considerable part of the oeuvre of the great Iranian director Sohrab Shahid Saless (Still Life, A Simple Event, Utopia), one of the great post-war filmmakers without whom a Kiarostami or a Panahi would be impossible and yet whose work is now practically impossible to see.

Filmex, to be sure, has unjustly receded into obscurity along with Saless, but it stands at a historical crossroads in terms of the exposition festival. That’s because, just as Essert and Abrahams schooled themselves on the New York example, they also provided a festival of festivals format for others to follow.

Of all its American counterparts, the New York Film Festival found the loudest echoes of its programming ethos in Filmex and the San Francisco festivals (events which, not coincidentally, developed a close partnership during a brief stretch, sharing films and even poster art). The Telluride festival developed a hybrid of a premiere and exposition event, along with the special sauce of attention-grabbing archival screenings, all of which has been refined across recent decades. But the festival that most aggressively and successfully took the model and ran with it instituted its name: The Toronto Film Festival of Festivals. This was almost in spite of founders Bill Marshall's and Dusty Cohl's true intentions, which were to promote Toronto and Ontario as a place for producers like themselves to make movies and do business, as well as put on a show that would attract international stars, celebrities and media. They nevertheless closely studied what Essert and Abrahams had wrought in Los Angeles; Essert, after all, had his own dazzling sensibility for luring stars and media attention.

The key difference is that while Essert was both an impresario and a cinephile, the Marshall-Cohl team were producers who delegated the creative side of this festival of festivals to a programming team that relished the concept, not only the notion of cherry-picking the best from the festival circuit but also taking a hard-charging, ultra-international approach, which proved highly conducive in Toronto.


Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds (NDNF '11)

If New York hadn’t already, Toronto proved that the festival of festivals model could be hugely successful, particularly in its ongoing process of developing a cinema audience. So too CPH PIX, organized by festival director Jacob Neiiendam, which has steadily drawn excellent crowds (who, based on my unscientific sampling of audience members, are also regulars for CPH DOX, suggesting that both festivals are mutually developing audiences) and blends a small competition section with a vast festival of festivals selection. Notably, none of the ten films in the "New Talent Grand Pix" competition, including (among others) Helena Klotz' Atomic Age, Wim Vandkeybus' Monkey Sandwich, Kleber Mendonca Filho's Neighboring Sounds, Nadav Lapid's Policeman and Jan Speckenbach's Reported Missing were world premieres. Collectively, they have also appeared in a large range of festivals from Angers, Berlin, BAFICI, Chicago and Jerusalem to Locarno, London, Rotterdam, Sundance, Toronto, Vancouver and Venice.

More extensive is the festival representation across CPH PIX' other sections, with titles such as "Front Runners," "Maestros," "The French Art of Pleasure," "American Indies" and "PIX Specials." By my count, a full 20 festivals, including the semi-festival phenomenon Comic-Con, were represented in the lineup. This had several salutary effects, which festivalgoers I talked to acutely appreciated. One is the chance to get a nice sampling of wares from the big festivals, such as, say, Venice (and some of which will be familiar to regulars at Film Society festivals during the past several months): ALPS, Almayer’s Folly, Killer Joe, Faust, Wuthering Heights, Himizu, Café de Flore, Land of Oblivion, The Invader, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. In Copenhagen, I was able to catch up with Teresa Villaverde’s scalding film Swan (with Villaverde in person) about a touring musician and her curious relationship with a younger man, since I didn’t attend Venice and hadn’t been able to see it at any subsequent festival. And ditto for Abel Ferrara's 4:44.

Another great effect is that, due to its shrewd curation led by head programmer Thure Munkholm, the festival provides a sampling that isn't just a random collection but a genuinely quality selection from the festival circuit, one that provides both the casual Copenhagen moviegoer and rigorous cinephile with a genuine overview of the year’s essential cinema—which isn’t to say that this is merely the year's most awarded movies. Works such as Miguel Gomes' Tabu, which didn't win Berlin's Golden Bear, and Neighboring Sounds, which didn't win one of Rotterdam’s three Tiger awards, belong in any self-respecting festival of festivals' program because they both set high watermarks in new filmmaking and have, following their premieres, amply demonstrated their importance on the world scene. In upcoming blogs, I will explore that this is not always practiced at some festivals—that they need to do better. But for CPH PIX, even four years young, the sense is that if it matters on the global festival circuit, Munkholm and his team know about it.

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