As a regular attendee of film festivals in Toronto and formerly in the Middle East, I’m used to the sight of fellow critics lined up for one screening after another, then rushing to press rooms to file their pieces in as quickly as possible before yet another film summons them. The festival experience is often exhilarating, but also taxing at times, which can take a toll on the reviews that are produced under rushed deadlines and limiting guidelines.
There are several reasons why festival reviews—in general, but also specifically in relation to Sundance—are problematic, and chief among them is the issue of time. Better critics than I have the ability to focus and refocus multiple times a day, several days a week, and publish valuable, insightful pieces with consistency. One can argue there is even unique merit in passionately written, instant responses. But film criticism, by definition, demands critical analysis, which can take hours, days or multiple screenings to be fully formed. It isn’t just that film festivals do not foster an environment for thorough critical analysis, but more than that, the unfortunate circumstance is that they sometimes end up demanding the opposite. It isn’t simply enough to review films quickly; reviews need to come first and be authoritative.
In a setting like Sundance, where the vast majority of films are world premieres, the press’s reaction to every film is generally the first word on the matter. It is perceived by festival-goers, correctly or otherwise, as an opportunity to build, or at least guide, opinion rather than conform to it. If you wax lyrical about a future critical darling, you get to win the bragging rights. If you praise the opposite kind of film, all contradictory opinions will be considered the backlash to the status quo that you established. The first opinion need not be the most valuable, but in the rapid-fire atmosphere of modern media, it is often portrayed to be.
This environment, unfortunately, cultivates a type of criticism that begs to be definitive in tone. The films don’t have to be discussed so much as declared something, and that something is almost invariably black or white. Short Term 12 isn’t just a confidently structured, finely acted film; it’s the film that fundamentally changes the entire system of American independent cinema. Austenland isn’t simply a flawed film; it’s the worst thing that’s happened to humanity since WWII. Opinions are rarely tempered and the qualities of the films in question, positive or negative, are often blown out of proportion.
This unfortunate side effect of festivals has been exacerbated in recent years with the increasing popularity of Twitter among cinephiles and the growing cluster of online publications. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to 140-character, hashtag-infested Insta-insights that offer little more than an arbitrarily assigned grade, but this is, generally speaking, the bane of constructive film discourse. Though the higher number of platforms gives a chance to fresh, exciting voices to express themselves, they also have a flip side: as the number of opinions grow in quantity and shrink in size, the need to break through the clutter becomes pressing. Hyperbole is an easy route to overcome this issue.
Bear in mind that the festival experience welcomed exaggerated opinions long before social media could broadcast them instantaneously. Overstatement is the nature of festival talk. The setting is akin to an echo chamber; and little conversations in the ticket lines, at short coffee breaks between screenings or at after parties always created a chain effect that tends to amplify the response to a film. Such a festival structure does a real disservice to the films, too. Overblown negative reactions to a movie can prevent it from finding an audience among the general public, or worse yet, finding a distributor altogether. Overblown positive reactions, on the other hand, put a burden on the shoulders of filmmakers that they can hardly lift. No film can survive the inevitable repercussions of facing the public with a “Best. Thing. Ever.” tag. The weight of expectation means the audience isn’t merely reacting to what’s on the screen in front of them, but also to the handful of statues it carries in its bag.
All this is not to say that you should avoid reading festival reviews, or even that they can all be generalized as lesser than other forms of criticism. In fact, this isn’t exactly a question of quality. But the point is that, the burden is as much on the reader to perceive these reviews correctly as it is on the writer to steer clear of festival pitfalls. An immediate dismissal of a film or anticipating another as a masterpiece, months before their release, because a collective of critics—many of whom are unavoidably unfamiliar voices to each of us— reacted to those films a certain way at a festival screening is far from desirable. This is just a reminder to take each opinion with a rather large grain of salt. Few films deserve to have their negatives burnt and fewer still are the cure to cancer. Don’t let the hyperbole overcome you! Read and enjoy, but remember that in a few months, everyone will have the chance to see the same films for themselves, and invaluable discourse will continue long after the festival dust settles.