Boutique film festivals offer relief from the mainstream
Small festivals ensure art-house films are accessible to cinemagoers in the face of mainstream blockbusters, video on demand and digital downloads, writes Mathew Scott
Seven years as a programmer with the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) has taught Bede Cheng Tze-wang a thing or two about the sometimes harsh realities of the modern film world.
Up against the marketing might of the globe's largest studios, smaller films are often lost in the shadows, unable to find a distributor or a cinema owner willing to take the risk that out there - somewhere - is an audience who believe bigger isn't always better.
There's also the spectre of video on demand, DVDs and, more and more, downloads to compete with as film lovers turn away from what's offered in cinemas to watch art-house films in the comfort of their own homes.
"The space for art-house is getting smaller and smaller in Hong Kong, sadly," says Cheng. "Theatres are very expensive pieces of real estate and so their owners have to squeeze in as many screenings of the big, popular films as they can. France is an exception, because its art-house industry is supported by the government and cinema owners, but not many countries can say the same."
Cheng believes the key to competing with the mainstream is diversity, and that's just what lies in store for Hong Kong filmgoers in the coming months as a series of small-scale festivals look to expand the city's cinematic landscape.
The demise of Wan Chai's Imperial Cinema and Cine Art in 2004 and 2006, respectively - both victims of rising rents and the apparently irresistible lure of flash new multiplexes - left Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei as the lone venue in town with a predominant commitment to art-house films. But a string of small festivals has sprung up to partly fill the gap, in many cases supported by the likes of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, canny programmers with the city's major cinema chains and the HKIFF, which has in the past few years declared its desire to ensure art-house films are given an airing throughout the year.
The first Cine Italiano! - Italian Film Week (September 21-26) is an example of this: it's a joint production by the Italian Consulate, the HKIFF and the Broadway Circuit that will bring eight contemporary Italian titles to town. Included are the Andrea Segre-directed Shun Li and the Poet, which stars mainland auteur Jia Zhangke's partner and collaborator, Zhao Tao, and saw her named best actress at the 2012 David di Donatello Awards, the highest honour in Italian cinema.
"The Italian Consulate approached us due to our track record," Cheng says. "There have been many exciting films coming out of Italy in the past few years, but they usually don't get a lot of distribution here. They gave us a pool of films to choose from and we picked the newer and better ones.
"A lot of Italian films are made for the domestic market and they don't usually travel too much - not even to festivals - so this is a good opportunity to see some things that we have missed out on in Hong Kong. That's what film festivals are all about."
Derek Lui was thinking the same thing while he was sitting in a packed cinema in West Hollywood earlier this year enjoying a screening of David Gelb's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. As the UA Cinema Circuit's film programming manager, Lui helped bring the CineHub concept to town and was looking to extend its reach.
"Through CineHub we have been working with different distributors and collaborators to bring in niche films," he says. "We want to give breathing space to these kinds of film. The whole industry faces problems like competing with downloads but we think when it comes to art-house films, people look for the experience of seeing it on a big screen.
"The impact is different and that's what people want - the big-screen experience."
Jiro Dreams of Sushi - which has become a festival favourite and was screened at the HKIFF this year - set Lui thinking about the films Hongkongers might like to see but rarely got the chance. And the end result is the Culinary Film Festival (October 6-28), which will screen four films with foodie-friendly themes including El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which takes a look inside the most acclaimed kitchen in the world, now defunct.
"You have to find an audience for art-house films and look for productions that people in Hong Kong might like," says Lui. "The whole world knows about our fascination with food and the films we have chosen look at cooking as an art - we think this has great appeal here."
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival (November 10-18) is preparing for its 13th edition and will again show what can be achieved with a combination of clever programming and pure commitment. Howard Elias, who founded the festival, firmly believes there's an audience out there for small art-house films.
"I think Hong Kong audiences are becoming more receptive as more kids are returning to Hong Kong after studying overseas, where they are exposed to such films," says Elias. "I was recently invited to present an Israeli film to a group of cinephiles who meet once a week to watch foreign films. Most of the audience were young Hong Kong Chinese who, I would guess by their level of English, had studied overseas. They loved the film."
Elias may be running a smaller-scale festival, but its success has brought with it some pretty big ambitions - and an insight into why sometimes smaller can be better for an audience. "I would like to think that we're the most important film festival in Hong Kong, but we're not there … yet," he says.
"We certainly are the friendliest and the best organised, according to surveys we do every year. We also give our audience total access to our guests. I've been to other festivals both here and overseas where the guests are whisked in and whisked out. If you're not an A-lister, good luck getting any face time with any of these people."
That access adds an intimacy the larger festivals are unable to provide, says Elias. "Our guests are told to be completely available to our audience - for one-on-one discussions or even just a cup of coffee. They love it and our audience does too. I would like to think that we're raising the bar in Hong Kong on how a festival should be run."
Other festivals coming up over the next few months include Kino/12 (October 25-November 11), which will again showcase German cinema and has Berlin Silver Bear winner Andreas Dresen ( Grill Point) as its director in focus. The Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (October 26-November 11) is still finalising its line-up, as are the annual French Cinepanorama and the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (both November).
While the needs of the Hong Kong audience are the primary concern of these events, it is interesting to learn that those people who make the films get just as excited when they do come around.
Ivan Cotroneo, whose Kryptonite! is screening as part of the Italian programme this month, is one such example. "There's no bigger and sweeter dream for someone who tells stories than having an audience who connects with you," he says. "I'm on the other side of the world, but I'm deeply convinced that we, as human beings, are not islands. We respond to each other, and things that make us laugh, move or cry are the same all around the world. So I hope the screening of my movie will prove once again that we are all part of the same world, both physically and emotionally. And that's what these wonderful occasions are for."