The celebration will wait

By Matic Majcen.

  •   Everything was ready for a wonderful and glorious celebration. It was supposed to look something like this: first, Oliver Stone would come to Belgrade and upon his arrival, he would immediately start talking to the media and the festival audience, sharing some thoughts on the currently most hated man on the planet, Vladimir Putin, with whom he has forged a close friendship in the past. Then, a few days later, the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov would step on the stage of Kombank Hall. He too would undoubtedly want to add his own opinion to the debate on the war in Ukraine and would certainly oppose the American director in at least some of his views. All of these public events with Q&A's would, of course, be sold out while journalists, photographers and cameramen would flock the first rows to get the best shots of the famed cinéma auteurs. The national media would have enough material to fill the front pages for the entire week, striking quotes from famous guests almost overshadowing the much larger headlines about the ongoing war. In the end, all this was nothing but an unfulfilled wish. Although the organizers of the 50th edition of the Fest film festival ambitiously announced an impressive guest list as soon as at the end of last year (at the peak of the covid-19 epidemic), most guests had to cancel their participation. At a time when the epidemic was handing over the torch to the conflict in Ukraine as the new major topic of debate, no other outcome was possible. The cancellations were, of course, all the more painful because this was, after all, the fiftieth edition of the festival, which certainly don't come too often, and in the end, the organizers had to come to terms with the fact that it would be just a regular, maybe even less impressive edition of the festival.   The more purist part of the audience would of course say that because of this, the festival had the opportunity to go back to its essence, to the basic task of showing films on the big screen. But the fact remains that festivals such as Fest simply need renowned guests. Along with Sarajevo, the festival in Belgrade is the only one in the region which during the past decades managed to build the reputation of a cultural event of the highest level. But saying this, it also has to be said that the function of these guests goes well beyond mere display of power and influence. Famous names have an extremely important task of connecting something that is by definition a specialized cultural event with other sections of society at large. It is because of aspects such as these that the festival is able to attract audiences well beyond its cinephillic core, an audience that wouldn't normally be interested in cinema.   In the end, the organizers had to be very realistic about what to expect at this year's Fest. The driving force of the event were premieres of films from the region and national premieres of major award winners from previous A-list festivals. Another reason why the festival had to tone down their touch of entertainment was the simple fact that the festival took place in the days when the newsstands in front of the main venue were filled with almost apocalyptic headlines, telling us that we were “close to a nuclear catastrophe” and “from now on, nothing will be as it was”. As an organizer of a cultural event, you had to be realistic and admit that the thoughts of the majority of the population simply weren't focused on some European art films but on far more important issues. We could even go a step further and say that the festival was – along with us, journalists, who covered it – maybe even a sort of a disturbance in the current constellation of events. At least some people who are generally not interested in cinema were probably thinking, 'how can these journalists and artists watch these escapist movies during a time when the majority of the population is thinking about where to buy their potassium iodide pills?'. Our answer to this question would be that, the question is understandable, albeit very one-dimensional.     Film festivals and similar events play a much broader role in society as it may seem for afar. Cultural events introduce a link between the specialized and the general public, they are a magnet for media attention and thus attract sponsorships from large businesses, connecting the public and private sector. Festivals create jobs, promote cities and their countries, and give the audiences a chance to stop and reflect on the state of things around them. When a festival is organized in such complete and multifaceted way, it can be just as important as any economical foundations in a given society. In the example of Fest, the best evidence would be the range of businesses that support the festival from one edition to the next, among them multinational companies from very different parts of the conomy, including an oil company, a retail chain, a brewery, not to even mention a number of tabloids, daily newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. Fest has always presented a commendable example of how a cultural event can bring together diverse social interests, its status thus decisively exceeding particular ideological and sectoral interests.   Last but not least, there is also the symbolic aspect. Recall the famous scene from James Cameron's Titanic with the band who didn't stop playing despite the fact that the ship was already half-sunk in the ice-cold sea. Remember that scene and think about the silence that reigns that very moment when the members of the band actually do decide to put down their instruments. Up to that point, people still lived in an illusion that events aboard the ship (an always effective allegory of the society at large) had proceeded as planned. It is only when the music stops when you really start hearing the screams. Exactly this symbolic absence of culture makes the existence on the ship unbearable, and hopeless.   To put it briefly: the celebration will wait. It doesn't really matter if it will happen next year or the year after that. If the world manages to overcome this crisis, each subsequent edition will in itself be a cause for celebration. In moments of normality, anniversaries are occasions when we raise our glasses and look into the past with happiness and nostalgia. From now on, we will be conscious of the fact that every year is a reason for celebrations as long as we get to spend it in peace and carefreeness. Right now, the most important thing is that the film projectors keep rolling.