A Manifesto by Caveh Zahedi
The Sundance Film Festival sucks. The TriBeCa Film Festival sucks. SXSW sucks. Cannes sucks. Berlin sucks. Toronto sucks. And the New York Film Festival especially sucks.
It’s not that the films they play suck. Many of the films are fantastic. But the institutions suck. All of them are beholden to their corporate overlords in the same way that politicians are beholden to their wealthiest campaign contributors.
In 1949, the great French film critic André Bazin organized a Festival of Condemned Films at Biarritz. It was made in opposition to the safe and status-conscious programming of the Cannes Film Festival, which only ever programs a narrow bandwidth of world cinema that can fit comfortably into its recuperative tent. That festival only lasted a short while, but its spirit lived on in small underground film festivals the world over.
Today, the market pressures of homogenization, conformity, virtue signaling, and cancel culture are stronger than ever and have effectively put a stranglehold on free expression. Artists have not been this scared to say what they think and feel since the McCarthy era. Unlike totalitarian countries where censorship comes from the top down, American censorship comes from within. The powers that be have coopted even social justice movements to make them unwitting pawns in the self-censorship movement that, in the name of political correctness, effectively reduces all nuance and authentic dialogue to prefab opinions that are regurgitated ad nauseum in the name of “ethics.”
That so many otherwise intelligent people have fallen victim to this Orwellian brainwashing should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the cultural wars that have eroded not only civility but even the very notion of what it means to be a human being, a once complex notion that has been replaced by a reductive and entirely fictional construct that no one can live up to and that requires massive dishonesty on a daily basis.
We live in an advertocracy whose sole function is to further enrich the already filthy rich. The fact that the top 1% can’t spend their money fast enough makes no difference to capitalism’s demand for more—always more. The art of cinema fell prey to market capitalism a long time ago, but festivals used to stand for something. They used to stand for challenging works that disturbed and enraged and forced one to grapple with one’s values and ideas. Pasolini, today, would have been cancelled, and Salò, a cinematic milestone, would have been pulled from every major film festival as soon as enough people on social media who had not even seen it retweeted that it was misogynistic or homophobic or transphobic or racist or all of the above.
The big festivals have no guts and no balls. If they ever did, they long ago exchanged them for a hefty paycheck and celebrity access. Which leaves only the marginalized and the dispossessed to show work that is authentically provocative, daring, and problematic. We still need challenging art to inspire us and to show us both the heights and depths to which humans can rise or sink. But the big festivals only show what’s safe, what’s already known, and what comforts rather than disturbs.