PAGE 04: Film Festivals in the Times of Algorithms

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FILM FESTIVALS IN THE TIMES OF ALGORITHMS

By Suyash Kamat

Where do our journeys of discovering films begin? To me, it was my first cinema outing with my family; wide-eyed, bewildered, fascinated seeing larger than life figures come alive. Later, it was the magic of escaping into stories sitting at home watching films on television. There wasn’t any thought or manner. No intent. Not a matter of choice either, given the limited number of channels. Just the thrill of exploration and the curiosity of seeing something exciting. 

Then came DVD rentals. Gathering money amongst friends, sometimes stealing from fathers’ pockets, saving money from the grocery budget; each DVD was rented with great effort, so the sense of joy and achievement that accompanied was unparalleled. The choice this time meant more than just exploration.

Then came the internet, which unleashed a wide range of films easily available for download. This was the pre-streaming internet. Torrents were sacred. Hard drives full of films were passed around friends, mostly containing Hollywood films. The choice of downloading films came from what friends and peers talked about. And, for the less social ones, the unlimited pool of film forums on IMDB. Choice was still a matter of personal curiosity. 

There was a certain way I knew film viewing existed. Until I attended my first film festival. I had no idea about what film festivals were till I registered and laid my hands on the catalogue. It was as though another world had just appeared before me. Languages, countries, actors, directors I hadn’t even heard of were part of one space. And, the fact that you can watch any of it and do just that all day was extremely thrilling. I had no choice but to go back to that childhood instinct of surrendering to the experience and watch the films in that same manner. No intent, no choice, just the thrill of exploration. It profoundly influenced me in a way I can’t tangibly explain but had felt intimately.

In the journey of conventional film viewing, streaming services are the latest avenues to watch and discover cinema. While it has given a platform to many filmmakers with unique, bold cinematic visions, one must enquire about what kind of viewing culture is it giving rise to on the consumption end of affairs. More often than not, we find ourselves endlessly scrolling through what’s on offer. Algorithms, based on our previous viewing choices, tend to construct a virtual identity of its viewer and build a world of recommendations that tether to that virtual identity. Content now is worked out in terms of this virtual identity whose viewing habits are tracked in real-time to create tangible data about consumption. But can something as myriad as cinema viewing be put into a few boxes? Stories, after all, aren’t commodities. Ironically quoting from a film from Netflix, ‘This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory’. This business must be able to accommodate human imperfection and people’s curiosity for the new instead of reinforcing already set beliefs.

In this context, film festivals exist as an ideal alternative. Film festivals are full of festival novices and frequent festival-goers. Those who frequent them are mostly film enthusiasts who’ve over the years chartered the countless ways of scheduling curations to make the most out of what a festival has on offer. This includes contemporary films from established directors, some pleasant surprises from debutants, retrospectives of directors one might not have even heard of (guilty of discovering Billy Wilder this way), and films from obscure countries & cultures whose emotion you can immediately resonate with. There is no algorithm guiding what you ought to be seeing. Instead, these are built around provoking thoughts and emotions in viewers who might’ve never signed up for these experiences otherwise. Algorithms tend to build on personalities, film festivals offer experiences that tend to affect personalities. And, that is rare in an increasingly conformist world. So for those who are novices at festivals, there is a fertile environment for discovery and, in turn, self-discovery.

With the pandemic forcing film festivals to move online in 2020, I was devastated knowing that the sense of serendipity that exists in the physical space will be lost. But, with many festivals now slowly moving back to the physical world, one can only hope that this microcosm of curiosity survives all odds and exists as a perfect film viewing alternative that is built on accommodating all our ways of having viewed films, first as fascinated children, then as excited teenagers, then as curious young adults, and ultimately, as conscious audiences. 

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