In the past two weeks I’ve watched about a dozen titles of this year’s EU lineup, all but one of them at home. Not that I’m complaining: I’ve seen some good stuff, and even the movies I didn’t like offered insights into parts of the world I don’t usually think about. But I can’t claim to be reporting on a film festival—rather, I’m reporting on the movies playing in it. That might be a fine point for some, but I’d argue there’s a substantial difference between discovering a movie with an audience and on one’s own, and that this difference is even greater when talking about festival films. Festivals are designed in such a way that audiences arrive with heightened expectations. This is due in part to the lack of press on many of the titles, which makes them seem more mysterious; but just as important is the sheer volume of screenings, which can make cinephiles feel like kids in candy stores.
With heightened expectations come stronger reactions. Audiences might exit a novel piece of filmmaking declaring it a masterpiece, while declaring an interesting failure (which may seem merely passable in other circumstances) an offensive waste of time. These heightened emotions present a challenge for any critic in the room: how to acknowledge the film’s impact on a crowd without being swayed by the response. As the hyperbolic reports that emerge from every festival indicate, this is a difficult challenge, though I prefer it to having no other opinions on which to test my own.Import/Export, which for me was one of the highlights of the EU Film Festival in 2008. Much of the sold-out auditorium was clearly disgusted by Seidl’s images of degradation, economic and otherwise, and after it ended the lobby was buzzing with offense. Like many of the reviewers who were hostile to the film, the anti-Seidl patrons focused on the director’s use of real geriatric ward patients (some of them clearly at death’s door) in scenes set in a nursing home. If nothing else, I found it encouraging to know that some images are still considered taboo in our supposedly desensitized era.
I spoke to one person that day who was neither offended nor exhilarated by Import/Export: a middle-aged social worker whom I occasionally ran into at the movies. Having worked with the mentally handicapped for years, she was used to looking at people unable to take care of themselves. What other viewers considered a transgression on Seidl’s part was, for her, a portrait of everyday reality. In fact, she appreciated that he presented these lives in such gruesome detail so that other people might get a sense of how hard they were.
I’ve yet to have a conversation like this about any of the movies I’ve watched for this year’s EU Festival. If I’m not too burned out on watching movies by the weekend, I look forward to sitting in on one of the bull sessions that takes place in the Siskel Center lobby.