When Strangers Meet

Curator's Note

I have uploaded an excerpt from an NHK documentary on the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. It describes the festival’s beloved Komian Club. This is an old pickle factory they convert into a meeting place during every festival. Run by local citizens, who cook up big pots of local delicacies, anyone can enter. A 500 yen coin gets you a meal, a drink, and endless conversation.

These conversations, these meetings, are as essential to film festival culture as any film screening. It reminds me of the old slogan of the Hawai’i International Film Festival: “When Strangers Meet.” I think it’s significant that they chose the word “when” and not “where,” emphasizing the temporality of film festivals rather than their locality and implies the question, "...what happens?" You see, festivals are sites where people briefly entangle their lives, traveling from down the street or half way around the world. They gather and disperse, gather and disperse. And when strangers meet, amazing things can happen. Friendships are renewed and sometimes broken. The most intense kinds of discussion about film are found there. Indeed, film culture—particularly its international dimensions—would be quite different if strangers had no occasion to meet.

These scenes can also feel treacherous, as not all conversation is mere chit-chat. The film festival meeting spaces are raked by power. Thanks to the film festival’s role in producing cultural capital, a film’s profit and durability are often decided by the discussions in places like Komian Club. Deals are made. Some careers are propelled forward, while others stutter. This goes for the critics and programmers as well. After all, it’s a remarkably small community that circulates through the film festival circuit.

Allow me to end with an example. Hawai’i was actually my first international film festival experience. In the late 1980s I was their intern, aspiring to be a scholar of Japanese cinema. Donald Richie was a regular guest and naturally I was anxious to meet him. At the opening night party, standing next to Jack Lord’s swimming pool, we strangers met. I introduced myself. He nodded and immediately walked away to meet old friends. We laugh about this today. Or at least we try to.



Hi Markus,

indeed it seems that what Janet Harbord has called the 'liveness' of a film festival is one of the most important characteristics; a young woman in Spain recently said that she believes that the focus of those studying festivals should be on 'the party', evidently meaning the same thing. lIveness/party, or the festival as a meeting place for strangers, as you have it here -- an all important feature of the festival, I agree.


Hi Markus,

Thanks for the post. It brings back fond memories of all those years in the 1990s of the HKIFF when I spent days and nights (literally) dashing around on Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side just to see films. Amidsts these crazy dashing around and queuing-up for films, I always ran into the same group of people on the road (even in public transport services) and we just chatted (note: quite unususal among Hong Kongers who don't know each other). Some later became my friends and continued the festival friendship over the years. Indeed they were amazing moments.





Hi Markus - Nice post, and by the way, I believe I owe you something like 2000 yen (from Ginza Lion, though, not from Komian) - I had some nice times at Komian Club and hope to go back there this year. By coincidence before reading this I just happened to register at a site called Festival Scope, whose motto is "festivals on demand for film professionals worldwide." It's a site that film festivals use to stream films they are screening; Rotterdam will put the entire Tiger Competition there, for example. It's very convenient and it seems to reduce the need to go to a festival. If films are available online, and also given that, generally, the same films can be seen at many different festivals - what distinguishes festivals and why would people still want to go to them? One answer is the tradition of the festival get-together place, such as Komian.

Yamagata is a festival where "film people" and local people (other than sponsors or politicians) mingle to an unusual extent, and this can happen quite easily at Komian, but is unlikely to happen at any of the Tokyo festivals (or at festivals in big cities in general, I believe). This is one benefit of having festivals in smaller cities.

In a conference I attended in Montreal a few years back, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the city's gay and lesbian film festival, I asked what I hoped was a provocative -- and what I quickly learned was an unpopular -- question. With so many alternative modes of distribution and exhibition available for film and video, what precisely is a film festival for these days? It's certainly no longer the only venue in which to see these films, nor does it represent the only space for community to develop around these media texts. My question was rhetorical, of course, as the answer to this question lies in not only the liveness of the event, but of the visibility of the event itself -- in its ability to demonstrate, in a brief, fleeting moment, the impact of these films, public engagement with them, and their marketing potential. Indeed, the ephemeral nature of the film festival serves to magnify engagement with films. The importance of thinking through the liveness of the festival event means more than just thinking about what happens in the festival space, but also how that is leveraged beyond the festival and furthermore, what it might mean as distribution and exhibition changes the significance of the festival in the festival circuit altogether. Markus, your point that these are small communities is a really smart one and another crucial element in understanding how these events shift in the wake of global changes, even if the players are often the same.

I like the choice of clip, and your commentary. This creation of a community is undoubtedly one of the most notable and important characteristics of the contemporary festival experience. Now that films are increasingly enjoyed in the private sphere – on TV, DVD or the internet – or in alienating multiplexes, the festival circuit constitutes one of the key ways of forming the cinéphile community (much as the conference circuit does for us academics). It also shows that the film (and film festival) experience is about much more than just sitting in a darkened room watching shadows on a screen.

Curious that all the posts focus on the warm and fuzzy community building going on at the festivals. I'm waiting to see a response to the last sentence!

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