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.