Film Festivals and the Neo-liberal City

neoliberal city

This essay will show how the history of film festivals is tied to the historical process (ongoing) of the neo-liberalisation of cities. If we take seriously the prospect of film festivals as nodes of anti-capitalist resistance and facilitators of what Habermas calls communicative action, we need to understand the extent to which they are currently bound up with, participating in, and even used by dominant systems such as the economic and political. It is important to understand how, historically, they have been wielded in a geo-political struggle for hegemony, and how their functioning within the city adds to the malaise of governing phenomena perpetuating the ‘society of the spectacle’. Looking at festivals in this context gives us an insight into the broader functions of capital, specifically “how local cultural developments and traditions become absorbed within the calculi of political economy” (Harvey 2013: 100), a good question to ask when faced with the extreme and ongoing bureaucratization of public goods such as health and education, not to mention the injection of widely unchallenged parlance regarding the creative and knowledge ‘economies’ into the cultural sphere. Film festivals, then, have always been on the frontline in the battle for territorial as well as ideological space. The problem (or solution) is that we are only now realising their potential for anti-capitalist agitation, right when a large number are springing up all over the world under the sanitised and largely unconsidered auspices of ‘human rights’ and ‘activist’ film festivals, which, far from positing fundamental change as a possibility, are primarily spaces of ‘niche market’ accumulation which I suspect Solanas and Getino (1969) would identify as part of the left-wing arm of capitalism.


This essay can be broadly divided into three sections. Firstly, I look at one of the relations that defines the role of film festivals: namely their subservience to the practice of city marketing. This leads into an analysis of the history of film festivals as entwined with the historical conflict between capital and dissent, the primary focus being on the relation between the festival circuit and avant-garde film movements. Looking at the former as microcosmic representations of broader political and cultural fluctuations, the final section highlights the ongoing proliferation and marketisation of film festivals, drawing some conclusions as to how those interested in film and politics might make positive interventions against capitalist ‘development’.


Film festivals have always played a role in broadcasting positive representations of the cities in which they take place. This is part of a wider practice called city marketing, which “was recognised as an essential activity for cities that wanted to compete in the global arena. The construction of a positive image became one of the key elements in promotional strategies for attracting inward investment and tourism” (de Valck 2007: 75). This, in part, is how cities become synonymous with industries such as global finance (the City of London or Hong Kong, for example) while others might have lesser global prevalence as cities of culture (Berlin or Liverpool, for example). City marketing works to create and expound a unified identity of the city, normally by playing up one part or aspect to the exclusion of the rest. It carries out two functions that are essential to the survival of capital. Firstly, it partially resolves what Harvey (2011) has identified as the ‘capital surplus absorption problem’, which is that capitalists, in order to remain capitalists, must re-invest their surplus profit into new ventures. If, instead, they simply sit on their surplus until it runs out, then their competitors will have gotten the better of them by continuing to garner surpluses through re-investment. Put simply, if you want to stay in the rat race you have to keep moving your money into new areas, seeking further profits. This is one reason why capitalists are falling over themselves to invest in areas like education and healthcare, formerly public goods outside of the profit-making incentive. City marketing is basically a way of advertising surplus re-investment opportunities. Secondly, the opportunity for investment also means the opportunity to garner monopoly rents, that is, the possession of something so unique that the owner can charge an extortionate price for its use. Harvey (2013) uses the example of the wine trade to show how certain industries insist on the authenticity and originality of their product, allowing them to “preserve monopoly rents by insisting upon the unique virtues of land, climate and tradition…and the distinctiveness of its product certified by a name” (Harvey 2013: 97) (you cannot drink champagne, so the theory goes, that hasn’t been exported from the French city of Champagne). City marketing plays up the uniqueness of cities. The question however, is which uniqueness becomes celebrated and which is subsumed by the unified identity.


A poster for the 1932 Venice Film Festival

A poster for the 1932 Venice Film Festival


“The “branding” of cities becomes big business. Given the general loss of other monopoly powers through easier transport and communications and the reduction of other barriers to trade, this struggle for a collective symbolic capital has become even more important as a basis for monopoly rents” (Harvey 2013: 104).


Film festivals have played a number of specific roles within the parameters of city marketing over the years. The Venice Film Festival was established in 1932 in order to extend the tourist season. In the 1980’s the decision to re-locate the Berlin Film Festival to the Potsdamer Platz (supposedly the symbol of Germany’s reunification) came after city marketing had failed to capture the prolonged corporate interest that could turn it into a centre of business and finance. Instead


“It was decided that the Potsdamer Platz would become the audio-visual entertainment heart of Berlin. Cinema multiplexes and a modern establishment for the film museum were erected on the grounds. The relocation of the Berlinale [the Berlin Film Festival] there guaranteed the requisite international attention and prestige” (de Valck 2007: 77).


We can see, then, how the subsumption of marginal (or even just ‘undesirable’) identities for the sake of constructing an image of the city as unified (what others might call branded) is essential to probing the relationship between film festivals and city marketing. We gain some idea of how certain cultural practices are used in tandem with capital in order to decimate others. This becomes even more clear when we look at the social and political contexts in which film festival history is situated. De Valck’s phases of film festival history can be summarised thus: First, the founding of film festivals in Europe just before the second world war resulted from a mixture of interests. The emerging spirits of the European avant-garde that had fostered cine-clubs and film societies in the first decades of the 20th century briefly crossed over with the desire for nations to exert geo-political influence. Following the ‘failure’ of the avant-garde film festivals became heavily commercialised, with programs favouring Hollywood films and a few domestic features. Avant-garde films did retain some presence in festival programming, but as ‘specialised’ or ‘thematic’ events. After World War 2 New York replaced Paris as the home of the avant-garde, and increasing political tensions in the early sixties were reflected in the desire for a politically charged cinema and a new kind of film festival. When worldwide revolutionary movements forced dominant powers into making some concessions, this too was reflected in the changing structure of film festivals on a global scale. While those in the mainstream were forced to acknowledge, bringing dissenting and/or independent productions into their fold to a minor extent, the establishment of the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy in 1965, as well as the 1969 Pan-African Film and Television Festival signaled the creation of platforms that were openly and primarily devoted to combatting forms of cultural and political subjugation. Although the neo-liberal backlash of the 1970’s and 80’s leads to a renewed focus on city marketing, this, as de Valck notes, had been a motive since the establishment of the Venice Film Festival in 1932. [The video below shows scenes from the Cannes Film Festival of 1949, as filmed by British Pathe].


The history of film festivals is closely entwined with the historical relationship between capital and dissent, although de Valck tends to ignore this relation, and doesn’t attempt any kind of class-based analysis. On the question of why the European avant-garde dwindled in the face of a flourishing film festival circuit, he offers the simple answer that the former was incapable of surviving the crisis wrought by cinemas transition to sound and the technological, not to mention linguistic, barriers now in place. Film festivals, on the other hand, weathered this crisis “by inviting nations to participate in an international showcase” where different languages were an “unproblematic given” (de Valck 2007: 24). Yet a more fundamental question is overlooked: By what means were film festivals capable of enacting this? One of the primary factors (if not the determining one) is that film festivals are far more capable of attracting investment then those practicing artisanal modes of avant-garde filmmaking. You can imagine the differences in economic (and, by proxy, technological) capabilities, not to mention free time, between a gang of mostly broke surrealists, and an emerging film industry with a mandate to solidify nationalistic sentiment in the lead up to war. From their beginnings film festivals have been sites of contradiction, keeping “one foot planted in the model of avant-garde artisanship, while the other steps forward to the beat of market forces within the economy” (de Valck 2007: 25). Clearly there is a tension here. If, as de Valck notes, the avant-garde’s non-commercial screenings “were organised in order to nurture an intellectual vanguard and more or less directly interfere in the film industry business by promoting alternative products and places of exhibition” (de Valck 2007: 25-26) then this suggests that the historical function of film festivals has been to both establish and broadcast a unified, business friendly image for the purpose of city marketing, and that a side effect or intentional motive of this process has been to purge dissenting movements within the city.


Fast forward to the 1960’s and New York has replaced Paris as the avant-garde capital of the world. One of the facilitators of this transition was Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of economic policies put in place between 1930-36 in order to combat the depression and appease the increasingly angry working class. Such policies included relief for the unemployed and poor, which led to stronger trade unions and more empowered ethnic minorities. Also included within these policies was a large scale program of suburbanization, that is, allowing the working classes to become home owners. This allowed the U.S. government to solve both its social and political problems by neutralising potential dissidents through debt incumbency via home ownership. Conversely, these reforms enabled “a generation of artists prepared by the public funding of the Roosevelt years”, thus fostering new waves of creativity in filmmaking (Rees in de Valck 2007: 26). Here we see a correlation, not only between the New Deal and the re-location of the avant-garde, but between a relaxation of austerity and an increase in creative engagement among the population. Probing this relation further, we might uncover a correlation between creativity and dissent, or at least critical thinking. For if we define creativity as “an intellectual inventiveness used to generate, discover or restructure ideas, imagining alternatives” (SOURCE) then we begin to get some idea of how dangerous it can be to capital. It as been said, however, that dissent within western democracies cannot be physically crushed (although even this standard is now disappearing from under our feet), it must be quelled through other means.


The experimentalism of the 1940’s soon became the radical underground film movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. In the early 50’s Hollywood productions like Salt of the Earth (Biebermann, USA, 1954) became the first victims of McCarthy censorship. As this backlash against the New Deal continued, the rediscovery of the Workers Film and Photo League, a radical newsreel organisation founded in the early 1930’s, was “an enormous shot in the arm…for the cultural activists of the New Left” (Waugh 1984: 69). The film festival establishment also had to find ways of dealing with the cultural upheavals of the time. In a repeat of the earlier Parisian conflict, the New York avant-garde movement now found itself in dispute with the Film Festival circuit.


Like the members of the pre-second world war film societies, the individuals in the underground film movement engaged in a range of activities to support the circulation of avant-garde films (de Valck 2007: 26).


A film co-op was established towards this end, which soon found itself in dispute with the New York Film Festival (established in 1963), over a question of film selection. Meanwhile the 1968 Cannes film festival was the setting for an action that contributed to a re-orientation of the direction of film festivals altogether, to the extent that they were forced to respond the political as well as the aesthetic avant-garde. When the French government dismissed Henri Laglois as head of the French cinemateque, which housed the largest collection of films in the world at that time, Jean Luc-Goddard, along with several other filmmakers including Francois Truffaut, founded the Committee for the Defence of the Cinemateque. Against a background of almost 3 million striking French workers they occupied the 68’ Cannes Film Festival, eventually forcing its abandonment and closure. [The film below shows some of these events taking place]. This kind of alignment between cultural producers (such as filmmakers) and the broader revolutionary movement forced the film festival circuit (among other established networks) to pay serious attention to the political and economic grievances of the times. Without changing their fundamental structure, however, film festivals were able to accommodate marginalised elements of the cultural sphere while reinforcing and fostering the internationalization of the film business linked to the increasing internationalization of capital. The inclusion of marginalised elements therefore represents a kind of synthesis between dissent and capital, but a synthesis on capital’s terms, and a microcosm of wider socio-political developments that heralded an era in which the political left was torn apart, and, as Gaines (1999) has pointed out, social change became de-coupled from revolution.


Film festivals have developed in respect of this synthesis throughout the decades of globalization and the neo-liberal backlash that followed the 60’s. They have proliferated as much as they have de-politicised. Those festivals claiming to advocate some form of ‘social change’, or those voicing concerns about human rights are microcosmic examples of the broader neutralization of dissent in the contemporary cultural landscape. I have looked at a few of the culprits, as well as some of the honorable exceptions in a previous essay (See here: Cursory analysis of the majority of film festival websites, shows that political questions are either evaded altogether or expounded as a means of garnering what Bill Hicks might call the ‘activist dollar’. Habermas’ theory of colonisation is a useful tool for understanding how the cultural sphere and practices such as film festivals become geared towards the profit motive. Crucially, capitalists must colonise these spheres in order to solve the capital surplus absorption problem so that they can keep garnering surpluses against their competitors. This is the motor that drives ‘urban entrepreneurs’ operating within the ‘arts industry’. Recent examples can be found on the board of trustees at the Brighton Fringe Festival (in a further incorporation of the potentially dissident, notice the word ‘fringe’ as representative of marginalised art forms), whose chair “has a successful background in business development and marketing, working for international companies including EMI records, Coca-Cola and Schweppes” (BFF website 2014). The festival also participates in a number of “mutually beneficial partnerships”, one of which is with Brighton based property development firm, Centurion Group, who own most if not all of the area around the Fringe festival, having acquired in December 2013. Centurion is currently working closely with RBS Global Restructuring Group in the development of a “masterplan”, one of the primary goals of which is the “enhancement of Centurion’s ownership” (Centurion website 2014). These landowners certainly have an interest in maintaining a specific image of the city they are buying up.


Looking at film festivals against the historical, socio-political contexts in which they are rooted, we might infer one of the original tenets of Cultural Studies: that culture is always a single moment within a multitude of interplaying forces. The recent proliferation of those festivals that perform an esoteric marriage between art and industry sheds some light on the current relationship between culture and neo-liberalism, since “the spectacles form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals” (Debord 2010: 2). The exploitation of space in this way is not a purely physical matter. As Harvey (2011) points out, there are links between built environments and the ways in which their inhabitants think about things. So the question of space is, fundamentally, a question about the kinds of people we want to be. Film, as one of the primary mediators between ourselves and our lived environment, is capable of fostering a greater understanding of the relations between culture and capital when it is combined with physical interventions into public space that are justified by our right to shape the environments in which we live. Taking and holding spaces through collective engagement is vital, and perhaps more difficult then ever given the current media landscape. As Cass Sunstein (2001) showed many years ago, digital technologies have the potential to undermine the forms of solidarity through which resistance can be expressed. Thus we lose the discursive and material spaces in which the experience of film can be turned into a source of power in a material environment. A radical film festival that openly and primarily advocates anti-capitalism can provide the pedagogical space that those institutions steeped in neo-liberal motifs are increasingly unable to provide (especially to those who can’t afford them), thus nursing communicative action among film audiences, going beyond the isolated monad solitarily watching films online.



De Valck, Marijke (2007) Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press

Debord, Guy (2010) The Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red

Harvey, David (2011) The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism, London: Profile Books

Harvey, David (2013) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso


Author: Anthony Killick

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