Opening night at the Sonoma Film Festival. Photo:

Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “a realm within social life in which public opinion can be formed and which is accessible to all.”  In other words, a public sphere, according to Habermas, is a product of democracy.1 So how do we apply this concept to the arena of film festivals? What purpose do they really serve in a social setting? What do they contribute to society as a whole?

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Film festivals provide/transform public spaces . . . In festivals, people can discuss political, social, and cultural ideas through the medium of cinema as well as engage in conversation about the nature of the medium itself.” – Cindy H. Wong[/pullquote]

A film festival is made up of both spectator and participant groups that involve the filmmakers, the judges, the audience, the special (and often celebrity) guests, the festival organizers and even local businesses, educational institutions and branded sponsors. Film festivals, especially smaller, specialized ones, may all claim individual goals in mind; however, they all have one thing in common. “All festivals,” states Cindy H. Wong, “have the advancement of cinema as a primary goal, promising works that break new grounds and reclaiming old worlds that shore up the legacy of cinema, while they facilitate production and distribution of films.”

However, what other purposes do they serve? Like art, cinema is a powerful medium that often mirrors the social, economic and political environment it was spawned in. It has the potential to influence its audience in ways that can change cultural landscapes forever. Film festivals open doors for politically discharged discourse, international issue exposure, global aspects of film, and intelligent creative re-visualization of traditional themes.  Cinema constructs, confronts, challenges and transforms the mythic narratives that hold together traditional frameworks of society.

As I conducted my research on film festivals, I asked myself several questions:

  • What kinds of spaces do these festivals generate?
  • What kinds of people attend them?
  • What experiences do they have, collectively and individually?
  • What kind of discussions do they ignite with each other?
  • What networks are formed, if any?

Do people go to film festivals because they want to be entertained, to be informed, or to simply partake in collective spectatorship in the comfort of a darkened room? What is it about gathering together to watch stories unfold on the screen?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Cinema . . . can never be divorced from the worlds in which films are produced, nor be “art for art’s sake” or else it would become irrelevant to the world around it.” – Cindy H. Wong[/pullquote]

Wong states that film festivals generally attract those who occupy left-of-center or liberal orientations. “On one hand, most festivals are fairly high-brow and exclusionary,” she muses. “On the other, precisely because of the exclusivity that distances film festivals from the industrial mass cinema, they have the freedom to represent and even debate marginal, sensitive, and difficult subject matters.” This makes them places where an extraordinary amount of freedom in subject material is exercised, although there is still a high degree of control over what actually gets shown to the public. Still, film festivals provide access to audio and visual material that is often not found anywhere else in mainstream media.

In the past, the art of film has been limited only to those who have access to highly specialized (and expensive) filming and editing equipment. This often prohibited the average person from participating in the field.  The field was, as a result, dominated mostly by white, middle-to-upper class male visionaries. However, the advent of digital video has changed all that. Now, making a statement on film is as easy as aiming a camera phone and using an editing app to create a visual story. Even my seven-year-old can make a short film in less than fifteen minutes.

This makes the playing field much more broader when it comes to decide what gets screened at a festival and what doesn’t.  One thing I noticed when looking over the film selections at my respective film festivals was that they came from all over the world, and that many were directed by women. Audience participation was also often encouraged, with audience awards given to favorites. At one film festival, it was almost mandatory: upon entry, we were given a form in which we were to rate a block of films being shown. Audience participation is often further enhanced by offering Q & A sessions and panels with filmmakers, producers and participants after each screening.

A Q & A session between filmmakers at the Film Fest Petaluma. Photo: T. Ruys
Q & A session between audience and filmmakers at the Film Fest Petaluma.  Photo: T. Ruys

The traditional exclusivity of film festivals seems to be coming to an end as more begin to embrace films created by all walks of life. Many films I watched were subtitled in English because they came filmmakers residing in another country: Cuba, France, South America, Germany.  In this respect, film festivals embrace an international audience that allows us to transcend economic,  sociocultural and linguistic barriers in the name of expressive storytelling.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Audience participation is a vital part of the public sphere.” – Cindy H. Wong[/pullquote]

Whatever the reason for the film, the impact is there. The audience, whether they’re watching a sentimental piece of animation, a work of art, a political or social statement, or a simple comedy, can’t help but come out of the theater changed in some way by what they have seen. And that’s how I felt at each film festival I attended. It was not only about being around cinephiles like myself, or about the possibly of meeting my favorite cinematic celebrity, or even about being entertained. It was also about opening up, about exposing myself to other people’s thoughts, and about seeing the world in ways I wasn’t accustomed to.

With over fifteen film festivals in Sonoma County, CA alone this year, we can see this kind of social setting is gaining in popularity and accessibility. As film festivals open up to various audiences, such as the OUTwatch Festival for the LGBTI community and the Jewish Film Festival, more and more creative groups are being seen and heard via film/video. Although the cost of the larger festivals might seem almost prohibitive to those on a limited budget, many offer volunteer opportunities in exchange for access. Many local film festivals often work as non-profit agencies which contribute a portion of funds generated to local businesses and educational institutes, giving back to the community in ways that enriches the artistic spirit and encourages independent thought.

1. Wong, Cindy H.. Film Festivals : Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen. Piscataway, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 May 2016.
2. Fisher, Shahar. “The Cultural Reader.” : Jürgen Habermas’s Public Sphere Explained (summary). N.p., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 May 2016.

Back to Ethnography