TIFF 2010: Interview With Programmer Kate Lawrie Van de Ven
From TIFF's website: "Kate Lawrie Van de Ven is Co-Programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival's City to City programme, a spotlight that looks at a different world city each year through the lens of its cinema. "She is a doctoral candidate in UCLA's Department of Film, TV + Digital Media. Her forthcoming dissertation focuses on contemporary city film and its relation to changes in urban experience. She also holds a Master's degree in Cinema Studies from UCLA. "She has worked for TIFF in various capacities since 2001, including heading the organization's Editorial department from 2007 through early 2010."
* * *Michael Guillén: Kate, with your background in urban cinema studies, how did you become co-programmer with Cameron Bailey for TIFF's City to City (CTC) Program?
Kate Lawrie Van de Ven: It's impossible to keep my academic and TIFF backgrounds apart. I did film studies as an undergrad and then got my M.A. at UCLA and--after I got my M.A.--I got my first summer job at TIFF in 2001. I worked as a writer and editor on the program book. That began what has now become a decade-long involvement with the festival, with this being my first year out of those 10 where I didn't head the editing of the program book.
In 2001, after I got my M.A., I was supposed to be starting law school but I met programmer Kay Armitage who was an international programmer and cinema studies prof at UT. Instead of going to law school, I decided I wanted Kay's life. I realized media literacy was important to me but I was encountering an academic world that was a bit separate from what was currently happening in the film world. Looking at Kay, I had this model of someone who took education passionately but who was also on the vanguard in her role as a TIFF programmer of knowing what was new, what was changing, what cinematic responses were happening to world events. Inspired by Kay, I launched back into pursuing my doctoral degree at UCLA and--in the course of developing my research, which was pretty much set by the time I started the Ph.D.--have been studying films made since the mid-90s with a focus on urban cinema: looking at globalization, telecommunications, the growth of megacities, the reach of branded architecture around the world and seeing how those contemporary changes to urban life are being manifested in film narratives.
One of the things that started me on that path was the emergence of what we've been calling "network narratives" in such films as, for example, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros (2000) and Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001); films from around the world that had a similar treatment of disconnected urban lives connected through chaotic events in an age of high individuality, loneliness and disenfranchisement. I began mapping out different forms in recent films about cities. To link all that back to TIFF, in 2007 I began shadowing for Sean Farnel who used to do TIFF's documentary programming and is currently director of programming at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival.
Guillén: What do you mean by "shadowing"?
Van de Ven: Program shadowing takes a couple of different forms but, basically--Sean is a good example but Piers Handling is even better--their schedules are so full. In theory each programmer wants to handle the Q&As at each of their own screenings but it ends up being this great feat of air traffic control--there's just no way--so they cultivate someone who represents them.
Guillén: Someone who articulates their position?
Van de Ven: Yeah. Program shadowers try to help out hosting the filmmakers and helping them talk about their own films to their audiences. Those of us who have actually shadowed a programmer find it amusing when--at TIFF's internal fund raisers--others on the staff within the organization bid on the chance to shadow Piers or Cameron. Their experience winds up being nothing like actual shadowing. Those auction winners get to drive around in Cadillacs and go party-hopping, whereas shadows in the original sense are racing between venues, facilitating one Q&A after another. For me, shadowing has been an amazing primer for programming. Everything that could go wrong or bumpy in a Q&A has happened to me in my eight years of shadowing positions but somehow at the end of the day it all works out: the filmmakers are happy, the audience is getting interesting answers to their questions, and it all enhances the screening experience. A program shadower becomes an absorbing layer between a film that's canned and a live Q&A event.
It can take such different forms. You can have a film that's inciting and everyone in the audience wants to ask a lot of questions, such that you have to marshal that out; but, then you can have a film that packs such a wallop that everyone wants to talk about but no one has a question to ask, so your role as a programmer is to have a pocketful of questions should you need them. You don't want to have a director come all the way to Toronto to face a room of people too stunned and silent. So program shadowing was a good way to learn the production end of the festival.
Two years ago Cameron Bailey pitched the idea of the CTC program, which was something I always felt we needed: a focus on city cinema. Festivals such as TIFF have a long history of territory and national programming; but, there are not too many festivals out there that have applied the lens of urban culture. This was an area that was fascinating to Cameron as well.
Guillén: Which leads me to consider a lament expressed by certain parties over a perceived abandonment of TIFF's past practices of providing retrospectives of national cinemas, in part reconfigured by the CTC program. Are national cinemas becoming difficult to define due to co-production from different countries?
Van de Ven: Well, urban cinema can be as difficult to define. One specific example would be a director like Fatih Akin who is co-owned by both Germany and Turkey, co-owned by both Berlin and Istanbul--they both claim him as their native son--and he exemplifies the complications inherent within trends in national cinema towards, as you say, co-production and multi-locational narratives. But it also indirectly underscores one of the points we're trying to make and to explore in the CTC program: more than half the world lives in cities, a large percentage in megacities whose populations are bigger than some countries, such that the urban paradigm has become the way several cultures are interrelating with other cultures. There can now be two cities within two countries who have way more in common with each other than they do within anything else within their own countries.
There's a certain element of that in the example of Turkey and Istanbul, especially because there is really only one filmmaking hub in the country. Istanbul is a secular heterogenous city whereas Turkey as a whole is not as diversified. I'm wary of using a term like "world class city"--partly because Toronto has a long broad history with that term; we spent most of the '70s trying to convince the world we were a world class city and so the term seems almost dated--but, there are cities that have their doors open to the entire world. These are cities that have telescoped themselves around the world--culturally, intellectually, politically and imaginatively--such that they can be recognized as capitals of the imagination.
It's true that TIFF used to program national cinema spotlights--when I first started with them they were still doing that--but, I think TIFF is taking a bit of a cue from cinema studies because our programmers have an ear to that world. National cinemas have been a paradigm for so long that....
Guillén: Maybe it's time to shake it up a little bit?
Van de Ven: Yeah! We can still go back and talk about national cinemas, and we still do. All the filmmakers from a certain country are still in dialogue with each other. Most of our international programmers cover territories and I'm sure that--if you talked with them--they would be conversant in the differences in the national breakdowns of their territories. I'm sure that's something that they think about logistically as well as conceptually. But there's a widespread interest in urban culture and its nexus with visual culture and we felt this was a good time to explore that through programming.
Guillén: Perhaps this shift appeals more to me because I'm less engaged with film studies as I am with the new curriculum of film festival studies.
Van de Ven: Which is fascinating. Kay Armitage had a lot to do with that.
Guillén: Yes, I'm familiar with her article on womens film festivals in Toronto in the mid-'70s, which she published in the first volume of the Film Festival Yearbook. So my focus on film festivals has been influenced by film festival studies and now I'm intrigued to hear about this separate branch of academic inquiry: urban cinema studies, which I've never heard of before. Is urban cinema studies an offered curriculum in universities?
Van de Ven: It's getting there. When I first started my research for my M.A. and my Ph.D., there were some sub-discussions in genre studies--for instance--about film noir, science fiction, and noir sci-fi, certain genres that would return to the city and have representations of a certain city as a subtext to genre studies. A specific example would be the relationship of L.A. to Blade Runner where you can't avoid talking about a particular city with regard to a particular film or particular movements.
But even before that, what was starting to creep in--and I wasn't aware of this at the time because I had to historicize the field that I'm in and only later became aware of this--but, in the mid to late '90s, as part of what in the humanities has been broadly referred to as "the spatial turn", an interest developed in Foucaultian philosophy and how space defines relationships and, therefore, how it defines culture and creates politics. So there were a few notable conferences and special events in Berlin and Los Angeles exploring the crossover between academics and curating that happened in the late '90s, mostly at universities and cinematheques. People were thinking, "This is interesting. This is an emerging field."
I was trying to figure out the territory and convince my department that I needed to take classes in the architecture and urban design department to complement my degree. It didn't take a lot to convince them that made sense. What's happened since then is that there's been a real spike--much to my chagrin--of people doing dissertations on city film. In the States there's this body known as the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (formerly the Society for Cinema Studies), which is the academic organization of record for people in film and now film/media/television studies. They have scholarly interest groups under their umbrella. There's the women in film scholarly interest group and the queer film scholarly interest group and the TV scholarly interest group; all these mini-bands that operate under them. Last year at their annual conference, they approved the creation of an urban studies scholarly interest group under that rubric and I was in the room when we all met for the first time where we felt, "We have a home now." It was like going to support group where you realize everyone has the same problem as you. You're simultaneously braving new territory but you're also all braving it at the same time. There was that sense of: "Are you on my turf? You're not on my turf." Everyone was differentiating themselves.
Guillén: How exciting for you.
Van de Ven: It really was!
Guillén: So you are clearly informed enough to address the hot button issue of what exactly is the definition of the "contemporary" in film and what the programmer's responsibility is in both defining and selecting contemporary film. Can you speak to how the CTC program addresses what's current?
Van de Ven: Wow. What an interesting question. The CTC program does include retrospective titles. In this year's program we have Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant (2002) and Dervis Zaim's Somersault In A Coffin (1996) that are standing in for the retrospective. But "current"? I love coming to that word with a little bit of word play in mind, meaning both "what's happening" and the connections, flows and currents running through films.
It became increasingly obvious that strong films coming out of the festival for the past several years--before Cameron even proposed the CTC program--were films that had striking relationships to their urban environments, often talking about environments in flux or in tension, overbrimming with specific content, energy, frustration and point. Again, this goes back as far as Amores Perros and its singular depiction of freneticism. This generated a curiosity in what would happen if we started selecting films and talking about films on that basis? Would that shed an even greater light on film movements and the new filmmakers coming out of certain environments? Once we decided to pursue that, we had to figure out what's new about right now? That trickled into how we selected the city from a short list of candidates of cities that were too overladen with cinema not to talk about them.
Istanbul is a classic example because it's a city whose film culture has arrived. Everyone in Istanbul talks about the cinema. They all have some connection to it. You can't walk a block without there being a movie theater or a DVD rental outlet. We think of North America as being oversaturated with movies but I honestly think Istanbul tops us. Istanbul is so dense in its reference to cinema and most residents of the city are so conversant in cinema, going back to the '60s when Istanbul had a booming industry. There was an area Yeşilçam ("Green Pine") that was the studio hub of the Turkish film industry where all the actors, writers and directors would sit and talk in cafés. Since the drought during the '80s when TV took over, a lot of production companies have now begun relocating to Yeşilçam to tap into the history of where all the great Turkish cinema of the '60s was made. I'm not sure if this in any way answers your question but there is just a sense of something happening right now in Istanbul with an urgency that--if we don't profile Istanbul right now--who knows what will happen in four years?
Guillén: Another focus of mine at this year's TIFF is to gain a sense of how curatorial taste informs film selection for TIFF's programs. Within your stated parameters of what you're trying to achieve thematically with the CTC program--i.e., its exploration of the developing concerns of urban cinema studies--how much of the program is the consequence of your personal taste?
Van de Ven: Another interesting question! It's hard from one moment to the next, when you believe a film will have a great audience in Toronto versus not. You're reacting from personal taste but you're also extrapolating based upon what you know about Toronto audiences. If it's just about me wanting to see a certain film on the screen, I can watch it at the office. To program a film, you have to know or have an intuition that other people are going to find something beautiful, puzzling, effecting, great, engaging in it. There are always going to be kindred voices coming out of the CTC program at particular moments but there's also going to be radically different styles as well. That's one way of putting a filter on the selection process. If I only like two kinds of film passionately, I would be committing a great disservice by not finding other styles or other modes of emerging cinema.
Guillén: You're saying a programmer has to be attentive to and work against a calcification of taste?
Van de Ven: Yes. With respect, let's say, to my colleague Colin Geddes, the gorier the film, the less likely I am to see it; but, if there had been an Istanbul bloodier-than-hell film that had come out, I would have fought him tooth and nail for it because I would have found it valuable to diversify the CTC program, even if I were watching it through squinted eyes.
Guillén: You've expressed familiarity with your audiences that helps you extrapolate whether or not a film will or will not work. I'm curious whether you're talking about your Toronto-based audience or if you're considering the audience that attends TIFF as a destination festival?
Van de Ven: A little of both, though a very good portion of our audience is Toronto-based and--when thinking of them specifically--it's with jaw-dropping respect. I have seen people walk into down-and-dirty European arthouse cinema where--because of the way they look--I'm worried the film is going to rock their world in a bad way and then it turns out that, no, they love Pasolini. The average Toronto moviegoer is incredibly brave, inventive and curious and really like to see new things and they think of TIFF as the place to do that. Toronto has a lot of multiplexes where people can see theatrical distributions year round; but, they try to balance that with films at TIFF that are going to stretch them. I think Toronto moviegoers have a genuine respect for filmmakers and for how hard it is to get a film made.
Guillén: I've certainly been impressed over the years with how beloved TIFF is by its public. Earlier, you mentioned "architectural branding" and its effect on urban cinema. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Van de Ven: It takes different forms. For example, a paper I'm finishing up is on the representation of Paris circa the end of the millennium and looking at Amelie, Moulin Rouge and the creation and launch of Paris, Las Vegas. All three happened within a few years of each other and had a particular investment in the image of Paris. You can look at the Eiffel Tower as an early instance of what we now talk about as architectural branding and what we used to talk about as the establishing shot; this great American convention that covered all kinds of sins. For instance, you could show the Eiffel Tower and then shoot the rest of a film in a California studio but the illusion is that the narrative is set in Paris. That establishing shot of particular landmarks--the Eiffel Tower, coming in on the water past the Statue of Liberty--become cinematic shorthand for Paris or New York.
Against that history, we're increasingly getting filmmakers who like to play with taking those codified architectural landmarks and twisting them around. A great example would be Michael Winterbottom's Code 46; a lesser-known Winterbottom film and unjustly so because he does some amazing play with locations, using real buildings to create a sci-fi narrative. But when I'm talking about "architectural branding" I'm thinking of architects like Frank Gehry who are guns for hire in all these different cities where someone who is not native to the environment is brought in to create architecture that is notable unto itself, a destination in itself, and it starts to change the landscape.
Guillén: Would architectural branding also encompass a domain of nostalgia regarding what's being lost on the landscape? For example, the recent spate of films located in deteriorating moviehouses?
Van de Ven: Yes, I think it could be, though I'm so internally divided on this because I love shiny new things; but, I also hate when landscapes change only under the brand of corporations.
Guillén: Well, there's even a little bit of controversy surrounding the Bell Lightbox. Some people are elated about its creation and others are critical of its financial backing. These aren't resolvable issues by any means; they're cultural negotiations between art and commerce.
Van de Ven: And you do with them what you want. Toronto is a city where our art institutions rely on corporate sponsorship, are given a structure, and then are allowed to do what they do. There's a fairly progressive attitude about funding the arts, but letting the arts be what they are.
Guillén: So let me be clear: what is it about architectural branding that you're trying to show your audiences in the CTC program?
Van de Ven: We're not necessarily focusing on architectural branding in the CTC program; that's more an aspect of urban cinema studies. It would depend on the environment in which we were presenting the topic. For example, if we were focusing on Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum for Bilbao, we would touch upon what would probably be an issue regarding the love-hate relationship with that structure in the sense of how it's changing and branding Bilbao's architectural landscape. Within this year's CTC program, there is an echo of this issue in one of my favorite films: Pelin Esmer's 10 to 11 (2009).
Guillén: Let's turn to some of the films in this year's program, then. Tell me about 10 to 11.
Van de Ven: 10 to 11 is about an octogenarian who is as stubborn as an entire mountain in one man. He owns an apartment in a building where all of his flatmates are really tired with their rundown old building. They want to modernize, move out for a few months, tear the building down, and build anew. They're excited because the new building will have a parking lot and a swimming pool; but, he asks, "Why would I want that?" That's the central conflict of the film. Is he going to go along with this?
Guillén: And I understand his apartment reflects Istanbul in microcosm? It's filled with things he has collected from all over his city?
Van de Ven: Completely. His apartment is filled with ephemera that he has collected over the course of his entire life. His collection has even cost him his marriage. He's had to choose between his collections and his wife. "Whatever," he told her, "this is what I do. I am a collector. This is my role." That spoke to me even without anyone in Istanbul saying, "We are in a real fight over the soul of the city." Especially at the prospect of E.U. membership, which would affect the whole country, there's this discourse where they're trying to decide: "Who are we? Are we modern? Are we Western? Are we the traditional seat of an Eastern empire? Do we want to keep embracing that?" Some of the films in the program capture that discourse. 10 to 11 is a great example because what is the answer in that film? His apartment actually makes him sick--he's developed asthma from the piles of old newspapers--but you love that he doesn't want to give them up.
Guillén: So without revealing the man behind the curtain, how does this selection process work? You have 10 films in the CTC program?
Van de Ven: Yes, 9 features and a program of short films.
Guillén: So how did you negotiate--not only in-house--but with the city of Istanbul, let alone the country of Turkey, about which films would best represent Istanbul? Do you have consular assistance? Does this come back to the issue of curatorial taste?
Van de Ven: The decision of what we would show in this year's CTC program lay exclusively with Cameron Bailey and myself. If you're asking if there were films this year made in Istanbul that we didn't see, probably. That city, as I said, is brimming with film. We worked first through contacts made from filmmakers who have attended the festival in previous years; but, we also collaborated with an NGO: the Turkish Foundation of Cinema and Audiovisual Culture (TÜRSAK). Some of their members have had experience as festival programmers at different festivals in Turkey and they made themselves available. They knew all the films being made and said, "What films do you want? We'll get them sent." They were the bridge. When we couldn't gain access other ways, they would make the call.
Guillén: So you received no consular assistance?
Van de Ven: None. It was just this one NGO. We were there in April to attend the Istanbul International Film Festival and we met with their programmers as well.
Guillén: Can you talk to why you selected Somersault In A Coffin?
Van de Ven: Somersault In A Coffin has a separate personal history. When I was in my classes pursuing my Ph.D., I took a comp lit class on representations of the city taught by a visiting professor named Ackbar Abbas from Hong Kong. His was probably the dreamiest class I ever took at university because we read Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities....
Guillén: I love Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities!
Van de Ven: It's like my Bible. Every once in a while I'm compelled to read a passage. My husband and I now have two copies because--before we were living together--I told him, "There has to be a copy at your house as well." They're sitting adjacent to each other on the shelf now, which I find quite nice. Anyways, we read a lot of architectural theory in his class, we looked at films, and we looked at other ephemera of cinema culture; but, one of the films he showed us (on VHS) was Somersault In A Coffin. It may have been the first Turkish film I'd ever seen. It was such a crazy eccentric story and it almost had this cult status as it was being passed around on VHS, like: "If you don't watch this right now, you'll probably never see it again."
Somersault is about this disenfranchised car thief who--over the course of the film--winds up in a cyclical pattern of being caught out in the cold, stealing a car to stay warm overnight, returning the car, and getting in trouble with the cops. Eventually that cycle becomes so brutal and his plight so desperate that--when they reopen a historical site that's a fortified garden restocked with peacocks (as a symbol of good will and prosperity)--our poor protagonist who has been beaten up by everyone feels compelled to go and steal a peacock. The soundtrack has these unearthly peacock cries that sound like they're made of steel refracted through film. For me, Somersault was eye-opening in the way I was just starting to think about cinema, especially compulsion within cinema (which was another angle within city cinemas that I took up in my research) and this poeticization of the desperation cities can cause. I fell in love with it and have written about it in my dissertation. When we settled upon Istanbul for this year's CTC, it was a given.
Guillén: How about Zeki Demirkubuz's Block-C (1994)?
Van de Ven: I came across Block-C quite late in the process. I had read about it but it was not readily available on DVD. In the eleventh hour there was a Turkish arts and culture organization out of New York that had a distribution branch and they sent us a DVD for review. It reminds me of David Lynch in long shot, early '90s, very grey. You come into the film not really knowing what's been a dream sequence or hasn't. It's about impulse and desire set within the location of these monolithic apartment blocks that grew up around surrounding Istanbul in the '90s. They were supposed to be where the middle class bourgeoisie were lucky enough to live but--my God!--are they depressing. Block-C, which is the name the director gives to the apartment block where our protagonist lives, was apparently the name of the prison block where the director was detained following the 1980 coup. He's made a conflation between these bourgeoise "come-live-in-a-clean-apartment" complexes with prison. The whole film becomes a compulsive sexual relationship between a wife and the son of the resident caretaker. The film has a chilly feel and was for us a perfect film where a filmmaker was talking critically about the changing landscape.
Guillén: And, finally, what can you say about Theron Patterson's Dark Cloud (2009)?
Van de Ven: Dark Cloud is the one example of a filmmaker who's not from Istanbul; he's American. He lives in Istanbul now and teaches at the university there; one of I think 20 universities in Istanbul offering cinema studies and classes in film production. Dark Cloud is his first feature and is fascinating because--you think as an outsider he's going to make a film that expresses his love for the city by being shot against the Blue Mosque--but, instead, he tells a personal tale about a guy who just can't get his shit together and how the drudgery of our everyday grief follows us around. It's set on Istanbul's streets but you don't even necessarily know that. A lot of the film is shot in a very quotidian straightforward way, only so the few moments that are lyrical in the film have all the more import. The lyrical moments that interrupt that film can't happen without the rest of the film being shot to look like real life.
Guillén: Kate, I could clearly talk to you for hours about these many fascinating ideas and subjects you've introduced me to. I truly commend TIFF in introducing the CTC program as a new means of visual acuity in appreciating film and I thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.