Film Festival Issues in Taiwan

Oral: Guo Lixin; interview, finishing: Chang Jiazhen
Date: 1 July, 2016

Guo Li Xin teaches at National Chengchi University's radio and television department and specializes in film aesthetics and cultural analysis. He often makes sharp and insightful critiques on Taiwan media. To Guo, discussion around film and documentary aesthetics is not limited to conversations around its visuals. Instead his focus is on film as a social medium and political driver. In the following article, he shares his views on Taiwan's film festivals. He examines every facet of the festival, including its operations, government affiliations, and audience. 

What kind of film festival do we want?
This is challenging question since we are torn between ticket sales and film merit. But let us continue to consider this issue. Since there is no one perfect model of an ideal film festival, we decide what kind of festival we want by considering the context, the particular society where the festival is set. For Taiwan, we should consider what kind of film is missing and needed is our society. Taiwan films began its development under state leadership. Later, as the political control faded, globalization arrived and engulfed the industry. Towards the late 80's, Hollywood took over, and they spent large sums of money to advertise, making it hard for Taiwan to resist. Further, Taiwan film lacks cultural protection measures from the government. However, in the 80's, Taiwan started to have its own film festivals. One was a rare large-scale film festival at the time and an opportunity to expose the audience to foreign film theory. This unique film context is one of the reasons film festivals need to exist in Taiwan. 

Taiwan's film market has long been dominated by Hollywood, and most people watch the popular films. To propel Taiwan film culture forward, Taiwan film festivals need to be concerned with more than box office revenues. For instance, just like how art museums display works of art, the festival should showcase a wide range of film aesthetics and become a showcase for artistic language and thought. For the audience, it should reveal other possibilities in film, from form to content, constructing a cultural window and showcasing what can't be found in normal cinemas. The  film festival should provide the filmmakers a space for works that have creative intentions and pursue cinematic aesthetics.

Film Festival VS. Awards
Most festivals distribute awards, but an absolute standard for awards does not exist. Depending on the nature of the festival, the films selected will differ. For example, the Golden Horse Award is an indicator for industry excellence, so they tend to gravitate towards films that possess both outstanding film aesthetics and significant commercial value. Taipei Film Awards and TIDF, on the other hand, is not concerned with the commercial value as much and can prioritize artistic value. The point is to understand the value of each award. All festivals competition should push the movie industry forward, especially by providing a platform for Taiwanese films to shine, providing an incentive for filmmakers to partake and win prizes on this platform. 

But the film festival is not just defined by the glorious moments, the award must stand for more than its obvious function to recognition and education. By pushing forward more events, the award's significance will become more well-defined. Other than the awards, it should be clear to the filmmakers that people care about their work, have them experience the honor, and observe the audience's direct reaction and engagement. The film festival must connect three players: the movie, the creator, and the audience. By setting up events like seminars, panel discussions, and director talks, the film festival will shine a spotlight on the movie.

For example, by setting up seminars based on the selected films from that year and having different directors share ideas, the film industry moves forward collectively. The creator can communicate their intentions and reveal to audiences the thoughts and beliefs that shaped the movie. 

Do not forget the government
If the budget is not an issue, many problems naturally solve themselves. But the Taiwan film festivals have limited capital, so the issue previously brought up regarding the choice between film versus commercial value comes up again. Currently, film festivals are subsidized by the government, be it the local government’s cultural bureau or the central ministry of culture. The amount of funding varies between each institution. It is not surprising that festivals make very little off of box office sales. The point of the box office is not about money but to test audience feedback. The box office performance is not necessarily satisfactory, but it can be grown over time. When I went a coffeehouse event associated with Taipei Film Festival, a high school student approached me and said something surprising last year: if he could only choose one favorite from Taipei Film Festival 2015, he would choose the Indian film. Just to be clear, this film was not a Bollywood dance film. 

You may think Indian films wouldn't perform well, but the curator Guo Min Rong said that 70% to 80% of the theater seats were filled, which means there is a market. We assume the audience does not understand sophisticated film language, but we're wrong. I remember when I was in England, there were many literary events, and the newspaper reviews would assume the audience shared and understood a sophisticated taste for aesthetics. The general public were being trained to understand what was written. Although the number of people was relatively low, there were enough people to support the market. What is crucial is not only finding an audience, but finding the appropriate audience. In other words, the selected films should not accommodate to the general audience's shared taste, but it should find a way to find the niche audience that understands the work, and then grow the audience from there. 

Government support is crucial when a festival is not earning a lot from box office sales. During Taipei Film Festival last year, I supported the independence of the Taipei Film Festival as part of the Advisory. The government has always been involved when it comes to public sector subsidies in film festivals, because they provide resources under the circumstance that they can influence the festival politically in a non-professional way. Many departments, like the National Arts and Culture Foundation and Taipei City Cultural Foundation, are non-government administrative units, yet sometimes act as operational departments, which easily lead to abuse of the executive branch without being restrained.

If the festival staff appropriately struggles with power with the financial backers, then you can, to some extent, prevent bureaucratic cultural intervention. Any aggressive bureaucratic action will be examined. When the governmental agencies overstep, their actions need to be made a public issue. Especially when there is a lot of public discussion, it puts a pressure on the public sector, which can be seen as a strategy to suppress the abuse of public power. If you do not use more clever strategies, the film culture's operational department's position will be threatened.

Film Festivals have never just been a "film festival" issue
In fact, we find that many film festival issues are not purely film festival issues. Festivals on one hand involve government policy, on the other hand, it is tied with how people view entertainment.

As with all cultural issues in Taiwan, the government does not care about cultural investment. On the one hand, the government wants to meet international standards, but on the other hand, the government is stingy in terms of providing subsidies. In the eye of policy makers, culture ranks very low and has never been a priority. We often forget that "culture can not wait for other work to be done, "because culture is at the heart of political issues. culture is the premise, and it will affect everything. It influences how we think about national prospects, social development, and economic construction. In short, the film issue is not only the issue of film and television, but also a larger cultural issue, and cultural issues affect how we think about Taiwan in every facet.

Another issue concerning film festivals is discovering the limitations of Taiwanese people's understanding and imagination towards entertainment. The film festival's main age demographic is below the age of 30. Many people who pass the age of 30 will gradually lose interest in arts and culture. The previously culturally curious youth who joined the work force now prefers to watch television, sleep, which means the creative lifestyle they used to lead was not permanent. On the one hand, this is related to the strong conservative values in Taiwan society. Many people don't see moving watching as an intellectual activity. Their idea of leisure is very narrow, and they think cultural activities do not count as leisure. These are the problems that have limited festivals, but it is not a problem that can be changed overnight, so it must be improved from a comprehensive basic education and cultural policy.

This article is a series of articles on "The Decoding + TIDF 10" series