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Film curation the age of IMDB
With the internet playing the role of the preferred tastemaker is there hope for the field?
What did you dream of becoming when you were a child? CEO? Astronaut? Actor? Teacher? Designer ? Painter? Scientist? Sportsperson? Whatever your dreams were, it is unlikely that you dreamt of growing up and becoming a curator. Curation being one of those fields (like media planning and client servicing) that people seem to belatedly discover an appetite for and fall into by chance. To be a curator is, in India at least, the pleasant side-effect of being an expert in your chosen field.
But what exactly does a film curator do? He or she deals with the art of recontexualising. A good curator knows that the sum is always greater than its parts. He or she is a bit like a sommelier who says that drinking white wine with a tandoori chicken will elevate the whole meal. But I would argue that within the field of curation, it is film curation that is most prone to extinction in its current traditional form. This is because a big part of a film curator's job is to figure out programming for the plethora of film festivals that seem to be springing up. India has at least 30 major film festivals at last count. And even globally, the growing interest in Indian cinema (OK, largely Bollywood, but still) means that film curators in India contribute a lot to programming in festivals abroad. The best known film curators in India all contribute to programming for key film festivals in China, Berlin, Toronto and Dubai. But the role of film festivals itself has undergone a sea change. Only the big ones like Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin and Sundance sustain themselves on exclusive film previews. By the time most of the smaller fests get to screening a film, the films are already available for download by the general public. In fact director Anurag Kashyap often jokes in interviews that most film festivals in India could find their programming in his DVD collection well in advance. So far from being a platform to watch new or undiscovered cinema, film festivals are now a place of frantic industry networking where a lot of business gets done and programming is not really the distinguishing feature. If, for example, this year, the famously reclusive Terrence Malick has a film releasing, then all major film fests will be in the race to be the place where his film shows first. Needless to say, it's a bit of a dampener for a film programmer if your constraints are determined by star wattage and premieres more than anything else. Closer home, India's premiere film festival IFFI this year, was inaugurated by a fumbling Akshay Kumar. Why? No one knows. Presumably the popularity of Rowdy Rathore did not hurt his odds. But is Akshay Kumar relevant to the vision and programming of IFFI? I suspect not. Is IFFI relevant to the average film lover in India? Again, I suspect not.
The culture of cinema has seeped much deeper than the rarefied citadels of Film Festivals. And anyone who has ever logged onto IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes will be able to figure out why film curators need to really pull up their socks if they have any hope of being a cultural force of any consequence.
We are becoming a society of the self-taught. Our continuing employment and socialising is predicated on being shallow experts in areas ranging from coffee, technology, weight-loss, celebrity affairs and babies, politics, cricket and movies. For how else would the machinery of small talk be lubricated? We have become good at going online and clicking our way through things and knowing enough about something to withstand enough scrutiny to get us through a three-course meal. Even doctors aren't immune as patients self-diagnose their way through minor ailments. What hope then does a film curator have of being considered relevant? Let's say I feel like watching a bunch of films that involve protagonists taking road trips, I only need to google it and presto!
Which is not to say that a film curator is a relic akin to a public librarian. But it is time for an evolution that percolates to the general film viewing audience. And for that to happen, film curation will have to become more inter-disciplinary in its approach. It will have to factor in the intertwining of history, architecture, music and many other fields into the context of film viewing.
All of the above were in strong evidence at a recent cine concert organised at the art-deco theatre Liberty in Mumbai. The Oz Fest staged a screening of the Australian born, popular star Nadia's Diamond Queen and a musical production that paid tribute to the now forgotten stunt film star Mary Evans who later became Nadia Wadia. It was an inspiring reintroduction to how emancipated cinema in the 1940s was. It reminded one of the inter-cultural exchange between Australia and India especially in light of recent racially motivated attacks on Indian residing there. In short, it was inspiring. And maybe that's the crux of what film curators should aspire to: the contagious transmission of enthusiasm for the largely undiscovered.
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