The Film Festival Court of Controversy: How Festivals Moderate Discussions Before Films Reach Theaters

In the world of studio and independent filmmaking circa 2016, anything goes so frequently, and in such gauche, boundary-demolishing fashion, that Cole Porter is most certainly grinning from the other side.

Or so it feels on most days of the week. In the microcosm of the global film festival, once (and often still) the bailiwick of fiercely progressive, innovative, even provocative storytelling, moviemakers who ply their trade in adherence to these principles are with perhaps surprising frequency publicly flogged and branded as heretical, their films marched to the gallows before unspooling before a single theatrical screening.

If you were one of the six Southeast Asian filmmakers whose feature film was whacked, chopped or dumped from last December’s Singapore International Film Festival, you already know this full well. If you’re an American cinephile, the perennial Romantic Egotists of the world, such oppression—nay, censorshipwill likely move you to dig up old college notes on the McCarthy era or re-read the United States Constitution. If you’re a veteran film and television producer like Dell Bigtree or longtime investigative journalist and documentarian like Eric Merola, you muster all of the grace and strategy you can to manage circumstances that are in fundamental opposition to the nation’s published and much-ballyhooed ideals. Then after the dust has settled, you sort through the unexpected bounty and psychic scars.

Because if you dare to document the myriad ways in which stem cell research is paving the way to world-changing, life-saving medical advances, as Merola does in The God Cells, or devote 90 minutes to a tale of a high-ranking government scientist, armed with reams of hard evidence, blowing the whistle on the Centers for Disease Control for covering up decades of vaccine-related studies, as Bigtree’s juggernaut, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, does, then your friends may not be in the film festival circuit.

The Emmy-winning Bigtree’s move into documentary features with Vaxxed was a calculated risk. Not only was he walking away from a steady paycheck as producer of the long-running, syndicated medical news series The Doctors, but his maiden voyage into feature filmmaking was in collaboration with a polarizing public figure (first-time director Andrew Wakefield, a former gastroenterologist and medical researcher whose impassioned probe into the connection between vaccines and childhood illnesses like autism has made him a hero to some and a target for many more) on a subject that divides most rooms quicker than climate change. But the very ideals that led Bigtree to a well-decorated career in multimedia journalism in the first place—old-fashioned hokum like truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability—demanded he go all in with Vaxxed.

“I had to accept the fact Vaxxed might be the last thing I ever do, professionally speaking,” Bigtree says. “In making this film, I’ve come out against the media, I’ve come out against the United States government, I’ve come out against certain factions of the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve pissed off a lot of people I’ve been very close with through the years. But, as corny as it sounds, there was no way I couldn’t help get this story told.”

Bigtree may have produced Vaxxed knowing Pfizer wouldn’t be sending him a Christmas card this holiday season, but his head was spun, as were countless others, by an et tu, Brute experience at the hands of one of the nation’s most prestigious film festivals. The film was slated to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, followed by a public discussion with the filmmakers. One month before the film’s New York screening, on March 23, independent documentary filmmaker Penny Lane (whose NUTS! earned a Sundance Special Jury Award for Editing this year) posted on Facebook a lengthy piece criticizing Tribeca programmers for scheduling a film she branded as “fraudulent” and “deceptive,” directed by a “quack… who perpetuated the [vaccine-autism connection hoax].”

Supporters of the documentary Vaxxed protest the film’s de-selection at the WorldFest-Houston festival, following the same decision by Tribeca Film Festival. Courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

Supporters of the documentary Vaxxed protest the film’s de-selection at the WorldFest-Houston festival, following the same decision by Tribeca Film Festival. Courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

Lane continued in a series of media interviews that followed her online posting, stating, “When you’re programming documentary films [for a festival], one of the qualifications that you’re considering as a festival programmer is a sense of integrity—or maybe even just not lying or harming people.”

Within a week, Tribeca, without public explanation, had yanked Vaxxed from the festival line-up, deploying the verb “de-selected” in its official media statement. According to Tribeca founder Robert De Niro, the film’s festival screening was intended to “provide the opportunity for a conversation around the issue [of vaccination].” De Niro and wife, Grace Hightower, have a child afflicted with autism, which has given apparent grounds to many Vaxxed opponents that the film was only scheduled as a “favor” to the Oscar-winning actor. Tribeca and De Niro himself have denied this. Broadsided by the renowned festival’s decision and unable to gather concrete reasoning for their film’s renunciation, Bigtree and Vaxxed distributor Cinema Libre Studio became key figures in media coverage of the incident, and charted a Tribeca-free distribution plan for their film. On April 1, Vaxxed opened a one-week, mostly sold-out run at New York’s Angelika, followed by a one-week run in Los Angeles. The film is currently road-showing across the country ahead of a VOD release this summer.

Investigative journalist Merola, who walks a documentary filmmaking beat similar to Bigtree’s (“revealing and disclosing blatant corruptions within the medical industry,” Merola says) is with The God Cells sitting on just as combustible a powder keg: the harvesting of stem cells from aborted fetuses to be used for therapeutic use. Thus far, Merola’s film has avoided the media streetfight of Vaxxed, perhaps because the film’s post-production schedule prevented its submission to festivals this year. Merola embraces the value of film festivals in elevating an independent film’s awareness levels, of course, but he also discounts how genuinely “independent” many festivals remain—a viewpoint bolstered by his recent viewing of Official Rejection, Paul Osborne’s 2009 documentary about film festivals.

“That film was quite educational with regard to how successful film festivals, like Sundance, end up being nothing more than an extension of the Hollywood studio machine as a platform to premiere their latest so-called ‘indie’ films,” Merola says. “I think it’s likely easier to get an Academy Award nomination that it is to get into Sundance these days.”

Brandon LeCroix, a sufferer of cystic fibrosis, in a scene from The God Cells. Courtesy of Merola Productions

Brandon LeCroix, a sufferer of cystic fibrosis, in a scene from The God Cells. Courtesy of Merola Productions

Which begs the question: With alternate delivery systems like VOD and online platforms for top-tier original programming now operating at full bore, how critical are film festivals to an independent moviemaker in 2016?

Few would argue that film festivals in the mid-1990s were not only essential stops for budding indie auteurs like Whit Stillman and Allison Anders, who then had precious few options for getting their films seen at all, let alone by the concentration of distributors, talent reps and media at major festivals. In the late-20th century indie film crescendo that swelled with the mythmaking of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater, festivals were also pillars of cultural tastemaking. While many festivals today have a less certain grip on the zeitgeist, and anyone with Wi-Fi and a cell phone can, technically speaking, produce and distribute a film via YouTube, Vimeo, et al., esteemed festivals like those at Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca, Los Angeles and Telluride remain singular platforms for handcrafted, modestly budgeted, fiercely original fare that would likely vanish without a trace were it not for their 90 minutes on the Eccles Theatre screen.

From 1982 to 2004, Kay Armatage was an international programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, devoted to “risk-taking films and filmmakers, both in terms of subject matter and formal strategies,” she says. During her Toronto tenure, Armatage says, “festival programmers were privileged to have autonomy of choice. There were no selection committees at TIFF then, as there are now at virtually every festival in the world.” In other words, the films Armatage wanted to present to the world on the Toronto screen were the films she actually presented to the world on the Toronto screen. When Ontario Board of Censors, a government regulatory agency in Canada, insisted in 2001 on colossal, condemnatory cuts to Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl—“the deletion of scenes from most of the film’s 93-minute length,” Armatage says—the festival programmer dug in her heels to defend a movie she had handpicked, becoming an unwitting advocate for the creative voice of a filmmaker she’d never even met. The OBC was resultantly reshaped via national legislation, Film Classification Act, in 2005.

Such advocacy is a rare thing on today’s festival landscape, where many programmers are beholden to blue chip sponsors, political influence and pressure from special interest groups. Despite the many changes in the arena, Armatage, Professor Emerita, Cinema Studies Institute and Women’s Studies Institute at University of Toronto, believes film festivals remain an indie filmmaker’s best shot at reaching a large audience.

“For the filmmaker, the festival is ground zero for the coveted theatrical distribution contacts. The festival is where the vast majority of what will get seen and what will not be seen is determined, and if you’re an independent filmmaker who doesn’t even make it into one festival, then the gap between having a finished film, even a very good one, and presenting that film to any audience at all is almost unbridgeable,” she says.

Roya Rastegar, director of programming at Los Angeles Film Festival following years of programming at Sundance and Tribeca, concurs. “Film festivals are no longer necessary to the distribution of independent film,” says Rastegar, “but they are the primary way that most independent films are seen on the big screen, which is key.”

Even Vaxxed producer Bigtree, who braved Tribeca’s left hook, won’t argue with the critical impact festivals have on an independent film’s commercial destiny. “Technology is in a place today where virtually anyone can make a film, but getting it seen remains very challenging,” says Bigtree. “As an indie filmmaker, you’re not going to have advertising. You’re not going to have billboards. You’re not going to be able to afford that kind of marketing, so you have to have your film made visible somehow, and that for the most part remains via film festivals. Festivals are a form of advertising for independent films. They lend clarity, credibility and legitimacy to an independent film and help audiences by winnowing the field a bit to those they might choose to watch in their own busy lives.”

So what happens when this spotlight gets hotter than a filmmaker expects? In 2009, Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!* a documentary about the collision of Nicaraguan plantation workers afflicted with multiple health issues believed to be caused by the pesticides used by the Dole Food Company, was almost burned alive in the white heat generated by Los Angeles Film Festival. Following a festival-related advanced screening of Bananas!* Dole sued Gertten for defamation, with additional litigation and pressure applied to the festival itself. Additional lawsuits were filed, sponsors pulled their festival support, and Gertten’s film was given the old heave-ho by LAFF programmers (Rastegar’s predecessors). Oscilloscope Laboratories, a small distribution company, released the film to theaters, standing by Gertten and his creative collaborators. Six months after Goliath attacked David, Dole dropped its lawsuits, while a year after that, an L.A. court awarded Gertten nearly $200,000 in legal fees and court costs.

A CTV morning show runs a story on Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!* on July 9, 2009, as seen in his sequel, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* Courtesy of CTV

A CTV morning show runs a story on Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!* on July 9, 2009, as seen in his sequel, Big Boys Gone Bananas!* Courtesy of CTV

“The Bananas!* experience was a very frustrating one for everyone involved in the film,” Gertten says. “When we got sued, some less thoughtful people actually congratulated us. They thought that all the noise about the film would bring us a giant pile of cash. But it’s the other way around when you get sued. You’re no longer a filmmaker at that point; instead, you’re working 24/7 as a defendant. You may get some fame, but it costs a lot of money and devours all of your time.”

Gertten’s 2009 experience at L.A. Film Festival was supplanted by a cheerier one in 2011, when Big Boys Gone Bananas!* a follow-up documentary chronicling his battle with Dole, premiered to favorable response at Sundance. Still, Gertten is ambivalent about the ways in which many festivals have evolved through the years, the “independent” label more a hip image than fierce aesthetic and ideological code. The festival experience has been, he believes, fundamentally altered by the expanding influence of sponsors, corporations, politicians and special interest groups. “That’s censorship,” he says. “Plain and simple.”

“I don’t agree with the message in Vaxxed, but freedom of speech means letting many voices speak, not just the voices your sponsors like,” the Swedish moviemaker says. “The powerful guys—the billion-dollar corporations—will always get their message out. They buy ads, they lobby, they bully. The rest of us can only use our medium to tell our truths. So let us have that.”

Gerten at the L.A. premiere of Bananas!*

Fredrik Gertten at the L.A. Film Festival in Westwood, California

From a festival perspective, the costs associated with staffing and producing a weeklong event are astronomical, forcing many of the major U.S. festivals to take on multiple powerhouse sponsors, if reluctantly. That, of course, takes a bit of the shine off a festival’s “independence,” but has been a compromise accepted, if not embraced, by festivals whose fates depend on outside financial backing.  Still, the notion that a $7.2-billion agricultural corporation, as with Bananas!* or a multi-billion dollar NPO with deep ties to Big Pharm, as Vaxxed producers suspect is behind their de-selection, would have any voice at all in a film festival’s programming choices was once cause for revolt, an infringement of both artist’s and fest’s First Amendment rights. Today, it’s just seen as the way the sausage is made.

Rastegar, who at L.A. Film Festival embraces “films that some programmers love and others hate, which always leads to a more interesting schedule than a bunch of films everyone halfheartedly agrees on,” does not believe that corporate sponsorship fundamentally alters a programmer’s job, though being mindful of the “specific mission” associated with the festival you serve is essential. Rastegar also points out that efforts to sway a festival’s programming selections are not strictly the domain of corporations. Several years ago, while working as a programmer for Tribeca, she got a taste of non-institutionalized influence when a film she had selected generated multiple bomb threats, requiring additional, specialized law enforcement be present at the film’s premiere. “Festival directors are sometimes threatened for showing a film. These things do happen,” she says. (Tribeca Film Festival staff was unavailable for comment for this piece.)

Whether festivals and filmmakers love or loathe the shifting ground beneath their feet, this is the state of the union today. If a moviemaker is amenable to tagging a film as outré, there is always the option of screening at Auckland, New Zealand’s recently launched Controversial Film Festival, which devoted a week this spring to screening films that featured orgies, anal scrubbing, whores with pet monkeys, hermaphrodites with leopard head breasts, 30 minutes of gang rape, genital mutilation and sexually repressed, hunchbacked nuns. If that’s not your cup of gonzo, though, or your film is a serious-minded labor of love aiming to generate social change, festivals like Tribeca, Toronto and Sundance remain the most viable options for transporting a film from your mother’s basement to national distribution.

Moviemakers like Bigtree and Merola are fearful of the ways the festival tides have turned in recent years, though they’ve yet to map new alternatives to preserving their creative rights and freedom of speech without hurling themselves into harm’s way. Bigtree is particularly concerned about the precedent Tribeca’s rejection of Vaxxed may have set. “If festivals start kowtowing to their sponsors, that will undoubtedly change the kinds of films being made,” he says. “Who is going to finance a film that will never be seen? At a certain point, filmmakers will stop thinking about the truth and what citizens need to hear. They’ll be preoccupied with learning the agendas of the money people behind this festival or that festival. Documentaries will become about the pursuit of money, not the truth, and that’s terrifying to me.”

Merola is less alarmist about the long-term effects of such festival moves, believing that the films and topics that cause outrage today will tomorrow be replaced by someone else’s crusade. On an anthropological level, one can, arguably, tell a lot about a culture by the films they try to muzzle. For 2008, the line was crossed with Seth Rogen’s rom-com Zach and Miri Make a Porno. In Ireland and South Africa, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the target. Germany was not a big fan of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, while Sweden, Finland, and Norway all took issue with E.T. And just ask Mel Gibson or Martin Scorsese about the joys associated with making a film about Jesus Christ.

“The tide is always shifting on these things,” says Merola. “If you had said a few years ago, for example, that the National Security Agency was spying on every American via laptop cameras and smartphones, you would’ve been called a conspiracy theorist. Today, we shrug our shoulders and accept it as fact. No one went crazy that Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden documentary, was made. HBO even picked it up for broadcast. So hang in there. If you’re in the hot seat now, you might not be tomorrow. And if you’ve been waiting your turn, it’s probably coming.”

If there exists a silver lining, it’s that Bananas!* and Vaxxed were both seen by a greater number of people as a result of the controversies than had they been birthed to the world more tranquilly.

Merola is clear-eyed in assessing the recent Tribeca controversy. “That backfired. Plain and simple. Whoever wanted that film suppressed, they failed,” he says. “No one would have ever heard of Vaxxed had this not happened at Tribeca.”

“Everyone that has ever studied advertising will tell you: There’s no such thing as bad press,” says Bigtree. “I think Vaxxed has proved that theory in spades. Despite every effort to keep our film from being seen, or maybe even because of all of those efforts, Vaxxed gained enormous national and international media exposure and was a top trending story on virtually all social media platforms as a result of Tribeca’s decision. Whatever the festival was trying to accomplish really did not work out for them.”

The excellent news about the VaxxedTribeca kerfuffle, Rastegar believes, is that film remains a medium vital enough to spark such meaningful cultural conversations. “Film still matters for many reasons and can serve as an agent for many kinds of changes. What happened earlier this year is evidence of that,” she says. “There is power in the collectivity of the cinematic experience and the festival experience, and that’s a good thing for filmmakers and festival programmers to know.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

1 Comment

  1. Dennis Kitainik

    August 12, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    Thank you for confirming what I knew all along — that movies ARE in fact censored for political views! And imagine if someone made a movie which tells the truth about the evil nature of shariah law, or about how Islam inspires terrorism — not only the movie, but its makers as well, would be banned from every festival in the world permanently, because the terrorists are in charge of the industry!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.