Film festivals are addictive. There, I said it.
It all started senior year of high school. It was late March and I had gotten most of my college admissions results back. Looking back, it was a bit funny how I got rejected by literally every school I wanted to go to — but at the time it was quite devastating. So, I skipped school on a random Thursday and went to the cinema. It happened to be during the 40th edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and posters were everywhere.
I remembered jumping on the last ferry of the day after three back-to-back films, and Victoria Harbor looked unreal. It felt like a scene from a movie where I was the reckless protagonist about to go on an adventure or fall in love with a cat. Lying in bed that night I had to question my decision to pose as a future biology major everywhere I applied. No wonder they didn’t want me; those smart admissions people probably saw right through my facade.
First year in college, I got tricked into working for this student film festival by a professor that would later become my advisor and perhaps one of the most important figures in my life. Having watched all these wonderful films made by my peers, I couldn’t help but think to myself, maybe I could do that too.
I started making films while continuing to go to film festivals big and small. Summer 2017, I was lucky enough to work on an independent feature set with the loveliest (or, least Hollywood) crew and cast. The film made it into Slamdance, a film festival created by “a wild bunch of filmmakers who were tired of relying on a large, oblique system to showcase their work.” And we were all invited.
Slamdance takes place concurrently with the famed Sundance Film Festival every year, which meant I could be at both! Park City, Utah, is not exactly the best place to be in January if you’re not planning to ski, but the energy from all the young filmmakers and cinephiles made that tiny town feel warm and bright. Of course, meeting John Cho helped too.
Then, May came around and somehow I was at Cannes — a dream come true, to say the least. I started my festival with Dead Souls, an eight-hour documentary about the survivors of the reeducation camps in northwest China. It was a hard watch. I sat by the water after with a friend I just made in silence, bonded by our shared experience. Similar connections happen at festivals all the time but rarely anywhere else. I wonder why.
Later in the festival I saw Agnès Varda on the same beach where my friend and I sat for hours on that first night. She was presenting One Sings, the Other Doesn’t as part of the Cinéma de la Plage series. She was standing right there within a few feet of me, and the voice I’ve heard so many times in interviews and films sounded incredibly close. Her entire speech was in French and at the time the only phrase in French I knew was “s’il vous plait,” but her presence was enough. It was an unusually chilly April night and I couldn’t tell if I was shivering because it was cold or out of sheer excitement. Perhaps I cried, too.
Film festivals are dream-like, really; for a short period of time — usually two weeks — you do nothing but watch films, talk about them while standing in line and watch more. It’s like the outside world has subsided and you get to live in this perfect bubble of cinema. People might love a film you hate or hate a film you love, but nevertheless they’re just cinephiles, like you: Lonely, obnoxious and have too many opinions they can’t talk to anyone else about.
My festival-going experience this year has been quite sentimental due to Varda’s recent passing. At Berlinale I stood outside the theatre for hours trying to get in Varda by Agnès and cried audibly on the metro reading David Ehrlich’s review. Cannes decided to use an old photo of her that happened to be my home screen for years. She was perched up on the shoulders of a technician and clinging to her camera dangerously on the set of La Pointe Courte, her directorial debut that will become “the first film of French New Wave.” The 57th New York Film Festival, which is right around the corner, also dedicates this edition to Varda.
NYFF is quite special because people aren’t as desperate to get into films as at Cannes or Venice, but the programme always includes a substantial amount of films that premiered at major festivals earlier that year. I’ve also enjoyed the masterclasses and talks that are easily accessible (for comparison, someone I know stayed in line for six hours for a Christopher Nolan talk at Cannes); I remembered watching Hong Sang-soo disappear into the night with Kim Min-hee after he dismissed my question with “you’re too young to understand.” Or walking with Alice Rohrwacher to the car and telling her how Happy as Lazzaro’s beautiful super 16mm texture prompted me to start working with celluloid film.
I have so many more fuzzy memories that I want to share with you but for now, I’ll just head to my Cannes squad group chat and tell them, for the third time this week, that I miss them. And if I’ve succeeded in selling you the idea, I could still use a festival buddy for NYFF.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.