Why must you mock the tears of the poet?

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There are a few film festivals that are known around the world--the Berlinale, the Venice film festival, Cannes, and Sundance. They attract big name stars and famous directors, who in turn attract crowds of fans and swarms of paparazzi.

But those massive happenings are in the minority. At virtually any moment on any day of the year, some more obscure film festival is taking place somewhere in the world. Park City may have Sundance, but London has Raindance and Rhode Island has Clamdance, and we mustn't forget Lapdance and Slumdance and Slamdance and Squaredance. There is the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival and the Belgrade International Film Festival and the Copenhagen International Film Festival , all the way through to the Yugoslav Festival and the Zanzibar International Film Festival.

And this is not to even mention the fact that every city and region in the US seems to have its own call for films. San Diego and San Francisco and Dallas and Austin and Chicago and Boston and Detroit all have festivals, of course, and LA and New York seem to have a different one every week of the year-- but there is also the Ozark Foothills Filmfest, and the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival. Then there's the pleasingly alliterative Fargo Film Festival., and the geographically ambiguous New York International Film/Video Festival (Los Angeles), as well as the geographically precise East Lansing Film Festival, which bills itself as "the largest film festival in Michigan" (take that, West Lansing!). You can even attend a festival in the historic re-creation town of Williamsburg, Virginia, which presumably showcases the finest films ever made in pre-Revolution America.

And then there are the festivals whose names suggest an unusual degree of specialization: the Neo-Pangia Underground Cybertech Festival in Philadelphia, for example, or the Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado. Then there are the fests whose names, taken together, suggest an intriguing chain of events: the San Francisco Sex Workers Film & Video Festival, and the Delivery Room Short Cinema Festival.

I mention this by way of explaining how Lauren and I have ended up in the tiny town of Avanca, Portugal, whose main claim to fame seems to be that it is a mere 10 minutes away from Ovar, Portugal, whose own main claim to fame is that it has a nice beach and is only 45 minutes away from Oporto, the second-biggest city in the country. Despite their town's lack of resources, the film fans of Avanca have displayed remarkable energy in organizing a film society, which has its own animation studio, as well as cameras, editing equipment, and a handsomely equipped theatre. Once a year, they bring in film fans from all across Portugal for "Encontros Internacionais de Cinema, Televisao, Video, e Multimedia", a week of seminars and screenings. My short film Joe's First Day In Boston has been selected to screen in competition, and since this is the first festival screening of the film that Lauren and I have been able to attend, we decide to come.

Joe's First Day In Boston, incidentally, has already screened at one other small-town festival in Europe: A Corto Di Cinema, in Lucca, Italy. Although I am loathe to reenforce national stereotypes, I must point out that when I participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus, the German organizers gave me two months advance notice, arranged for hotel accommodation, and responded promptly to any and all questions. By contrast, the organizers of A Corto Di Cinema dropped me a note ten days before their festival, mentioning that they had decided to show my film, and were wondering if maybe I could send them a screening copy of it. With such short notice, we couldn't find a reasonable plane fare, and the screening went on without me.

By contrast, Avanca gave us about a month's notice, which I take as rigorous scientific proof that the Portuguese are more organized than the Italians but not quite so well organized as the Germans.

In any case, here we are. We've spent two enjoyable days seeing the sites of Portugal, but now it is time for the main event: Competitive Session #5. Joe's First Day will be screening alongside films from Bulgaria, Iran, Estonia, France, and Finland. The theater is about half-full when the lights dim, but as the first film unreels, audience members filter in, until most of the seats are occupied.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the films before mine. "Night Spider: My Hope" is a beautiful-looking and mostly wordless animated film that is apparently about some sort of spider that grants wishes, but I can't quite follow it well enough to be certain. And the next film, too, is visually wonderful but a bit hard to understand. Ditto for the next one. I wonder how, exactly, my film--which is a visually straightforward series of sight gags about a man trying to cross the street--has ended up in this company.

And then it's time for my short.

I've watched it with an audience before, and I know that the film has a few chuckles in the beginning, with a bigger chuckle at about 1 minute 40 second in, when the bicycle-riding gorilla makes his first appearance. But this time, the audience is deadly silent. A minute ticks by, with no response. A minute twenty: nary a chuckle. Here comes the bicycle-riding gorilla, and... nothing. I am sweating unpleasantly. Finally, at 1 minutes 50 seconds, two people in the audience start to laugh. I want to leap to my feat and turn on the house lights so that I can find these two people and kiss them. But I am not the only one who has noticed their reaction; heads are turning towards the laughers, and the non-chuckling majority is giving them a puzzled look. It is a look that says one of two things: either "This is a wretched attempt at comedy. Why are you laughing?" or "This is a serious work in which the auteur has encapsulated the painful absurdity of the universe within the haunting figure of a bicycle-riding gorilla. Why must you mock the poet's tears with your guffaws?"

Finally, mercifully, my film ends. The audience claps politely (as they have for all the other films), and another visually beautiful, impossible-to-follow begins.

Events described occurred in July 2003.

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This page contains a single entry by Jacob published on January 27, 2004 2:25 PM.

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