Grimstad Short Film Festival – A new beacon on the festival scene (under construction)
In June 2007, the Norwegian short film festival in Grimstad celebrated 30 years of existence. This anniversary fell right in the midst of a debate on the festival’s future conceptual alignment and programming. Indirectly setting off this discussion was a government resolution to give the short film festival the status of a so-called “šKnutepunktfestival’ (hub or focus festival).
This decision had been prompted by new cultural policy guidelines that affect all areas of culture in Norway and as a consequence of which public funding is to be concentrated on a few “šbeacons’ or “šlighthouses’ in each sector. For the short film festival, this constitutes an upgrade that can also be felt in its finances. In 2008 the festival will receive support in the amount of 2 million Norwegian kroner (about 250,000 euros, or $ 400,000) from the state, and an additional 40% of this sum from regional cultural promotion funds. In the meantime, however, people are wondering if this upgrade is not a mixed blessing for the festival.
The problem is that being granted the status of “šhub festival’ is tied to changes in the festival’s structure and entails certain requirements. For example, the festival must now cover the entire spectrum of Norwegian short film production. At the same time, outside control has been strengthened – formally, through a more powerful supervisory board with new members and through bolstering the authority of the managing director, a change from the former flat hierarchy of the collective. These changes from outside have led in the past few months to internal controversies that were evidently too much for the group of organizers to handle. As a result, they no longer formed a unified front in 2007, opening the floodgates to even more external influences.
Suddenly, criticism rained down on the festival and its programme from all sides. Representatives from associations, trade unions and the state cultural administration as well as regional and local politicians joined the fray with their own demands and felt called upon to offer suggestions for improvement. This was carried on down to the most insignificant details of programming policy, such as why certain films were shown on certain days. Others criticized the festival as being too lax, implying that the group of organizers had made themselves a cosy nest. Visitors and participants only came to the festival to enjoy the pre-summer holiday mood, they claimed. It was also proposed that the festival give up its location and become a touring festival instead – apparently as a way of getting organizers and filmmakers up to speed!
The high point, or low point depending on your point of view, came in December 2007 when the programming committee resigned. The former group of organizers had now been whittled down to managing director Torunn Nyen, all alone with the supervisory board. As its reason for quitting, the programming committee cited differences with regard to the programming concept. They had been unable to push through their plans for, among other things, reducing the scope of the competition programmes. Also problematic were general questions as to the future festival concept, in particular the contradictions between the managing director principle and the vision of an artistic and commercial collective that is anchored in the festival’s constitution.
The festival was founded by a group of young people 30 years ago as an outgrowth of the film club movement. The circle of friends, working as volunteers, then gradually managed to build it into one of the most important national short film festivals. About 20 years ago the festival moved to Grimstad -a town at the southernmost tip of Norway that was once a favourite get-away for capital-city dwellers in the days before long-distance tourism. In the tranquil town with its conservative Protestant population, the filmmakers that flocked to the culture centre each year for the festival were always an alien element.
But the organizing group remained more or less constant over the decades, and stayed true to their location. In the past few years, a wave of changes passed over the festival that displayed the organizers« potential for independently reforming the festival’s concept. This included opening the event to avant-garde or experimental film, a music video competition and the inclusion of international films in special programmes. The list of international guests and curators in past years features names like Craig Baldwin, Ian Helliwell, Peter Kubelka, Gunvor Nelson, Mark Webber, Steina und Woody Vasulka. It is doubtful whether, after the structural changes prompted by the more conservative lobbyists, this kind of openness will remain. At any rate, the level on which the present altercation is taking place, which hardly deserves to be called an objective conceptual debate, leaves something to be desired.
In January, after the organizers had resigned, former programming committee member Per Platou voiced his concerns publicly, warning that the festival risked losing its «hub« status if it were to sink into chaos and not fulfil the requirements. As with all other “šhub’ events, this status is re-evaluated every four years before being extended. Platou’s criticism was directed less at his former colleague Torunn Nyen than against the new supervisory board, which he accuses of failing at its duties.
Union representative Sverre Pedersen replying to this charge by snapping, “the film industry is relieved that the programming committee have withdrawn”. The issue here, he said, was whether only a handful of people call the shots at a film festival or whether it should aspire to be the key meeting place in the industry, a place where people flock to see what the others are up to. Shortly thereafter, the umbrella association of the film industry spoke up and demanded more seats on the supervisory board. At the same time, however, the association said it was not interested in discussing the causes behind the conflict! Instead, it recommended replacing the festival management with a council of five, to include representatives from the Norsk Filmforbund or the film club association. Pedersen, who is also a member of the umbrella organization, said what was needed was a festival management “that seeks dialogue and picks up even whispered signals” – a statement that hardly shows much faith in the freshly installed director.
Now sitting on the supervisory board, which grew again in April, are representatives from the Cultural Affairs Ministry, the Norsk Filmforbund union, the producers’ association and the regional and municipal governments. These are the people who will in future be steering the fortunes of the festival. In the meantime, the festival staff, including the new selection committee, is hard at work.
As of late April, only the programme for the national competition was in place for the 2008 festival, which is to take place from 12 to 17 June. Almost one out of five entries will be shown in the short film competition. In a press release the festival announced with satisfaction that there were 20 more entries than last year. Evidently, the organizers had feared a boycott. As in previous years, there will also be documentary and music video competitions. New this year is an international short film competition which filmmakers can only enter via the Reelport online submission portal. The final selection will not be announced until May, since the new task and the huge volume (500 entries) have caused some delays. It all sounds quite stressful – and no wonder!
Reinhard W. Wolf