36th International Film Festival Rotterdam 2007

By Ghita Loebenstein


An IFFR Critics Traineeship participant wonders what is the role of a Film Critic?

Fresh out of twelve invigorating days at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) I encountered a slap in the face from the wife of a filmmaker. Out dining with friends in London she asked me what I had been doing in Rotterdam. When I told her that I had been invited as part of the IFFR traineeship for young film critics, she batted me away, only partly in jest, with the remark “Oh you’re the enemy then.”

To that she explained that her husband was about to release his debut feature and was deliberately barring ‘film press’ from attending previews. As our Tom Yum arrived all I could smell was the stench of a bad film and a filmmaker who knew it. That or a nervous filmmaker under the misapprehension that film critics only critique films for the sake of a good slaughter. Besides, what ever happened to ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’?

What was implied in this woman’s comment was that film critics exist only to criticise films and antagonise hard-working filmmakers. From my experience the opposite is true. Most film critics dedicate themselves to writing about film because they love film, are inspired by the medium and enjoy engaging in it. There are many better paid jobs available to people who aspire to professional curmudgeonry. As is implied in the job title, part of being a film critic involves a discussion of both the merits and flaws of film.

The IFFR’s focus on supporting emerging talent – filmmakers and film critics alike – (through programs like the critics traineeship, the Rotterdam Lab for emerging film producers and the Tiger Awards for first and second time directors), signifies their willingness to nurture an international film community. It also recognises that film critics play a significant role in that community.

The question then remains: what is that role? Are film critics a necessary evil to be tolerated by filmmakers? Are they a marketing tool to be appropriately massaged into release budgets? Pawns in publicity campaigns? Or do film critics positively add to a culture of film by sparking debate, heightening awareness and synthesising ideas. Can it be said that film critics are in fact providing a service, not only to audiences but filmmakers too? In my experience, the answer could be all of the above. Like audiences, there are as many different types of film critics as there are films.


At the IFFR the trainees were invited to participate in a number of ways. We contributed previews and director interviews to the Daily Tiger, we blogged on certain aspects of the festival program, we were given access to the press desk and as many interviews as we could schedule, and we were invited to sit on the FIPRESCI jury, participate in their discussion and vote on the winning film.

It was this last component which bolstered my confidence that, even in our relatively nascent film writing careers, we could read films with as much insight as the more experienced journalists. Better still, our discussion fell upon similar points and critiques. Was our opinion less relevant than the more established journalists? Is our opinion more relevant than yours? That depends on how much value we attribute to ‘professionalism’ over the personal barometer of ‘taste’ - and if it comes down to taste, well then everyone’s a critic.

I like to think film criticism is the skill of knowing how to blend personal taste with professional analysis. Then there’s the issue of whether a film critic’s ‘taste’ can become adulterated after years of sitting in darkened theatres under the flicker of celluloid? If the coalescence of opinions between the trainees and the FIPRESCI jury members during our discussions is any indicator, then it appears not.

Not many journalists would agree that they are a pawn in a film’s marketing campaign, but it’s true we are often at the mercy of publicists, media screenings, interview opportunities and release schedules. If bad publicity is better than no publicity though, why is one London filmmaker barricading the doors of his preview screenings?

Just last week I interviewed an Australian filmmaker. His debut feature was a flop, but he seemed to have taken something out of that experience and applied it to his second feature, which premiered at Berlin this year. Maybe he learned something by reading his reviews? I wouldn’t go as far to suggest that film critics provide a professional service to filmmakers, but surely there is some value to be gained by reading a critical opinion – not empty slander mind you – of your work?

If we’re not pandering to publicists’ spreadsheets or passing out free consultancies on injured films, what kind of service could we be providing? A lot of movie goers find a critic that they like and use their reviews as a guide when going to the cinema. Surely that’s a service of sorts? Are we contributing to the rich fabric of film culture around the world? If the IFFR experience was any indicator, then the buzz of filmmakers, journalists and industry folk co-existing in a more than amicable fashion certainly insinuated as much. Whether they were excited, stimulated, challenged, enraged or just plain bored by what they were seeing is, I suppose a matter of opinion.

Ghita Loebenstein writes on independent film and the arts for Inside Film, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Australian Big Issue, where she is also Music Editor. She is 28 years old and lives in Melbourne, Australia.