Art in Motion – A Short History of Film Festivals
In light of the upcoming EU film festival and following on from my piece on the 19th, I realized that I knew very little about the history of these arty affairs, so I decided to do some research; it turns out there is a very interesting backdrop to their development.
The origin of film festivals can be traced to the rise of film societies and cine-clubs, which sprang up in various countries during the 1920s, often as a reaction to what many regarded as the dominance of the newly powerful Hollywood film industry over the cinemas of less well-endowed nations.
Such clubs and societies flourished in countries as different as France and Brazil, where they provided the only consistent outlet for domestically produced movies. Although most film clubs and societies were in Western Europe, some were established in Latin America and the United States as well.
The first true film festival came into being as a direct result of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s (1883–1945) enthusiasm for motion pictures as a tool for political public relations and propaganda.
He spent lavishly to build up the native film industry while imposing heavy taxation on the dubbing of foreign-language movies, thus hampering their distribution and exhibition. The first cinema program commenced with the premiere of the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) and included twenty-four other entries from seven countries.
This most famous of all film festivals came about as a direct result of French anger over the 1937 veto by festival authorities of a top prize for Jean Renoir’s great war drama La grande illusion ( The Grand Illusion, 1937), the much-admired French entry. This proved to be an unofficial first step toward the establishment of a French film festival designed to outdo and overshadow its Italian counterpart, which was now politically and morally tainted in the eyes of much of the cultural world.
The Riviera city of Cannes—having staved off competition from sundry French, Belgian, and Swiss cities—started planning a state-of-the-art Palais des Festivals to house the new event.
Formally dubbed the Cannes International Film Festival, it debuted in September 1939, a time of year selected so as to extend the traditional tourist season by a couple of weeks. The program included The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Only Angels Have Wings . Gary Cooper, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Shearer, and Tyrone Power were on the “steamship of stars” dispatched to Cannes by Hollywood’s mighty MGM studio.
A cardboard model of the Cathedral de Nôtre-Dame was erected on the beach, heralding William Dieterle’s (1893–1972) version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) as the festival’s opening-night attraction. In a shocking twist, however, the opening film was the only film to be screened: Germany’s invasion of Poland on the same day (1 September) led the festival’s leaders to close its doors only hours after they had opened. The doors would not reopen until September 1946.
The 5th EU Film Festival – Shenzhen, 23rd – 30th November 2012.