Monday, September 26, 2005

Cinefest and Class

It hit me when I saw an older woman with a pin on the lapel of an expensive but not particularly stylish jacket. This pin exhorted us to "defend marriage" and displayed a female symbol and a male symbol interlinked. I was already feeling some lack of ease in the crowd that surrounded me (though other than my moderate scruffiness I fit in perfectly in an objective sense) but this focused my attention on it.

I was at Cinefest, Sudbury's international film festival. It is the largest event of its kind north of Toronto and one of the top five film festivals in Canada, and approximately 30,000 film lovers take advantage of what it has to offer every year. I attended three presentations: a collection of five short films produced by students at the Canadian Film Centre, including the one that won best short at this year's Toronto film festival; Cache, a French feature that was ostensibly about a middle-class French family being stalked by someone from the husband's past but which seemed to me also to be about colonialism (including the intimately related racism in the colonizing country) and the destructive and unliberatory blowback that it can spawn; and another collection of short films produced by Canadians. I quite enjoyed it. I'm not sure why I felt drawn towards shorts but I was happy with my choices.

The line of thought that was particularly sparked by this woman and her homophobic pin had to do with who was present at this event and who was not. The pin drew my attention towards the range of people in the crowd by its advertisement of a politics that I find repulsive (not that I'm a big fan of marriage regardless of the gender combination involved); more importantly, it made me think about the centre around which the people present were clustered, the core identity that would come out of an honest attempt to answer the question "Who is this event for?", the functional definition of which axes of diversity were present and unremarked (homophobe to pro-queer was one, apparently), and which axes were absent and equally unremarked.

Well, of course, the central identity in this case was middle-class and white, with a balanced gender mix and most people ostensibly straight. There were a few token people of colour, a few token folk whose personal aesthetic seemed to identify them as queer, and a handful of people who seemed to be working-class. (Of course, determining identity based on the reactions of one set of privileged eyes rather than, say, self-identification is politically problematic if used in the wrong way, but it is the only way we have to ask questions about who is included and excluded in spaces we inhabit in our daily lives -- questions that it is very important for all of us to ask.)

In thinking of the political importance of the central identity of this cultural event, I particularly focued on class. Communities of colour in Sudbury are tiny, so I'm not convinced that, for the most part, they were underrepresented amongst the attendees (though the Aboriginal community certainly was). But when I think of the people that comprise the Sudbury that I walk through every day and compare it to the Sudbury on display at Cinefest, the biggest difference is class -- in the former, working-class and poor people are very numerous, even predominant, and in the latter they were few.

What interested me about this was speculating about how this separation is maintained, how Cinefest is preserved as a primarily middle-class exercise. I suppose if asked, many middle-class folk would give a classist answer. They would attribute it to "these kinds of films" not appealing to "those sorts of people," with the implication that "they" are primarily interested in Hollywood dreck and just wouldn't appreciate this higher calibre of film. Which is nonsense, I think. I mean, Hollywood trash has colonized the media preferences of a majority of people across the population, including among the middle-class, who I would imagine serve as the main source of Hollywood's income just because we tend to have more cash to spare. I think, all else being equal, you would find people interested in going to a filmfestival to be in the minority both among the middle-class and among working-class and poor people. Still, given that it was likely middle-class folk selecting (and probably disproportionately making) them, it is possible that the content of the specific films that were on display was biased in some way to make them somehow more compatible with middle-class sensibilities than with working-class ones. I don't feel competent, in terms of framework or data, to have an opinion one way or the other on this.

There might have been some contribution from the event's location, though not an overriding one. Sudbury has a downtown cinema and a mega-plex with stadium-style theatres that is outside the downtown but easily accessible by bus and car. The film festival occupied half of the latter. It may not be quite as proximal to the lower income areas of the city, but I know from going to regular movies at this theatre that working-class people have no trouble making use of it.

So what was it then? Well, partly the expense, I suppose. The gala films -- I didn't go to any of those -- were $17 each. To go to the regular films you could buy a pass, and I don't know how much they were, or you could buy a book of tickets. The smallest book was four tickets for $35. The income range encompassed by the expression "working-class and poor" is quite wide, but that is still enough money that it would be a barrier for many folk.

Time is also an issue. I had hoped to go to at least one film on an evening last week, but I just wasn't able to manage it, and my time is pretty flexible outside of the daytime on weekdays. But the demands of making a living in the service sector or other less pleasant areas of the economy not only leave little financial flexibility, but they can also leave you with little time and energy.

Those things are important, but I regretfully have to conclude that it was probably also a matter of pro-active recruitment. The folks in charge of such events as this tend to be middle-class. They also know that disposable income is more available to middle-class folks, so are likely to target their outreach and marketing with that in mind. And though I have no sense at all of how this event is marketed, I would suspect that it reproduces the class privilege of the organizers -- ads in the programs of other cultural events that select for middle-class and above, for example, or partnerships with particular employers whose employees would be in the target group. As well, I would bet there are aspects of the outreach that are of minimal material significance but signal a certain status or elitism that might discourage some folks -- things that are trivial in and of themselves, but clearly mark the space as aspiring to a certain kind of class identity. I suspect this because it was present at the festival itself. Putting linen covers on the little fast-food tables in the mega-plex foyer, and a vase with a flower on it? Little baskets of pot-pourri in the bathrooms? Give me a break. None of that makes the fluorescent plastic environment of a mega-plex movie theatre any less tacky; in fact, I think it may even make it all come across as more tacky. The only takehome message I can convincingly read from it is that this special event is for a "better sort of people" than those who usually go to Hollwood-focused theatres.

So what would a film festival organized by and for working-class people look like in the Sudbury context? Not one centred on middle-class right-wing prejudices or middle-class left-wing exoticization of working-class people (yes, it does happen from time to time), but the real deal? I don't really have any speculations worth sharing, but I would surely like to find out. I'm not holding my breath for the necessary resources to put on something big to become available, however.

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