'The festival is a vital guide in a rapidly evolving landscape'
Both over 50, the duo knows what it's like to blow out 50 candles. "Although it's quite strange," says Marijke Vandebuerie. "Turning fifty as a festival is just very positive. It is very satisfying, because you can look back on everything that has been achieved in the past decades and you realise what you have meant to a lot of people. Whereas ... turning fifty as a human being ... that's something different. No idea whether that is a purely positive experience,“ she laughs.
For five years now, Vandebuerie is acting as Managing Director, working closely together with Wim De Witte, who is responsible for the festival's programme since 2019. De Witte has been a member of FFG's team for many years and has seen the festival grow step by step. "It’s fantastic to see that over the years our audience has continually expanded", he says.
Film Fest Gent is approaching its 50th edition and has grown into a major international film festival. How have its foundations evolved since the first edition in 1974?
Wim De Witte: The festival's mission has largely remained the same. We still want to offer a sample of quality films from all continents that barely get a chance in the mainstream circuit in Belgium.
Marijke Vandebuerie: The foundation may be unchanged, but the festival has grown enormously since 1974. Both in the number of films on the programme and in its reach. Everyone loves film, but everyone also has a different taste in film. A more diverse and extensive programme than before means that we can reach more film lovers. Film Fest Gent’s core tasks have remained the same for decades. The festival stands for spreading film culture to a wide audience. At the same time, we have become a facilitating platform for filmmakers and their work. Later on, composers and other film music professionals were added. Moreover, the importance of the film festival itself has only increased. One might think that a festival becomes obsolete in times of an overabundant offer of content, but because of its curatorial function FFG actually gains importance.
What does the future look like for Film Fest Gent and what are the main challenges it will face during the coming years?
Wim De Witte: The festival must continue to function as a guide in a rapidly evolving art discipline. These evolutions are also a challenge, because as an organisation you obviously want to keep a close eye on everything and keep your finger on the pulse year on year. Not only has film production skyrocketed, new forms are also emerging that are worth engaging with. Think of VR for example. In this complicated landscape our guide function will become ever more important. Both for people who are overwhelmed by today's growing film offerings, and for arthouse cinemas and distributors who align their programme with our festival.
Marijke Vandebuerie: Belgium lacks screening venues, which means that a lot of important films don't make the programme of the theatres. And then it is a challenge for the festival to give as many of those films as possible the opportunity to find an audience.
The experience of film has undergone major changes in the past decade. What can a physical film festival mean in a world increasingly dominated by streaming platforms?
Wim De Witte: Cinema has been declared dead countless times. With the rise of television, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray... And now with the rise of streaming services. Cinema has the ability to survive because of the collective experience it offers. It comes to life in a dark screening room where you can't fast forward or pause and the electricity lingers in the air... An experience impossible to simulate.
Marijke Vandebuerie: It’s also a matter of concentration. Nowadays, we are continuously bombarded by distractions. At any given moment people pull out their smartphone without thinking. In the cinema, you can allow yourself to be completely immersed. For an hour and a half, you're submerged in the world of the film you’re watching. Corona proved once again that the collective film experience is invaluable: for mental health and as a means of fighting a hyper-individualistic society. Cinema connects people and provokes discussion. A festival triggers conversations on all kinds of topics, whether they are comfortable or not.
Wim De Witte: A festival also offers a completely different selection than streaming services, which bases its selection more on what the viewer likes to see. And then you often end up with films that feel a bit more conventional. Film Fest Gent tries to put the films first: which are valuable and deserve an audience? For us, it's not about the commercial value or marketability of a film. That is also the role we must continue to play in the ecosystem of the film industry.
The society of 1974 is no longer the society of today. How do you see the profile of the festival visitor evolving and how can the festival appeal to a diverse audience?
Wim De Witte: In the 1970s, the festival had a more limited audience. After all, there weren't many films on the programme. Now we show about 120 feature films and approximately 40 short films, which attract a broad and diverse audience. We have a societal duty to give audiences who do not spontaneously find their way to the cinema a taste of the seventh art. We have to keep working on that. In education for instance, there is still hardly any focus on cinema.
Marijke Vandebuerie: With Film Fest Gent we therefore also focus on school screenings supplemented by an appropriate educational frame, both directed at pupils and teachers. A classroom is often a cross-section of society. The foundations for film education have to be laid there to ensure every layer of society becomes familiar with cinema, which offers a unique view of the world. Another key component in expanding our audience is through connecting different disciplines, in which the festival has a great tradition. We work together with the museum of contemporary art in Ghent (S.M.A.K.) and art centre VIERNULVIER to get museum goers and music lovers excited about cinema as well.
Lukas Dhont, Bas Devos, Felix Van Groeningen & Charlotte Vandermeersch ... Flemish filmmakers are hitting big at major festivals these days. Lukas Dhont was even allowed to compete for an Oscar. What role can FFG play in helping to train and guide new, young talent?
Wim De Witte: Every year we provide an extensive pool of films for students to enjoy. They can see an enormous amount of films with their student accreditation. Furthermore, they are welcome to attend the many talks and masterclasses where experienced professionals speak about their craft. It's a perfect learning opportunity.
Marijke Vandebuerie: Secondly, there is the Belgian Student Short Film Competition, the selection of which we realise is a big responsibility for us. Just like for any other festival, for that matter. A selection for such a competition means a huge boost for the filmmakers. It’s a platform for young artists who are just taking their first steps in an incredibly competitive world. That is why meetings between young, local talent and the international film scene are also very important.
With the World Soundtrack Awards, Film Fest Gent has distinguished itself internationally. In October, the WSAwards will be awarded for the 23rd time. On to the 50th?
Marijke Vandebuerie: Absolutely, because we feel that the film music world is under pressure. And certainly the role of symphonic orchestras in that world. For us, it is important to keep emphasising the artistic value of a composer. We have been fighting for years to enhance the esteem in which musicians who compose for audiovisual productions are held. For instance, we encourage directors to involve the composer as early as possible in the production process. The relationship between filmmakers and composers is also something we have been highlighting in 'Creative Partnerships' since last year. In that section, we use talks and films to explain how a specific duo works together.
Wim De Witte: To be clear: it’s not our goal to advocate films filled to the brim with music. We want to draw attention to music, sound, but also silence in cinema. An insightful reflection on those topics can lead to even better films and even better compositions.
Marijke Vandebuerie: As far as the recognition of film music is concerned, we have been pioneers. That’s definitely something to be proud of. The WSA has put us on the map, but more importantly, it has put the role of film music (and thus the composer) on the map. We also see that our initiative has been widely followed over the past 20 years. But we still aspire to remain the most important platform for the international film music industry.
What can festival-goers expect from the 50th edition?
Wim De Witte: One big, elongated film celebration! With more parties than ever. And of course a challenging programme, because that remains the essence of the festival.