NISI MASA and the future of European film criticism

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This winter, Schnitt, a leading German film magazine, announced it would discontinue publishing its print edition in 2013 after 17 years of existence. In January, the announcement was followed by a notice saying the journal would also end its web presence. These statements reflect the European-wide situation in a market where films flourish, but high-quality criticism is struggling to sustain itself. In France the picture may be brighter than in neighbouring Germany, but in a country of 65 million, even the famous Cahiers du Cinema can´t point to more than 30 000 copies sold monthly.

At GENERATOR, a Youth Cultural Forum organised by NISI MASA in Strasbourg in late January, 14 out of 120 total Forum participants took part in Generazine – a workshop on film journalism covering the various sections of the event by writing reviews and interviewing key speakers. While the workshop is led by NISI MASA staff, the workshop participants are assisted by two experienced film critics giving advice and feedback: Vladan Petrovic, from Cineuropa, and Clément Graminiès, from Critikat.com. Cineuropa and Critikat.com are built on two distinct financial and political models, but they both give aspiring writers an idea of the state film criticism is in. While the Generazine workshop teaches participants how to write, it also illustrates how difficult being a professional critic in Europe really is.

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¨Be independent¨

Clément Graminiès, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Critikat.com, a French online journal, sees the crisis of film criticism as part of a larger problem: the state of the press in the internet age. Though the internet and its universal accessibility have led to a democratisation of journalism, similar to that digital technology did for cinema, the notorious by-product of this development has been an over-saturation of the market and a general decline in journalistic quality (ironically, what has allowed projects like Critikat.com to emerge also gave a platform to less thoughtful and qualitative initiatives). Still, the most visible effects of the internet´s new reign may yet be economic: the discontinuation, in recent months, of Frankfurter Rundschau (Germany) and France Soir (France), two daily newspapers, confirmed the early prognosis of experts that rather than paying for their everyday reads, consumers may seek free alternatives elsewhere. This brings even worse prospects to film criticism, because, as Graminiès argues, criticism provides “opinions and perspectives, not controversial information. It is difficult to give financial value to that nowadays.”

To aspiring film critics, Graminiès solution to this problem will seem sobering to say the least. Critikat.com´s 40 contributors are all volunteers who earn their living freelancing or working “real-life” jobs – including Graminiès himself. Though he says this is in part an ethical decision, as Graminiès “wouldn´t tolerate earning money if my colleagues don´t also do, the prospects of adjusting the budget to 40 paid contributors are poor”, he admits. Critikat.com is practically ad-free, its only continuous revenue coming from member fees which are used to cover invoices. To change its web appearance, last year the website raised 6000 Euros from its readers via ulule.com – a French fundraising platform similar to Kickstarter -, a sum that can be explained by the fact that it was the first time the website asked for financial support since it launched eight years ago. But Graminiès insists he avoids entering commercial partnerships intentionally. “If you loose financial independence, that will also harm your journalistic credibility – we want to be able to say whatever we want. Right now, we don´t have an alternative model for remaining independent than doing our work for free.

With 150 000 readers a month, Critikat.com is one of the top addresses for serious francophone criticism. With philosophical, sociological and political perspectives, the angle of the reviews varies from contributor to contributor, the only common denominators being an argumentative-analytic style and a strong editorial line, a fact that Graminiès is particularly proud of: “It´s both rare and important in a magazine to recognize a strong stance towards films and directors.” Critikat.com lives up to this idea, with its verdicts from passionate approval to categorical dismissal, a rarely honest approach in a subjective metier where fall-outs with the reader are inevitable. But to Graminiès and his colleagues, “the point is not to be in constant agreement with the reader. It´s to convince the reader that your personal viewpoint is justified.”

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The Rational Alternative

Vladan Petkovic, another tutor at the Generazine workshop, is a professional film critic based in Serbia. Apart from contributing to SCREEN INTERNATIONAL and Serbian publications, he covers the region of ex-Yugoslavia for Cineuropa, a multilingual online platform with a half-professional half-amateur readership. Though Cineuropa´s staff mainly consists of paid contributors, like Critikat.com, it too is unable to raise enough money to pay them independently. Limited to the coverage of European cinema, the website is supported by the MEDIA programme, the EU´s audiovisual fund (which, with a budget of €755 million for the period of 2007‒2013, constitutes a relatively modest contribution to a cause as important as film criticism), and indeed, Cineuropa´s financial dependence seems to have political implications: Cineuropa covers European films more than it critiques them, with production details and political or social attitudes often concealing the lack of artistic quality in a production. Though Petkovic says he can support a film on Cineuropa through interviews and positive reviews, he admits that editorial lines are beyond his reach. But the crucial question is whether Cineuropa is at all interested in a discernible editorial line: when asked about the problem of editorial lines, Petkovic addressed the possibility of positive attitudes, not negative ones, and it is telling that on Cineuropa the former outnumber the latter unproportionally. Perhaps Cineuropa is too committed to ´promoting´ European cinema to give an honest account of it, an unfortunate adjustment of a mutual initiative that is promising.

Crossroads

So what image of film criticism do Generazine participants get? The message is indeed ambiguous. On the one hand, the workshop encourages journalistic independence, on the other hand, this independence seems to be a privilege reserved to those who are already financially independent. With commercial criticism being in the state it is in, film criticism is a discipline dominated by non-professionals. It is conceivable that this will also bring film criticism closer to academia, but this third model for criticism – which is hardly represented at the workshop – is not free of its own downsides. Academia is great at contextualizing films, but many academic discussions get tangled up in theories and concepts that disregard the essential question of how good a film is artistically. Typical academic questions can fall wayside of such considerations because they are more focused on explaining objectively than on judging subjectively.

Where Europe´s independent-friendly, growing film industry is admirable, we lack a business model to support high-quality, commercially and journalistically independent film criticism. It is true that this is part of the larger problem of journalism in general, which in turn is also part of the more fundamental question of what commercial value intellectual property can and should play in our society, but European film production increasing and estimated yearly admissions being at nearly 1 billion (European Audiovisual Observatory), it would be hypocritical to claim that we lack the resources for good criticism. This is not just a financial problem, but mainly an ethical one: how much money do we want to spare for criticism? The film industry, European ´leaders´ and viewers should ask themselves whether film culture only consists of producing and watching movies, or whether the time for a European critical culture has finally come. And this, I take, is a question a workshop alone won´t answer.

by Konstanty Kuzma

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