Torches at Fantastic Fest: Sorting Through the Ashes of a Film Festival


If I could sum up my experience this week at the Austin-based genre film festival Fantastic Fest in a word, it would be “exhausting.” In years past, that complete physical and mental breakdown might come mostly from the mind-blowing cinema and rowdy events of the festival, but now it is derived from the endless — and necessary — discussion of sexual assault and the complicity of a fan community in the victimization of women. Being at Fantastic Fest as news broke about accusations against Ain’t It Cool News editor and longtime Alamo Drafthouse friend/Fantastic Fest co-founder Harry Knowles, as well the revelation of Drafthouse’s mishandling and brushing off of harassment complaints over the years, is the closest I will ever get to a Fyre Festival — except this is serious. And the victims of some well-known men’s predatory behavior have too long been ignored. And yet, all around me, I see staff and volunteers striving to make everyone feel comfortable and supported, while more women are introducing films and are front and center at events than I’d seen here last year.

This is the paradox of Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest right now. I am essentially watching a company (and a community) implode and attempt to rebuild itself, better, in real time. Sometimes they are royally biffing and other times exceeding my expectations, and right up to the end it’s been a wild ride of panic, anxiety, elation and movies, with no shortage of drama. Case in point: the American Genre Film Archive’s presentation of their annual “secret” screening.

The way these screenings work is that no one outside of a handful of programmers knows what the “secret” film will be, and festival-goers can roll the dice and sign up for the mystery movie if they choose, knowing only that it will be some kind of rare genre film and that they’ll find out which only after they’ve already taken their seats. When AGFA’s Lisa Petrucci, who restored the film, revealed it would be the lost Ed Wood skin flick Take It Out in Trade, some attendees were rightly upset by the surprise softcore. I was one of them. AGFA director Joe Ziemba stated that there would be nudity, and people could have left, but if you’d already ordered food from the Drafthouse wait staff, you’re essentially stuck there — likely sitting between two men you don’t know — until the check comes. And getting up and leaving is a kind of signal that you are one of the “uncool” ones who can’t hang with the guys, a too-common pressure in a festival environment that often seems to offer litmus tests demanding women prove their coolness.

After the screening was out, however, the artist Tim Doyle tweeted that the festival had subjected an “unaware audience” to a “violent porno,” a characterization I would call unfair, though perhaps encouraged by that site’s 140-character limit. Doyle later clarified that he took issue with the way that the film was sprung on viewers, not that the material was too salacious to be screened at all — very true.

There were many Wood devotees who enjoyed this restoration — yes, including women. I just happened not to be one of them. I had to build up the nerve to even come to this film festival — to represent women in film criticism and to serve on a jury and make sure I was discovering and championing the careers of female-identifying filmmakers if I could — and then I get a face full of softcore, and then I find myself having to defend the porn against an understandably livid fan community. There are so many things to be angry about that I can understand the impulse to want to capture every spark of news that comes from this festival to ignite the torches. Hell, I’m angry, too. Unfortunately, it’s too often women — like Petrucci, who had to defend herself and her taste in film — who are taking that fire.

Take, for instance, festival attendee Suki-Rose Simakis, who had agreed to participate in an event called Fantastic Debates, where two people square off on a topic before strapping on some boxing gloves and actually sparring. Instead of, as some suggested, bowing out after news broke that Devin Faraci had continued to work and write for Fantastic Fest after stepping down last year, she instead used her platform to deliver a rousing speech about the importance of women in the industry and the duty of all to create a space where women feel safe and comfortable. Most who attended were grateful she chose to speak out, some bursting into tears. Some others who weren’t there — many of them men, I might add — expressed fury over her choice on Twitter and Facebook, some insisting that she was somehow making a mockery of the issues … issues she actually has to deal with on a daily basis.

Like I said, this week has been exhausting. And yet, here I am, having watched 20 films — some of which opened my heart and my mind — and have made this entire ordeal all worth it. These include Deborah Haywood’s aching mother-daughter story Pin Cushion, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s werewolf fairy tale Good Manners, Issa Lopez’s tragic but magical children’s story Tigers Are Not Afraid and Viktor Jakovleski’s Brimstone & Glory, a mesmerizing documentary on Mexican fireworks technicians celebrating life amid a rain of fire.

But I won’t get the time back that I spent having to debate and defend women in person and online, and I won’t get the time back that I spent thinking about the innocent folks at the festival who love movies and are trying to make this a safe place for all the freaks who flock to the theater because they don’t belong anywhere else. Alamo CEO Tim League has now announced plans for an entirely new board of directors, an increase in the number of women on the fest programming team and new rules-of-conduct policies going forward. I sincerely hope these plans work. I don’t think I could come back here next year without clear evidence that they are, and that includes striving toward gender parity in the number of films directed by women. But all around me, I’ve heard women talking loudly about the issues — where a year ago they would have whispered — and people behind the scenes encouraging them to talk. If we’re going to light the torches, maybe aim them at what deserves to burn — and then, possibly, something truly good can come out of the fire.

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