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ALEX FARBA


 

Alex Farba Deleon is a filmfestivals.com ambassador

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The Film Festival Master Class Phenomenon or how the festivals get big stars to visit them

By  Alex Deleon, flying film cynic

 

As far as VIP visitors are concerned, some pretty big names can turn up in some pretty peculiar places, as long as their schedules permit, the deal is made sweet (for example by offering a “Lifetime Career Award”), and the destination in question happens to be a spot on the planet which the celebrity in question may be interested in seeing, just for the helluvit. 

 

So, for example, Harvey Keitel turns up in Istanbul a couple of years ago to pick up a career award, the actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer and one-time internationally famous porno actress Sylvia Kristel, show up in Latvia for similar recognitions – Alain Delon announces his retirement from the screen in Riga – then doesn’t retire – and British director Mike Leigh accepts an invitation to visit the Tromso festival in Norway in the dead of winter because, after all, how often does one get to see the Northern Lights from the vantage point of a five-star hotel located six degrees above the Arctic Circle?  And so it goes.   

 

Another more recent ploy used by the bigger festivals to attract important names is the so-called “Master Class” phenomenon.  I have always thought of this term in the context of classical music where a true Maestro such as, for example Pablo Cassals, is invited by a university music department to give a few special classes for their most advanced students who normally would not have such contact with such a famous virtuoso musician – or for example, a series of true Master classes that opera Diva Suprema Maria Callas once gave at the Julliard School of Music in New York for the benefit of aspiring voice students there.  The Callas master classes were actually recorded on film and can be seen as such.   

However, in the last few years at film festivals you get an off-beat actor such as John Malkovitch (Locarno, 2005) or an Irish director such as Jim Sheridan (Istanbul, 2006)  or an upcoming Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron (Thessaloniki, 2007), doing a one-shot appearance before a normal non-professional audience during which they just sort of sit up on the stage chatting informally about their recent work with a local film critic or festival honcho and then maybe take some audience questions at the end of the session.  Calling such a glorified talk show episode a “master class” is, in my personal estimation, a complete debasement of the term and a living example of Double Speak out of the dystopian novel “1984”.   

For one thing, the audience is not there to really learn anything or pick up pointers on the fine art of filmmaking – they’re just there to see one more celebrity, or would-be celebrity, up-close and maybe cop an autograph after the “show”.   For another, in such a short period of time, somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half (the room has to be cleared for the next act) there isn’t really that much a professional film maker or actor can convey about the ins and outs of his profession.   Most master-class participants are well aware of this and will often tell their audience from the start not to expect too much in terms of technical revelation.  This does not mean that such sessions are totally vapid or devoid of interest.  Depending on the communication skills of the personalities in focus and the intelligence of the onstage interviewers these “master classes” can be quite revealing as to what actually goes on in the back rooms of filmmaking or on the sets of films, and in the world of cinema generally, not to mention all kinds of insights into the career of the Master Class giver himself.  The tandem master class last year in which actors David Strathairn and Chris Cooper talked about their work and careers for a couple of hours at the Thessaloniki festival of 2007 offered so much insight into the film acting profession that, for me, it turned out to be one of the highlights of that festival, and a session that actually did have the feel of a professional Master Class, not just a gab session with celebrities or near celebrities. 

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