Over the last few months, we have attended numerous film festivals and seen many dozens of films in preparation for the 2023 edition of the Common Good International Film Festival. During that time, a single question has guided our thoughts: How can we best program a film festival dedicated to the common good?
This is a simple question with a more complicated answer. We cannot select the films solely on the basis of personal appeal, nor can we curate our program purely through any objective conditions. The process of programming a film festival—let alone one dedicated to an idea like the Common Good—involves a number of different elements, each of which must be considered equally. I’d like to go over some of these in this post, providing some insight into how we go about organizing our festival.
The first thing we consider when selecting films for the Common Good are our time-honored Selection Criteria. Established when our festival first began, these criteria are:
- The film shall exhibit artistic excellence in screenplay, music, and filming technique.
- The film shall promote the common good, which is defined as a society in which persons and communities care for one another’s well-being.
- The film shall exhibit sensitivity to the human situation, promoting the dignity of all.
- As appropriate to the film’s subject matter, the film shall foster ecological responsibility.
- The film shall cultivate a realistic hope of creative transformation.
Rather than harp on these criteria at length (they mostly speak for themselves), I’d like to highlight one point in particular: Our definition of the Common Good. As explained in criteria #2, we believe the Common Good is “a society in which persons and communities care for one another’s well-being.” This is something of a daunting description. Who, after all, can be tasked with the well-being of a community, much less an entire society? Those looking simply to support their local neighborhood might find themselves here intimidated by such a grandiose definition.
This is why the Common Good International Film Festival prioritizes films that show not just societal change, but also personal change. We want our audiences to come away understanding not just how societies contribute to change, but also how we as individuals can do the same. We believe that an individual’s commitment to themselves and to others will result in the actualization of the Common Good. Our programming reflects this belief.
When programming a film festival, we must consider not just the quality of the films themselves, but also how they might play to our audience. We would not, for instance, want to show several harrowing dramas about the weight of human despair back-to-back. Much as we may want to challenge our audience—and indeed we do—this is a recipe for exhaustion. Conversely, we cannot simply program a weekend with a series of fun, feel-good comedies. As I’ve written in an earlier post, our festival aims to strike a balance between challenging, entertaining, and enlightening cinema. Such is our road towards a more complete understanding of the Common Good.
We have thus made our curatorial approach to the Common Good International Film Festival dependent on pacing and balance. If we show a film that is emotionally draining, we make sure to offset it with something more lighthearted. If we show several films about environmental activism, we will screen smaller-scale counterprogramming set within the confines of nuclear families. This sort of balance of scale and scope ensures that our audience will not only find themselves in the films, but will also be challenged by ideas previously unknown to them.
One of our longstanding festival traditions are the discussions we hold at the end of each screening. Audience members are invited to participate in a screening-wide conversation about the films, to bring their own thoughts and perspectives to a film that interrogates the Common Good. For these to be successful, our programming must match the outstanding capabilities of our audience—a quite intelligent bunch. We take the time to consider our programming’s range in genre and tone, not to mention representational considerations of geography, culture, and ideology. We do this to create a diverse panorama of cinematic experiences with which our audience can interact, each in their own unique way. The Common Good must be considered at all levels—not just for its own sake, but for our audience’s as well.
After considering our selection criteria and our audience, we are still left with a number of questions. Which film better interrogates environmental activism? Is it right to show such a difficult film back-to-back with such lighthearted fare? Is it better to challenge or entertain our audience on our final night? Try as we might, these questions cannot be answered through any objective means. There eventually arrives a point where certainty becomes nonexistent, where the Selection Criteria and considerations of our audience is not enough. Here, we must turn to ourselves: to our own personal beliefs and preferences.
This is the most fun part of my job. Here, I have the privilege of using my own judgement to decide which films best fit into our programming. I can put my years of movie-watching, movie-writing, and general movie-obsessing to direct use with CGIFF’s upcoming slate of films. To be clear, we do not simply pick the films that suit our fancy. Our subjective analysis must always be centered on the quality of the festival itself: We embrace our subjectivity as a means of creating the best possible experience for all.
Whatever our thought process, we always return to that seemingly simple question. How can we best program a film festival dedicated to the common good? As with all grand philosophical buzzphrases like “The Common Good,” there is no single answer. Instead, we aim to ask as many questions as we can, consider as many paths as might exist. Hopefully, our films will find an answer that frames that question even better.
Jim Fahey is an emerging film critic and curator who works as CGIFF’s Assistant Director. He has spent the past year building his resumé at the University of Edinburgh, where he completed a Master’s program in Film, Exhibition & Curation. During that time he served as a film critic for The Student, the longest-running student newspaper in the UK, and also began Airplane Mode, a film-review blog currently available on Substack.