Fear of a Subtitled Planet

A filmfest's demise bodes poorly for fans of foreign films.

It might very well be the best film festival ever produced in the Bay area. It's been a popular and critical success for the past four years, energizing the local film community, winning awards, adding much-needed credibility to Tampa Bay's arts scene and screening many, many astonishing movies from around the world, movies that otherwise would never have been seen here.

And yet The Tampa International Film Festival — originally scheduled to kick off this very week and run from Feb. 2-9 — won't be taking place this year. In fact, TIFF may already be history. The festival's key sponsor, the University of Tampa, did not come up with the seed money this year that it has annually contributed. That decision, according to TIFF founder and acclaimed filmmaker-in-his-own-right Rob Tregenza, may be the nail in the festival's coffin.

"I'd like to make clear that the failure of the festival to occur this year is not because of a lack of support from the community," Tregenza explains by phone from Maryland, where he's working on a new feature film. "It was a failure of the University of Tampa to have a thorough understanding of what the importance of this festival really was to the Tampa Bay community. They didn't have the vision to properly support it, and I think that calls [into] question the depth of their commitment to a lot of things, such as diversity, international community, and ethnicity. Those things are always talked about as if the university cares about them, but when push comes to shove they just didn't support the festival this year."

According to Dr. Joseph Sclafani, interim dean of UT's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the university "did not have the flexibility or excess resources to commit" to the festival for 2007. He adds, however, that "both the college and department faculty support the idea of continuing TIFF if we can find a way to make it work within University budget priorities. We know that students can continue to benefit from the people that Dr. Tregenza can bring."

Tregenza, who is a professor of film studies at UT, isn't exaggerating when he links TIFF with cherished academic ideals like diversity. The festival's global focus is as well documented as it was invaluable, putting viewers up close and personal with scores of unfamiliar cultures via some very remarkable films. Where else in the entire sleepy state of Florida, for instance, could we experience all 7 and a half hours of Satantango, Bela Tarr's masterpiece of Eastern European entropy, or take in a lively retrospective of the almost-impossible-to-see films of Indian auteur Buddhadeb Dasgupta — complete with a personal visit from the filmmaker himself?

TIFF became more ambitious with its every incarnation, and last year's Dasgupta showcase (an event that had cineastes mingling with members of the Indian community) was probably the festival's high point. It was also, it now seems, the end.

"I guess I could have said I'm going to take (the festival) away from UT and go public with it," Tregenza muses, "but the reality is that there are so many arts institutions that are languishing in Tampa right now, that are under-funded and under-supported, that it just seemed like without a key sponsor in place, it was virtually impossible to pull it together in time. With everyone competing against an ever diminishing amount of state and local funding, it's not a good time to be trying to support an arts organization or nonprofit in Tampa."

And as someone who cares passionately about cinema, it's the health of the local film scene that hits Tregenza particularly hard. As the Bay area slides toward less and less challenging film programming, it's no longer all that surprising when a genuine phenomenon like Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows — a cinematic tour de force whose re-release was hailed as one of last year's most important film events — fails to show up at a single local venue. (The closest the film came to Tampa was when it showed up at Sarasota's Cine-World last year.)

"We're an international city with a number of vibrant universities that are supposedly all committed to film and the media arts," says Tregenza, "so why don't we have a theater to show this stuff? That's why the festival worked so hard with Madstone and with Sunrise, to maintain the possibility that there would be a theater that would book those films. When we lost Sunrise and Madstone, I told the press that [it] was going to be a major hit against us all. Not just the festivals — all of us. And it's going to become more conservative, it's inevitable, as the arts continue to become more concerned about their funding sources than about their art.

"That's just at the Tampa level," he adds. "If we move it up to the regional level, I think that when the grassroots die, everything above it is threatened. When a well-supported, well-designed, well-executed festival is not able to survive at the local level, it's going to contribute to the dying away of the option of even having this kind of festival. It becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy."

The Tampa International Film Festival's demise was complicated by other factors, including the untimely appearance of a new event called the Gasparilla Film Festival, set to debut the very same month as TIFF. Tregenza has long recognized that there are more local film festivals than this market can support (a problem previously harped on, ironically enough, by a few prominent members of the Gasparilla Film Festival's own board). And when there are too many festivals, it's the ones with deep pockets and a knack for self-promotion that win out, while what suffers is often the quality of the films being shown.

"I look at the festivals that are surviving at this point, and they're all doing it with large corporate sponsorship," says Tregenza. "Frankly, it didn't help to have this new Gasparilla Film Festival all of the sudden prepping in the wings. Why they've suddenly come up with a different festival I think, in part, is because they have a different agenda. If you're trying to bring people into hotel rooms in Tampa, that's totally understandable — that's why the Cannes Film Festival was created, after all. But if that's your goal, then it's going to have a completely different set of concerns than the International Film Festival had."

Gasparilla Film Festival organizer Sheri Simonetti declined comment.

The fate of TIFF is clearly a blow for Tampa's already disheartened community of movie lovers, but Rob Tregenza is too busy to let it get him down. (He's currently scripting Down, a black comedy retelling of Thus Spake Zarathustra and the life of Nietzsche that might even include some singing and dancing). Tregenza isn't bitter and he has no ax to grind, but he can't help being concerned at the state of quality foreign film offerings in a post-TIFF Tampa.

"I think it's really unfortunate (about the festival)," he says, "particularly at a critical time when international communication is under such attack. And yet I'm still very optimistic about international cinema. I'm just questioning how it will be distributed and whether we're blocking ourselves off from a tremendous amount of art and information — because if we don't show ourselves the mirror of their culture in our culture, then we may never be able to reach an understanding of each other. We also need to look at ourselves by looking at the world beyond. And cinema has always had that capacity, to show us the world as it sees itself."

After this story went to press, we learned that local audiences would get a chance to see ARMY OF SHADOWS after all. The film will be shown Friday February 9 at 7 p.m. in Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Admission is free and open to the public. Visit www.eckerd.edu/film for a complete listing of film screenings, or contact Nathan Andersen at 727-864-7551 or email [email protected]

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