Conversation with Justine Barda

We talk to Justine Barda, a festival programmer, Film Studies lecturer, founder of Telescope – a website for the promotion of international films to American audiences, guest of Polish Days 2016.

PFI: Film is in the center of all your professional activities.

Justine Barda: Yes, I am a festival programmer. I’m on the programming staff of the Seattle IFF and also of the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to that, I teach Film Studies at Seattle University and I’m also developing a website, Telescope, for the promotion of international films to American audiences.

Your work for Sundance IFF is different than for Seattle IFF.

Right. For both festivals I’m focused on international film.  For Sundance I’m watching films that have been submitted to the festival rather than seeking out projects. And for Seattle I focus particularly on  the Middle East and North Africa but also Europe.  My colleague at SIFF, Maryna Ajaja, focuses specifically on Eastern Europe and so when I see something interesting at New Horizons, I send it to her.

We show a lot of Polish film at SIFF. This year we had seven titles from Poland. SIFF is the largest festival in the US. This year we screened 450 films including features and shorts and it gives us the luxury of being able to show a good number of films from each country – maybe not a lot but at least a decent representation.

What are the main points that are important to you when selecting for Sundance?

In all my programming, I have to say I am very partial to a good script. This part of the film is really important to me. I prefer writers who take their time while working. When I talk to directors who also write and are impatient with the process I always tell them, ‘the longer, the better’. This effort can be really seen on the screen, and the film is stronger for it.

Seattle IFF is quite long – 24 days and is considered an ‘audience festival’ more that the industry event. How would you describe the public?

First, I would say that while it is considered an audience festival, that it is evolving over time. We’re making an effort to have more industry present. We have a special weekend at the end of the festival that’s devoted to industry and we make a point of bringing press, distributors, and sales agents to  our festival.  And of course it makes sense – it’s a two-hour flight from LA!

In terms of our audience, they’re really one of the best things about working for this festival. Our audiences are smart, receptive and up for a challenge, so you can program work that might be a little bit outside the mainstream and people are really ready to engage with it. It’s great.

I can say that our audiences really like Polish cinema – we have people who are particular fans of films from Poland, who seek them out. As I said we have a significant number of films from Poland every year. In 2016 we’ve shown “Body”, “Dawn”, “Demon”, “Illegitimate”, “The Innocents”, “The Lure”, and “Zud”. So really a broad range of films.

This is your third time at Polish Days over four years. Do you see any change by these years?

I’m really impressed by the Polish Days program. I think it is a model for a program of its kind, in its support of the national industry and its promotion of that industry to the world. Personally I like seeing projects in all stages of development and I especially like watching project’s progress through these stages. This year at Polish Days I’ve really enjoyed seeing projects that I first learned about as pitches now either as work-in-progress or even as completed films.

I was talking with David Pope [who was one of the trainers] about the advice he was giving people who were getting ready to pitch. When I went to the pitching session the next day I could see what he was talking about in evidence. These people were doing it, they took it to heart. I thought the pitching was professional and of course the projects were really interesting.

Which projects did you like the most?

I was really intrigued by “Eloe”, especially something that the writer – director said about the film’s critique of militarism and hypermasculinity. I liked the way he talked about how the main character undergoes his transformation somehow unwillingly. I thought that was really compelling and I see a lot of potential there. The director also mentioned the burden of empathy and think that’s a fascinating idea. So even though the horse-whisperer story maybe is a little bit familiar it sounds like he’s going to do something really interesting with it. I also liked the look of “Fortnight”. I think the story is  engaging, very timely. It sounds like it’s constructed in an interesting way and I liked the way the director talked about the dangers of the temptations of comfort. They can lead you to close your eyes to anything that is going to disrupt your comfort. What could be a more timely issue for Europe right now? So I’m really excited to see where that goes.

A lot of people said about current times and Europe under crises trying to capture the changes that are going on.

Yes, I liked the way people were grappling with the issues of the present moment. And even if the films don’t actually come out for a couple of years it’s still good to see it, it feels relevant in an important way. “Volterra” would fit into that category too as a film that’s addressing the pressing issues our time.

What about the works-in-progress presentations?

Even though I’m not a horror person at all and I watched the trailer almost with my eyes closed, I liked the look of “Amok” and I had a great conversation later in the evening with a friend who is an editor. I was saying what I thought had happened in the trailer and then she told me what she thought had happened in the trailer and our views were totally different. So that opens up a whole new field of interest there.

That’s a good idea for the pitching just to confuse people a little bit and not to say everything.

Right, absolutely. But to say enough to kind of get people hooked. It was really well done, I thought. And then I liked the look of “Tiere” and of course the project of Agnieszka Holland.

And what about animations?

“Loving Vincent” looks like it will have an easier time commercially than “Another Day of Life” about Angola 75’. The second one is surely an interesting marriage of genre and material and may succeed in making that material more accessible to audiences than it might be otherwise. There seemed to be some similarities between that one and the pitching session “Comrade Stalin Saved My Life”. I’m a fan of this documentary/animation hybrid. I think that it can work really well. Generally, the work-in-progress session presented many projects shot in English and / or made as co-productions, sometimes multilateral. Polish producers seem to be very active in seeking co-producing partners.

Is Polish cinema somehow more appealing to you than couple of years ago?

I would say that I know more about it now. And that Polish Days is a lot to thank for that. It seems to me that the mission of that event to introduce Polish cinema to the world and to promote it is really succeeding. I hope that Telescope can contribute to this wider awareness.   

And what about international successes like Oscar for “Ida”, Silver Bear for Szumowska. Is that changing the view of Polish cinema?

Changing the view – I’m not sure about that.  But it certainly raises the profile and I think sparks even greater interest in Polish cinema. Americans are not always the most avid consumers of international film but when a film like “Ida” has the success that it did I think that it has a ripple effect for other films.

Could you introduce us to Telescope?

Telescope is a website for the promotion of international film that’s available to watch in the US. And it really is a product of my work as a festival programmer. I would bring amazing films from around the world to the US and they would play two or three times in two or three festivals and then they would disappear, because so little international film plays in the theatre in the US, as I’m sure you know. But then with the advent of VoD that really seemed to change, because now those films could find a home online – and they have. There’s already exponentially more international films online than there ever were in the theatre. And so it seems to me that the challenge now is basically one of marketing – to connect those films with the people who want to watch them. And that’s what I’m hoping this website will do. Telescope is powered by a searchable database that is connected live to all the platforms that have significant foreign content. For example, you could search for “Ida” and it would tell you that it’s still on Netflix or it’s on Netflix and Amazon, in case you’re not a Netflix subscriber. Or if you don’t know any Polish films you could just search for Polish film, or films in Polish, or by genre or director etc.  It will bring up all the film that you can see in the territory of United States and tell you where it is and then you can just click through to watch it .

So you’re conducting conversations with the big platforms not just the particular producers or directors.

Right. We’ll be connected to those platforms but I think that there’s an opportunity for producers, for distributors and also for agencies like the Polish Film Institute. Telescope will provide them a unique means of reaching American audiences interested in international film generally, and in film from particular countries.