Celluloid Atrocities November 2015: Some A’s to Your Q’s Re: Q&A’s

CA sliff-2015The Q&As are worth staying for 95% of the time, but they can be awkward, and they can be frustrating.




CA hands-up

I’m writing this column with the St. Louis International Film Festival right around the corner (and with the deadline for my official SLIFF preview looming—gotta watch as many screeners as I can!), and I often say that attending film festivals is probably my single favorite thing to do in the world. This isn’t hyperbole: It really is. (That said, I can never really consume SLIFF as specifically as I do out-of-town film festivals. If I go to another city for one, the festival is my entire being for the next couple of days or weeks. At SLIFF, in my hometown, I get pulled away from things to deal with, you know, life.) There are a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is that film festival audiences tend to be about the best crowds with whom to see movies. They tend to all really love movies and have an open mind about cinema in general, and when a festival is hitting, there’s a palpable enthusiasm in the air. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old hand or a festival virgin: You can feel it, and the enthusiasm and immersion in cinema will help you fully enjoy the experience as you should.

A second reason why I love film festivals so much is because the filmmakers who made the films you’re seeing are often on hand to talk about them; even hearing a not-terribly-intelligent director talk about a not-great film can be enlightening. But, oddly, the combination of the enthusiastic audience and the on-hand talent often makes for a potential pitfall of festivals: the post-film Q&A.

Don’t get me wrong. The Q&As are worth staying for 95% of the time, but they can be awkward, and they can be frustrating. And I don’t mean to discourage anyone from asking questions in them, either—in fact, just the opposite—but know there are many pitfalls you can walk into.

In most cases, if a Q&A is a waste of time, it’s the fault of those asking the questions, not the filmmakers. There are two particularly common problems of the question-askers that are easy enough to avoid:

1. Make sure you actually have a question. Now, I’ve fallen victim to this one, too, so I don’t mean to act like I’m better than anyone. Apparently it’s human nature to see someone you like and just blurt things out, and in some cases you’re lucky if they even make sense or form complete sentences. But too much of the time, people like to raise their hand, say they liked the film a lot, and then stand there expectantly like they lobbed a question that warrants an answer. (I’d like to give you props? [long pause] And accolades? [another long pause]) It’s nice to praise the filmmakers for their work, but it’s better if you can do so in the process of asking a legit question, or perhaps saving it for a brief one-on-one conversation when they’re not in front of an audience.

CA QA2. Make sure you have at least a rough understanding of what that filmmaker’s job was on the film. This is pretty obvious if there’s an actor from the film talking about the movie you just saw (Lookee, that guy who was just up on the screen is standing in front of it in real life!). Generally, people have a pretty good idea of what the director’s job entails, but it gets stickier when a cinematographer, or an editor or, God forbid, a producer is on hand to speak. I have one particularly awful/fond memory of a Q&A with Martin Shafer, CEO of Castle Rock Entertainment (and who, directly or indirectly, is partially responsible for bringing stuff like Seinfeld and The Princess Bride into the world), during which audience members over and over were asking him questions about technical aspects of a film he produced, like how “he” lit certain shots and things. You know, because the producer is in charge of lighting scenes.

If you can master those two items, you’ll be in pretty good shape. But if you really want to be an exemplary question-asker, here’s some more advice:

3. Walk the line between too-obvious questions and too-obscure questions. The worst are generic questions that filmmakers get all of the time and that are also applicable to anyone and anything ever, e.g., “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s better if you can ask a question that shows you actually watched the film—you know, the one that just ended and that they’re there to promote. But, you can go too far in that direction, too; if your question is worded to show just how much of a genius or a superfan you are, the rest of the audience won’t get anything out of the answer, and will probably also think that you’re a jerk. And not to make you too afraid to ask something, but you get extra bonus points if you’re able to ask a question that fits the above criteria but also couldn’t easily be answered by picking up any old interview with the filmmaker and reading that, instead of asking the question to their face.

4. Don’t be afraid to go first. There’s this weird thing where no one wants to be the first person to ask a question, and everyone wants to be the last. So generally, when the moderator (usually a Cinema St. Louis employee, if it’s SLIFF we’re talking about) opens the floor to questions, there’s an awkward 30 seconds during which no one raises their hand, hence it looks like no one cares and no one’s going to ask anything. But then, once the ball gets rolling and they have to put an end to it to clear the auditorium for the next film, a dozen hands are suddenly up in the air hoping to get their question in before it’s too late. I get that no one wants to be Tracy Flick, all aggressive with the “Pick Me” facial expression and too-intensely raised hand, but if you ask your question first, you’ll spare those present the awkward waiting for someone to ask something, you’ll get your question in, and, if your question is good, you’ll set a strong tone and precedent for the rest of the Q&A.

5. Try not to say anything that might step on other moviegoers’ post-film euphoria. This doesn’t happen so much when the film’s actual filmmakers are present, but sometimes the speaker will be someone not directly affiliated with the film and instead an expert in, say, the culture from which the film came, or something along those lines. When this is the case, audience members tend to feel freer to openly vocalize dissatisfaction with what they’ve just seen. So, don’t ask questions that you’re only asking as a means to say that you didn’t like the film, such as: “What was this film actually about?”; “Did anyone follow this film?”; “Did the people in [X film]’s home country even like this thing?” If you’re asking those questions legitimately, you’re better off wording them in a less defensiveness-inducing manner, e.g.: “I had trouble following this film. Can you explain it to me?” or “How was this film received when it was released?” You get the idea. There have been a few times in which I’ve loved the screened film but left the theater angry on account of how verbally stupid the audience was. (Side note: Non-filmmaker, post-film speakers very often leave a lot to be desired, especially if they’re from outside of the realm of film studies or film production. But then, maybe I just think that on account of being from a film studies background myself.)

That’s all you need to know to be a good, useful, non-showy audience member. And if you’re shy or I’ve made you too scared of saying something stupid, take comfort in the fact that intelligent filmmakers will usually give interesting answers even to the dumbest questions, so despite all of my warnings, you don’t really have to worry about it too much. Instead, relish the rare opportunity to interact with the artists behind these films you’re consuming, which is a too-rare treat here in St. Louis. | Pete Timmermann

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