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Why I Went To Fantastic Fest, And What I Learned There

By Kristy Puchko | Film | September 29, 2017 |

By Kristy Puchko | Film | September 29, 2017 |

Last week I made a decision I knew would have some label me a “bad feminist.” I attended Alamo Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest. A month before, that decision was mostly a matter of movies, cost and coverage. It became one of ethics because of Tim League’s secretive rehiring of disgraced blogger Devin Faraci and his subsequent piss-poor defense of that action. If I went did that mean I was inherently complicit in the boys club culture that coddles men who commit sexual harassment and assault?

As some long associated with the festival dropped out and made headlines, I wondered if a boycott would be my best option. But because this would be my first Fantastic Fest, no one would notice if I didn’t go. Instead, I thought on what difference I could make there. I considered how women’s voices are underrepresented in film criticism and at film festivals. By boycotting, I would be cutting one more female voice out of this equation. Plus, I’d be excluding myself from conversation I hoped would be going on in Austin.

These feelings were echoed by other women who chose to attend. Jessica Cargill’s post called for us to remember we are ALL Fantastic Fest. On opening day, female film critics banded together to create an off-site meet-up, where women and non-binary attendees could gather to converse about all of this in a safe space. For that reason, I cannot share what was said there. But I can tell you that meeting evolved into a flowing, passionate yet respectful conversation that made me feel empowered and hopeful. And it was the first of many such conversations I had over the six days I spent in Austin. I had feared that this whole Faraci/League thing would be an elephant in the theater that everyone was painfully ignoring. Far from it.

We are ALL fantastic. #fantasiafest

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When the news of Faraci’s rehiring broke, I took to Twitter to vent my hurt and find comfort in others’ shared outrage. It felt like a line was being drawn in the sand, I judged those who stayed silent, and marveled at those who seemed to defend League’s actions. So, when I went to Fantastic Fest, I worried the Austin film community that Film Twitter was raging about would close ranks, that I’d be an unwelcome outsider. Instead, I was immediately embraced, and realized how wrong I’d been about these people. I spoke with women and men, some friends of Faraci and/or League, some who had no personal connection to either, some who’d been coming to Fantastic Fest for all 13 years, some were locals, others had traveled thousands of miles to be here. And with each conversation, I was in awe. When I was across the country staring at my computer screen, this conflict felt so black and white to me: League was wrong, thereby any defense of him or Faraci or the Alamo was wrong. But when I was face to face with the people whose tweets I’d scowled over, I quickly saw that though we don’t agree on every point, we are not on opposing sides.

Twitter—and the internet at large—makes it easy to see things as Us vs. Them. You’re Team Pine or Team Evans. You’re part of the Resistance or a Trump enabler. You’re either angry about League’s decisions or you’re excusing them. But what I found on the ground at Fantastic Fest was a lot of people can’t be so easily pinned down. Even friends of the Leagues were annoyed to enraged by his actions. But on top of that, they are sad and angry that their community is being demonized over what is a broader problem. Austin is not the only place with creeps, and by narrowly focusing on Alamo and Fantastic Fest, many worried that this conversation will be swept under the rug as soon as people found a new thing to get mad about.

No one I spoke with denied that there’s a sexism issue in Austin’s film community. They are earnest in trying to figure out what to do next. The conversation was open-hearted and everywhere. I was witness to a community cracked in half by these revelations. And in response, they weren’t denying, they weren’t hiding. They were looking to each other and within themselves, asking what do we do now? What can I do? How can I make this theater, this community, this festival I love a place that’s safe and inclusive to women? Everywhere I turned, I saw people devastated, but determined to do better. And I am glad and grateful I get to be a part of that.

I also got asked questions. Coming from New York, I explained why Film Twitter was so quick to sound off on people and a community they don’t know. For me, it’s because it didn’t matter if you knew Faraci, League, or Harry Knowles (who later was outed as a repeated sexual harasser). For people who deeply, deeply love film, the movie theater is a church. With its dedication to lifting up that experience and booting people who talk or text, Alamo Drafthouse had become a cathedral. It felt sacred, special and safe. And so this sordid scandal stings us all. League’s actions seemed to confirm what many women in this community fear: we don’t really belong. We—as a whole—matter less than one man. He deserves a second chance, even if it was at our expense. And that hurts. It cuts you to your core, and urges you to lash out.

Then, I stepped out of Outrage Twitter and into the lives of the people I was judging from a distance. Looking them in the eye, I could no longer imagine them as my enemy. In person, I enjoyed far more nuanced conversations than Twitter allows. And amid all of this, one thing became very clear: The Alamo and Fantastic Fest are bigger than Faraci, League, and Knowles. They and their bad choices don’t get to be the end of it. So the rest of us need to band together and fight for the future we want to see in the film community.

So what now? How do we pave a path to transparency, improved safety, and a community stronger than ever before? I hoped a good night’s sleep in my own bed would rattle an answer into place. But there’s no simple solution here. Even if Alamo/Fantastic Fest made a grand gesture with League stepping down, that doesn’t fix the problem, because what we’re dealing with is a sprawling systemic issue of sexism. It will take time and work to understand and dismantle. So, I advise patience in expecting a thorough response from Alamo or Fantastic Fest. But we need not only to keep our eye on their improvement, but also look to our own community and friends, and see how we might do better. Ask yourself, ‘What can I do?’ I’m still working on my answer. I encourage you to find your own.

Kristy Puchko encourages you to read the accounts by some of the incredible women she met at Fantastic Fest: April Wolfe and Suki-Rose Simakis.

Kristy Puchko is the film editor of Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.

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