‘A film critics’ job is to expand the readers’ understanding of both the quality of the film and its message’

Vladan Petkovic
Vladan Petkovic

Veteran Serbian film critic and journalist Vladan Petkovic arrived in Kathmandu on February 22.  The film critic, who has a long experience in conducting film critic workshops in different parts of the world, has arrived in Nepal to conduct a workshop on film criticism for Nepali film critics and journalists, organised by the Nepal-European Union Film Festival.  

Petkovic is a correspondent at the Screen Daily covering the Balkans region. He is also a senior writer at Cineruopa and a contributing editor for the website of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). He is a program manager for ZagrebDox and Rab Film Festival (Croatia) and runs an initiation GoCritic!, a training program for emerging film journalists and critics in collaboration with CineEuropa.   

Recently, Onlinkhabar caught up with Petkovic to speak about the role of a film critic, what qualities film critics need to have and the importance of those critiquing films taking part in workshops.

Excerpts:

You have been a film critic for a long time now. How would you define the importance of your role?

Living and working in the 21st century, and especially in the last ten years, I have come to the realisation that critical thinking is essential for the global society. The internet has given us power and access to knowledge but also misconceptions, culture wars and disinformation, which have resulted in divisions and conflicts. This is why it is all the more important to learn how to analyse and question every issue, as opposed to knee-jerk, accusatory ideological reactions or blind following of what you are already conditioned to believe. A film critic is a perfect entry point into this. 

Since 2008, you have been conducting workshops on film criticism, what is the idea behind starting a workshop dedicated to film criticism? 

A film can be poorly made but have a humanistic viewpoint, or it can be a richly produced film with questionable, even anti-democratic values. These separate categories too often get conflated, and it is the critics’ job to expand the readers’ understanding of both the quality of the film and its message. This inspired me to start these workshops in 2008. What also drove me was meeting young people interested in film criticism and willing to learn and understand the key issues of our time through the most prominent art form.

In 2018 I started the training programme GoCritic! to streamline and develop my approach and give more visibility to young writers, and opportunities to work in international media such as Cineuropa.

Vladan Petkovic
Vladan Petkovic

You have conducted workshops in various parts of the world, in that regard could you briefly tell us about your experience of conducting workshops, with people from different nationalities and backgrounds? 

I have been doing workshops in various European countries with international participants, and I have noticed a lot of interest coming from Asia. Whether they are living in Europe, the USA or their native countries, I’ve had students from Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, and China, and I am impressed by their enthusiasm and hard-working habits. Unlike many European participants, their primary goal is really to develop their writing skills and find their place in the industry.

Usually, my groups consist of about six students, and everyone is a specific individual with different tastes, levels of knowledge, writing prowess and investment in the workshop. They all benefit from watching the films, meeting filmmakers, and training how to write better and function within the context of the festival and the city where the workshops are taking place. From my side, it is a priceless experience to meet people from different backgrounds and of different ages (they usually range between 20 and 35 years old) who want to work in this field. When teaching, I also learn a lot from my students and it’s a wonderful and enriching exchange. 

What do you offer in these workshops? What approaches and methods do you employ for the workshop?

I work practically with my students. After an initial lecture that gives them key pointers, we watch films and then they write their first drafts. Then we have joint editing sessions in which they can learn from their own and others’ mistakes. 

The next step is dedicated one-on-one editing with each of them until we arrive at a satisfactory or hopefully good version of the text. I need to get to know each student and give them advice on their career: people with an interest in cinema and writing can consider different positions in the industry, which is small and highly competitive. There are other creative jobs in it besides film criticism. 

Vladan Petkovic

As we all know you have come to Nepal to conduct a film critic workshop, so can you tell us a little more about this workshop? 

This workshop is primarily intended for emerging writers who are already working as film journalists and critics, although often I accept beginners and students who show promise. 

Whether they write for a big website or newspaper or a personal blog, it’s my goal to help them develop their skills, learn how to watch and interpret a film and contextualise it within the time and society when it was made, but also from the angle of the moment and situation in which it is being shown to audiences – the same film has a different effect on audiences in different eras. 

Could you also tell us about the significance of the workshop that you are conducting in Nepal? What will be the major takeaways for the participants of the workshop?  

This will partly depend on the participants themselves. I imagine it as a two-way street, a communication and dialogue rather than just teaching and lecturing. But what they will certainly take away is an increased awareness of the place of film criticism in society, and it will be interesting to compare this aspect between Europe and East Asia, or more specifically Nepal. More practically, they will understand why are certain types of critical texts written in a particular manner, especially keeping in mind who the readers are: reviews intended for professionals, cinephiles or occasional cinemagoers are different. On the other hand, they will learn why some films get written about a lot, and others are completely sidelined. I would also like to understand how this element of the film industry functions in Nepal. 

Furthermore, we will work in a predetermined format: a limited number of words, a clear structure of a text and exploring ways to integrate content, context and quality of a film into a single story. The critic’s voice is crucial here, it is a form of channel of communication between a film and the audience. The tone in which a critic writes – and one critic can use a multitude of tones – determines the reader’s perception of not only the review but of the film itself. This is perhaps the most exciting part, how to point the reader to key elements of a film without spoiling its plot, and to simultaneously include your opinion. There is no such thing as an objective review – just like there is no such thing as objective quality of a work of cinema. There are elements of the craft that can be evaluated objectively, but cinema is art, not science, so these nuances are exactly what is the most interesting and important. A film can transcend its disadvantages with just one magnificent scene so that you forgive its less accomplished aspects. Or vice-versa, a brilliantly made movie can be undermined by a single slip in a key moment of the narrative. Therefore, grades or stars never tell the full story – this is also why we will explore critics aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. 

Nepali film critics or journalists do not get much of a chance to participate in workshops that enhance their writing skills and knowledge about film criticism, so in that regard how can one train themselves about film criticism? 

There is no school for film critics – some universities in Europe and the USA have courses as part of film studies but there is no dedicated study just for this. I didn’t go to a critics school either, I learned by watching a lot of films and reading a lot of reviews. But most importantly: read a lot of good literature, both fiction and non-fiction. This is how you develop your writing style and understanding of the use of language. 

The best sources for all of this are in English, so the most important thing is to first get a good grip on the English language, which will open for them a much wider world of cinema and film criticism. And then start reading novels in English: pick a writer you like (they can be from anywhere, but those writing originally in English are the best option) and read, read, read. If it’s something that’s engaging for you, it will be easier to stay with the book and not give up because you have to look at the dictionary every now and then. It is similar to the advice Werner Herzog gives to young filmmakers: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker.” The same goes for film critics. And I strongly recommend his interview.

How important is it for the film critic to hold healthy relationships with actors and directors?

This is not an easy question to answer and there is no recipe. It is certainly good for critics to have filmmaker friends, but it can also be tricky. The worst feeling is when a person you like as a human being makes a bad film. And maybe worse for society is when a terrible person makes a good film. But work-wise, yes, being close to professionals in the industry can benefit a film critic. You will have more insight into not only their work but also that of other filmmakers. It is not a big industry, in each region or even a continent like Europe, everybody knows everybody. And then you have clans, friendships, enmities, collaborations, conflicts… But knowing other professionals gives you an upper hand as you are closer to the source of information. Don’t forget that film criticism is not just an evaluation of a film, it is also knowledge of the industry, and knowing when a certain film is going to be finished and released, and what it is like, gives you an advantage over your competition. 

And in practical terms, it can bring you more work. I often get invited to give advice on screenplay or an early cut of the film and this is something you get paid for too. So by all means, have good relationships with filmmakers but be aware that every now and then, it can get complicated. One of my best friends from the university, when I wrote a slightly negative review of his film, barely spoke to me for a couple of years. But then after a while, he admitted that with time he had realised I was right. Ego is a complicated thing, and both filmmakers and critics have big egos. But as Pauline Kael told Peter Bogdanovich (and they were close friends): “My job is to show you the way.” Directors who understand this will be grateful to you even for a negative review, even if it takes time, even if it causes problems in your relationship. After all, we have a common goal: great cinema. 

Lastly, how familiar are you with Nepali films? What do you think of Nepali films in general? 

I have to admit I haven’t had much chance to encounter a lot of Nepali cinema so I am looking forward to learning more.

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