In an unconventional essay entitled Éloge de la critique, published in a dossier in the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma, the author says that the critic is primarily a spectator of cinema. He has his story, his epiphanies, he looks for a secret in the cinema, like all those who love movies. But if he dedicates his life to cinema, he does not do it to put together a selection of tastes and preferences, but because he has a certain idea of cinema and is committed to it. He speaks in his name and in the name of this idea. He says it bluntly. For this, he goes to war whether he loves it or doesn’t.
About the love for movies, from both amateurs and professionals in the industry, about the continuous curiosity and determination of a niche journalist, but also about the real need to highlight film journalism and film criticism and to talk about how it evolves and it changes opened the discussion the second edition of the Film O’Clock International Festival, that took place in Bucharest between March 1st and 6th, 2022.
The novelty was the organization of an introductory online masterclass on film journalism and the course, given by journalist and film critic Davide Abbatescianni, aimed to provide an overview of the profession of film journalism, with a special focus on editorial work carried out by specialized publications. Davide talked in the interview below about his career in the industry and what a good journalist and film critic does.
How did your love story with movies start? How about the one with journalism and when did they come together?
When I was a child I enjoyed watching movies, like many other kids my age. Somehow, I felt the need to take part in that creative process, even though I didn’t exactly know how it worked. One day, I realised that the main person in charge of the storytelling was the director, and that’s who I wanted to be. I guess I ultimately fell in love with cinema thanks to Giuseppe Tornatore’s masterpiece Cinema Paradiso. It’s still one of my favourite films. When I was 18, I enrolled in a drama school and studied Stage Directing for three years. I was entirely aware that the depth of the theatrical work with actors could have benefited my subsequent work in film. But there was still something fascinating about the theoretical side of things, and I also enrolled at the faculty of Communication Studies. I completed both full-time study paths in three years, sacrificing many hours of sleep. Then I moved to Estonia, where I could finally study film directing. During my two years at the Baltic Film and Media School – my field of specialisation was documentary – I noticed how my interests were becoming more and more hybrid, mixing journalism, film studies and, of course, the craft of film. But I never thought about becoming a film journalist or a film critic. I felt that the academia was the place where I wanted to be. In 2017, I moved to Cork to start my PhD, but before travelling to Ireland, I wrote an email to Cineuropa, asking whether the magazine was organising some internships. Someone replied and offered me to write a few articles about Irish cinema. And that’s how it all started.
Let’s think of the film director as the captain of the boat and of the film critic as a large wave that will either help that boat to its destination or hit it broadside and topple it over – why do you write and not do something else related to movies?
That’s a good question, indeed. Even though I earn most of my income through film-related writing, I do occasionally festival consultancies. I also work as a curator on a EU-backed project where I source, together with my colleagues, good titles for the film festivals organised by the delegations of the European Union worldwide.
I’m not excluding that one day I’ll be back to filmmaking. But I need something urgent, or at least interesting, to say. I’ve fought hard to reach this point, which I consider just the beginning of my career, and I feel I want to focus on journalism and criticism for the time being, I wish to learn more, to grow… I used to be very impatient, but I’ve learnt, at least in part, to work hard and wait for things to happen.Why write about European Cinema and how is it different, in your opinion to, let’s say, American or Asian cinema?
At Cineuropa, our editorial line requires us to cover the business of film in terms of European productions and co-productions. We don’t cover only EU countries, but most of the ones that are part of our continent. Generally, I believe in Europe there’s a great variety of genres and auteurs, even though our funding models are heavily state-supported and this poses certain limitations on one’s work and the sector’s expansion. As a freelance, however, I do cover extra-European titles. For example, for The New Arab I often review the region’s new releases. That’s a very interesting scene, where the appetite for content is growing, even in unexpected places. For example, today I’ve read an article by Nick Vivarelli on Variety, and apparently Saudi Arabia is now leading streaming gains in the Gulf Arab nations. That’s really surprising considering the country has lifted its ban on cinemas just four years ago. And let’s not forget how artistically prolific some countries are. Iran, Lebanon and Egypt gifted the viewers with charming films last year, such as A Hero, Hit the Road, Feathers, The Sea Ahead or Agate Mousse, to name a few.
In Romania film criticism is seen as more of a passion and less of a paid job – how do you turn writing about movies from hobby to career?
Read, watch, pitch, talk to people, write, repeat. It took me nearly four years and I had another horrible full-time job to deal with to pay my bills. Give yourself time and ask to be paid fairly. Establish a precise threshold, a fixed rate under which you will never accept any commissions. I don’t know much about the current state of Romanian film criticism but I can say I had to learn another language to make this job for a living. Besides, criticism is not bound only to the written form anymore. The beautiful video essays published by the likes of Mubi, Little White Lies and Sight & Sound are astonishing pieces of criticism, for example.
What do you think it takes to become a good film critic? How about a good film journalist?
A good film journalist needs to be up-to-date and driven by curiosity, always. The job requires a good knowledge of the industry but also to develop a wider vision of the sector and an understanding of how it works in relation to the frenetic world we live in. It’s a very dynamic job, that’s for sure. For example, the VoD landscape is just one of the market segments where news and innovations get old as we speak. If you learn how to summarise effectively the whole load of information you deal with on a daily basis, you’re already on the right path. Practice makes you faster and better, but there’s always something new to learn.
A good film critic, in my opinion, requires the same skillset in addition to an interest to study or to experience other forms of art. You don’t need to become a theatre scholar but, for example, reading a few books of history of theatre and knowing Pirandello, Chekhov or Shakespeare’s main body of work can be a great added value when it comes to reviewing films and analysing their dramaturgy, the actor’s work or the director’s mise-en-scene. I believe that everything has already been done before, more or less. So knowing what artists and masters from the past have accomplished helps us to contextualise today’s artworks even more thoroughly. And, obviously, a good film critic never fears to make his opinion clear – respectfully, for sure, but without even sugarcoating everything when it comes to review bad titles. Often, the truth is in the middle, and the majority of films are mediocre or just average – and that is totally fine, we’re humans, after all. We rarely deal with absolute nightmares or outstanding masterpieces. This is perhaps something colleagues and film enthusiasts “reviewing” films within the 180-characters limit should think about.
What were the mistakes you’ve made along the way and learned from? How about your biggest gut feelings that made it easier for you in the industry?
I’ve made so many. One thing I’ve definitely learnt is to be brief in writing emails. When approaching new editors, for example, I limit myself to a polite introduction of no more than 20-25 words, send some clips or just my portfolio link, and add a couple of short pitches I feel they would fit that publication’s editorial needs. You need to bring something to the table. Something that others could hardly offer – access to someone, to something or to somewhere interesting or, even better, exclusive. Don’t procrastinate. Send your pitch straight away. Timing is key. And don’t hesitate to follow up! Very often, editors are just too busy and would need to hire someone external to get back to everyone. As soon as you realise this, things get a bit easier.
You held a masterclass on film journalism at this edition of FOC – IFF. What are three things you would tell to someone who wants to become a film journalist?
First, work hard and don’t give up. Most of your success – I know it’s a very banal thing to say – will be based on your persistence, and not so much on your talent or perfectionism.
Second, be curious and don’t be shy. Read and watch other things that have nothing to do with cinema, ask questions, talk to people, be active on social media. Nobody will notice you or your work if you don’t show up.
Davide Abbatescianni is a journalist and film critic based in Cork. He currently works as a foreign correspondent for the EU-funded magazine Cineuropa, where he regularly writes about European cinema. His bylines also appeared on other international publications such as The Calvert Journal, The New Arab, Variety, New Scientist, POV Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Filmexplorer, Film Ireland, Cinemafemme.com, the Europa Distribution’s blog and the Independent Cinema Office’s blog.
He is a film curator for the project Support to EU Film Festivals, whose primary mission is to enhance the quality of festivals organised by the delegations of the European Union worldwide. Occasionally, he works as a festival consultant and as an External Examiner in Film Studies for the International Baccalaureate. He is also a PhD Excellence Scholar in Film and Screen Media at University College Cork.
He is a member of FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics), ICS (International Cinephile Society), FEDEORA (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) and NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies).