I found out the hard way that we had been mis-informed. Our film was actually not in competition. How did I find this out? In one of our nightly dinners I found myself sitting next to one of the documentary competition judges. I was paralyzed between trying to make a nervous joke about our film to see if she reacted enthusiastically and saying nothing in order to maintain a sense of fairness. I said something to the person on the other side of me that I thought it was odd that they would ask the filmmakers and the judges to the same dinner. The person hissed "you should talk to her!"
At film festivals you see a real struggle play out on the faces of nearly everyone around you. You can tell immediately who is a filmmaker because he or she is wearing an anxious expression; a combination of weariness, determination, and desperation. Why is this the case? Because this person, usually a soul-searching obsessive type perfectly happy when wrestling with the larger themes of what makes us human, is suddenly thrust into the role of used car salesman.
All filmmakers at festivals feel the sickening urge that they need to be "doing something" with their film: trying to make a connection, pass off a post-card, drum up attendance, meet a sales rep, get a lead on Australian distribution, meet a programmer for the next festival, find a potential investor. You can see the conflict play out on their faces, and I'm no exception. So, shamefully, when the filmmaker next to me prodded me to talk to the judge, I turned and waited for a pause in the conversation and said something along the lines of
"So, do you see all the films in advance?"
"Oh. I'm Clayton Brown. I'm the co-director of The Atom Smashers."
Pregnant pause as she sipped some wine.
"Oh. Is that here at the festival?"
Needless to say, I was slightly flummoxed.
"Y - yes," I said. "It's a documentary. It's in competition."
"Oh, no, I don't think so," she said firmly. "I would have seen it."
And that was that. She turned back to her wine and I turned back to my reindeer. The filmmaker on the other side of me shrugged.
Interestingly, two days later, this judge became quite friendly to me. I'm not sure why, but at that night's dinner she came right up to me and we hung out the rest of the evening together. She decided in no uncertain terms that I was going to have lutefisk.
What is lutefisk? It's a bit hard to describe. Check out this link for a full explanation, but I'll give you a brief rundown: it's rotting fish that's been soaked in lye.
That's right; lye. After soaking in various solutions of water and lye for over a week, the fish has a jelly-like consistency and is caustic. Only more soaking in water will render it non-poisonous. Doing this step incorrectly will turn the fish into soap. I'm not kidding. Even when done correctly, you can't use your good dinnerware because lutefisk will permanently ruin silver.
It's served with a couple of potatoes and a small pot of bacon. You dribble the bacon over the jelly-like fish which gives it some semblance of flavor.
Interestingly, some of the younger Norwegians at our table had never had lutefisk and stubbornly refused to even try it (I should have taken this as a warning. Actually I did, but the judge with me would have none of it. She ordered for me, and the waitress had an odd expression upon leaving. I asked about this and the judge told me that she had indicated exactly what sequence everything should arrive in. "I think she thinks I'm bossy," she said. "I think you're bossy," I told her.) They said "this fish is poison. It's made of caustic chemicals. It has lye. It's not meant for human consumption!"
So, I'll be honest, it was not my favorite. I was grateful for the bacon, at least, and the plain potato. At least I earned the respect of the judge.
In some ways I was not as disappointed as I thought I would be when I found we weren't in competition. It took a little of the pressure off. This is perhaps why I enjoyed the second screening of the film much more. It wasn't quite sold out, but the crowd was much livelier. Earlier in the week I had had a couple of conversations with other filmmakers, including Pietra Bretkelly, who had a great film at the festival called The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. She was talking after one of her screenings and said "I think I shocked the audience with my film. No one said a word at the Q&A afterwards." Turns out many of us had the same experience, and when we asked the festival organizers, they said "oh, yeah. Norwegians are shy. It takes them a while to ask questions."
But luckily, the shy Norwegians had apparently gotten up their collective nerve because there was a lengthy and spirited Q&A session after the second screening.
Oh, one more thing: after eating the Lutefisk, one of the other filmmakers came around and said "hey, I heard you were looking for European distribution. There are a couple of sales reps over there at the next table." So I had to put on my used-car salesman face and head over there. Turns out one of them was interested in the film, and after I got back to the states said she wanted another copy...