If there is any moral justification for bringing this massive volume of films to Seattle--at great expense, at great trouble, and ultimately great waste--it is this: We in the West believe that art makes you a better person. Furthermore, the quantity of art you consume is very important--the more art you consume, the better person you become. This is why many of us film-festival types rush from one screening to another in a frenzy, wait in long lines, or buy full-series passes: We have a fundamental faith in the soul-improving power of art. Even if our true intention for going to the festival is to meet pretty girls or handsome guys or simply to be seen and admired, we secretly believe that all these lower aspirations are absolved by the mere fact that we are imbibing massive amounts of good (and bad) "art films."
Take for example the festival film Seventeen Years, from China. The movie has very little entertainment value: It is slow, lugubrious, with long scenes of people crying, talking things over, or sitting in deep silence. Nothing much happens, and there are no special effects. In short, it is the archetypal art film: sober, slow, and foreign. And like most art films, this film with no distractions or spectacles is truly good for only one thing: the serious and holy task of improving the soul.
Seventeen Years is a work of art, meaning (for those who have faith) it enables one to enter and better appreciate the realities of an ordinary Chinese family in ways that are impossible in, say, newspaper articles, radio announcements, television reports, or even kung fu films. And because this may be the only opportunity we will get to catch it, those who watch and learn from Seventeen Years at the festival will be better persons than those who missed it. Furthermore, the number of films that will not be domestically released after their screening at the Seattle International Film Festival has increased from 60 percent to 85 percent, which means the festival has even greater moral muscle than ever before.
One fan of Seventeen Years from Florida wrote, "While working within the system, [Zhang Yuan's] latest film Seventeen Years gives the Chinese totalitarian system a human face." Indeed, it is this "human face" that many believe to be the true aim of art--the discovery of humanity in places and realties that are geographically, culturally, and chronologically different from our own. If this "human face" is missing from our real-life affairs, if we can't locate humanity in the world around us, we may do terrible, terrible things, like hang innocent black men, bomb Iraq, be indifferent to unfair trade agreements, or allow African countries like Rwanda to collapse into madness. This is the film festival's unspoken moral ground: the promise that absorbing lots and lots of art films will make you a kinder, gentler, more sensitive person. If this is not the case, then really, how in the world could the festival justify the enormous size of this art-film monster?