The Hired Hand – Not just another blah-blah-blog

January 15, 2021

Am I My Brother’s (and Sister’s) Gatekeeper?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:28 pm
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Writer. Dancer. Woman. Wife. Mom. Stepmom. Teacher. Aunt. Volunteer. Poet. Activist. Introvert. Beach lover. You could call these my designer labels. And now I suppose I should add one more: gatekeeper.

After receiving an email seeking screeners for the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival (GPJFF), I decided to apply. I don’t claim to be a film expert and stated as such. Imagine my excitement (and surprise) when I was named to the screening committee. The GPJFF is one of the longest-running Jewish film festivals in the country and Philadelphia’s first film festival.

I got to thinking about how my roles as dance writer/critic for thINKingDANCE and as a screener for the film festival make me a de facto gatekeeper. To those who equate gatekeeping with censorship, I contend that gatekeepers fill a much-needed role in society.

It is fitting that my background is in journalism. Journalists are credited—or blamed—with being the gatekeepers of news. What is considered newsworthy? Is a story’s newsworthiness determined by the importance of other events that occur in the same news cycle? Who has editorial control, the writer or editor? While political, economic, and societal biases factor into the question of gatekeeping, I believe that in an age of so much information we need people and organizations to curate it for us.

These age-old questions have confounded editorial staffs and editorial boards for years. The fact that we still are asking ourselves the same questions over and over again is telling. At thINKingDANCE I, along with other writers and editors, grapple with similar questions as we strive to fully represent the Greater Philadelphia dance community. And now that I find myself in the role of film screener, new versions of these questions swirl through my mind.

It’s one thing to watch a dance performance for sheer enjoyment. It’s quite another to watch and critique it, translating movement and emotion into words, hoping nothing gets lost in translation. Likewise, it’s one thing to merely watch a film for pure entertainment, perhaps munching on popcorn, as opposed to viewing a film to determine if it is worthy of inclusion in a film festival. Both the dance critic and the film screener control the narrative, but the film screener has more control than the critic. The former may influence whether people choose to see a performance, while the latter makes that decision for them.

As I ponder my dual roles as a gatekeeper, I cannot help but notice many parallels between dance and film. Music is an important element in both genres, providing tempo and emotion. We experience dance guided by the choreographer’s perspective, just as we see a film through the cinematographer’s lens. Based on my experience, I find one major difference in the two roles. As dance critic, I share my personal reaction to the performance. As film screener, I  balance my personal preferences with those of other theater-goers. GPJFF screeners must fill out a form for each initial screening, determining whether a film should be considered for possible inclusion. If a film makes it to the next round, screeners fill out a more detailed form for each film. As I preview a film, I take into account the storyline, the acting, the directing and, most importantly, whether I think it will appeal to a broader audience.

Matt Bussy, GPJFF director, says that even before COVID-19, screeners always reviewed movies on their own. The screeners typically get together near the end of summer (last year was an exception for obvious reasons) and watch several short films prior to the Fall Fest to build community and finalize the festival lineup.

“Throughout the year, the staff at GPJFF seeks out the newest Jewish films by researching the latest film festivals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and new movies from distributors,” Bussy says. “Every two to three weeks, the committee meets up to discuss which films we think were the strongest and could be a good fit for any of our yearly festivals.”

So I ask you (and myself): Is being a gatekeeper such a bad thing? Given today’s glut of information, I would argue that gatekeepers provide a valuable service to society. We help people find the information they are seeking. Want information on the Philadelphia dance scene? Check out thINKingDANCE. Want to watch Jewish films in Philly? Check out the GPJFF. We do not claim to be everything to everyone, and that’s OK.

In fact, I would argue that as gatekeeper it’s my duty to swing the gate wide open, not shut it. I make a concerted effort to review dance performances created by those who have been marginalized by the “mainstream” dance community and to expose readers to a variety of dance forms. I pride myself on the fact that I help bring the films of as-yet-unknown filmmakers to a broader audience, to choose films that address hard-to-digest topics, ones that encourage dialogue and understanding.

Whether I’m reviewing a performance or screening a film, I take my role very seriously. Artists have poured their collective heart and soul into these works, and I owe it to them—and their audiences—to view their creations fairly. I consider it a privilege, and I can only hope I do so with a great sense of responsibility and respect.

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