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Film Festivals, Here and Abroad, Are Changing, and It’s Good

Mingle at Sundance! Pop into Powell River! Going virtual has its benefits.

Dorothy Woodend 9 Feb

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Despite the darned pandemic, film festivals have persevered across the world, and a genuine flowering of creativity and innovation has resulted. Whether it’s the London Film Festival designing a virtual gallery underneath the Thames or the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s program do {not} play, which recreated the experience of karaoke and partying on down in Amsterdam, all manner of bold experimentation is on offer.

And as a former film programmer, let me tell you. This is good!

The Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier may be at the vanguard of new programming. It went the avatar route this year, offering attendees a variety of virtual spaces where they could meet, network and socialize. Admittedly it looked a little like a Minecraft version of the festival, with digitally created bars, receptions areas and screening rooms.

The digital avatars themselves were especially hard to take seriously — stubby little bodies and a video chat window where people’s faces were supposed to be, all scuttling about attempting to wheel and deal. But in spite of the weirdness, the reaction to the online experience seemed generally positive.

Here in British Columbia, the Victoria Film Festival launched on Friday and runs until Valentine’s Day, and the Powell River Film Festival is also up and running with a fun and varied program including films The New Corporation, The Magnitude of All Things and Zappa.

The Vancouver Mountain International Film Festival opens Feb. 19 with an expansive program. And in Toronto, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is offering a slate of films, live Zoom events and filmmaker Q&A's to audiences across Canada for free from Feb. 18 to 22.

The Victoria festival isn’t going quite as high tech as Sundance, but it does offer online hang out sessions for people to well, hang out. As festival director Kathy Kay puts it, “It’s the weirdest festival we’ve ever done.”

Even its altered state, the festival has a well-rounded selection of documentaries, narrative features and industry programs, all of it accessible across B.C. Kay says going online was “a bit of a steep learning curve,” but she’s happy about offering a full slate of films, along with pre-taped Q&A's with filmmakers.

I have a few thoughts on the online festival transition. Without actual humans in attendance, the work of putting on an event does seem to become smoother — no filmmakers missing their flights, no angry lineups in the rain, no passive-aggressive patrons trying to save an entire row of seats for their friends. And festivals are much more environmentally friendly.

A few years back when I was working at the Vancouver International Film Festival, a programming stream that highlighted sustainability, better environmental practices and a greener festival all around was proposed. But as one dyspeptic staff person noted, the most environmentally impactful thing VIFF could do was to not have a festival at all. By which they meant doing away with international travel, hotel rooms and the rest was the greenest possible choice. Of course, this didn’t happen, but the experience stuck with me.

After years of working in event organizing and festival production, I started to feel some serious misgivings about how wasteful a lot of it was — program guides, posters, badges and lanyards — all of it destined for the recycle bin or landfill after the event was over.

To be perfectly honest, going to festivals in different parts of the world is lots of fun. But in hindsight, now wearing my COVID-19 goggles (and my sustainability specs), most large-scale international events, conferences and symposiums are pretty hard to justify.

The arts are especially guilty of creating massive carbon footprints. Air travel alone for any large touring company is enormous. And in addition to actual artists and performers, there are programmers, producers and administrators all circumnavigating the globe in order to attend events.

(Even if you’re not going anywhere, the promotional arm of the film industry will find you and inundate you with useless stuff. During awards season the film studios go into overdrive, with a deluge of swag designed to nudge critics towards voting for a particular film. Most of it I have no idea what to do with. Would anyone like a porcelain camellia oil diffuser?)

Virtual festivals, although not without costs or complications, at least do away with some of these issues. They offer a degree of accessibility that hitherto wasn’t available to people who live in remote and rural places, or those who couldn’t afford to attend. Hotel rooms in Cannes are not cheap, yo.

In the case of Sundance this year, anyone with internet access and $25 could wander the digital spaces of Park City, Utah, mingling with the movie-making folks. Who knows what might come from this new season of openness? Weird new pitches from weird new people making for all kinds of curious stuff?

The Sundance experiment might be a one-off, or maybe it will become an ongoing feature of the festival. In an interview with Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, programmer Shari Frilot was philosophical about the virtual aspects of the event.

“New Frontier has always been the experiment of Sundance, where we really push the envelope and figure out how emerging technology is affecting cinema culture, and at the same time pushing cinema culture with technology,” she said. “On the film side, it’s not necessarily going to be this way every year, but with New Frontier, why go back?”

Lots of people hope to return to the old models of film festivals (the kind with fleshy people), but there is something to be gained in looking at these new ones.

As new forms of media continue to emerge from virtual reality to augmented reality to mixed reality, artists and filmmakers have an exponentially vast new set of tools with which to make cool stuff. Why not expand this type of innovation to festivals themselves on a more permanent basis?

In a post-pandemic world, the combination of local festivals for local people with a rich and varied online component for more far-flung folks might offer the best of both worlds. One can dream.  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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