2021 – C1: Film Festivals: Developments & Futures

Chair: Virginia Crisp

The Online Film Festival
Richard Misek (The Space)

Abstract: With cinemas around the world closed or reconfigured for socially distanced audiences, COVID-19 has turned the film festival landscape upside down. Film festivals, once focused almost exclusively on physically-sited activities, have typically been faced with the choice of cancelling or going online. Most have chosen the latter, but the move has been a problematic one: going online challenges the traditional role of the film festival as a gathering place for audiences, filmmakers, and industry representatives. It also reopens the thorny question of how cinema should situate itself within the broader media culture of video streaming. As such, the experiments and debates currently taking place around online festival programming form a microcosm of – and a flashpoint for – one of the defining challenges currently facing the world’s film industries: how to engage with digital distribution? This paper explores this challenge by reflecting on the present, transitional and potentially pivotal, moment in the history of the film festival. As lockdowns (perhaps) ease over the spring and summer of 2021, festival directors and programmers have a fundamental choice to make. Do they return to the old model of the physically-sited festival, or do they continue offering digital programmes as a complement to their sited events? Views are currently sharply divided. On the one hand, festivals including Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, and CPH:DOX have embraced the potential of online programming to reach wider and potentially more diverse audiences – and expressed their intention to continue online. On the one hand, various influential ‘red carpet’ festivals including Cannes, Berlinale, and Venice have chosen to cancel rather than go online, perceiving digital programming as the final attack against their decades-long struggle to cinematic spectatorship. Whose image of the future of the film festival will prevail?

Bio: Richard Misek is a filmmaker and academic, whose work explores and occupies the spaces between documentary, art, and online video. His feature-length essay film ‘Rohmer in Paris’ (2014) has been at venues including the National Museum of Art (Washington D.C.), the Barbican Centre and BFI Southbank (London), and Forum des images (Paris). He is also a pioneer in the emergent field of audiovisual film and media studies, has been frequently cited in many best-of lists of video essays, and has led two recent AHRC research projects on the video essay (2016-19); his real-time VR video essay ‘A Machine for Viewing’ (made in collaboration with Charlie Shackleton and Oscar Raby) screened at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. He is currently Principal Investigator on the AHRC project, ‘Widening Access to Arts and Culture through Video Streaming’, a collaboration with Arts Council England and The Space.

European Film Festivals in Transition: Reshaping the Traditional Festival Format
Roderik Smits (University Carlos III)

Abstract: This paper analyses how online developments in the film industry are impacting on the role of film festivals in Europe. Film festivals in particular make an enriching contribution to film culture and the ways that individuals and groups in society are represented on screen. They offer distribution opportunities and create value for films large and small, often with an emphasis on films that attend to marginalised voices and representations of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community. They are also interactive events that bring communities together and facilitate discussion with audience members about stories and subject matters of selected films, thereby encouraging empathy, civic engagement and reflection upon the world in which we live. This paper focuses on their continuing value as they are responding to changing circumstances brought about by online streaming platforms and lockdowns imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the physical space of cinemas traditionally facilitates collective viewing experiences and cultural exchanges for film festivals, their engagement with online opportunities raises questions about their ongoing activities in the future. Film festival experiments with online activities are taking place for several years, but the COVID-19 pandemic is having a transformative impact, with many film festivals turning to online events as opposed to physical events. Such increased engagement with online opportunities calls for research about new strategic directions as the traditional festival format is being reshaped. My research draws on 10 expert interviews with Managing Directors, Artistic Directors, Strategic Managers and Lead Programmers of leading film festivals in Europe, including London, Rotterdam and Göteborg. It develops current discussions about the transitional state of film festivals. While academic scholarship often focuses on case studies of individual film festivals, there is a need for more comparative research that brings together perspectives from various film festivals.

Bio: Dr. Roderik Smits is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University Carlos III of Madrid (Spain), working on his research project ‘Online Platforms and Film Circulation’ (www.onlinefilmcirculation.com). His research focuses on the changing nature of screen industries. He is author of Gatekeeping in the Evolving Business of Independent Film Distribution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). His work has been published in Poetics, Studies in European Cinema, Cultural Trends, Arts and the Market and Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Against Silence – All Voices
Stefania Haritou

Abstract: This paper sheds light on the work of Contra el Silencio Todas las Voces (Against Silence – All Voices), a civil association based in Mexico City that holds a biannual film festival “the Hispano-American encounter of independent documentary film and video”, a public videotheque with all the films that enter the festival and an exhibition platform. The paper aims to explore what the contrasting terms voice and silence might mean in Mexico’s media environment and to look into the cultural, social and political dimensions they might have. Focused on social issues, the festival’s welcomes documentaries on the following themes: social movements, migration, exile, indigenous population, women and human rights, environmental issues, sustainable development, social change and citizenship. These films are expressions and means of communication of the voices silenced within the status quo of the Mexican society or ignored in the mainstream media coverage. They are also films that find unequal or no distribution within the monopolistic practices of distribution and exhibition. Crucial to the association’s work is the exhibition of films that form part of its videotheque in community cinemas, but also in squares and schools in Mexico’s capital and moreover in remote villages across the whole country. In a wider context of disinformation for the social and political dysfunctions of the neoliberal era, the association offers a space of voice and what voice might mean (e.g. narration, recognition, inclusion) for those seeking to shape social change. It forms a notable case in examining the politics of who has voice and whose voice is silenced and also who is listening.

Bio: Stefania Haritou studied philosophy in Greece and film studies in London. She has been researching media with a focus on film and film material practices the last 10-15 years both in the UK and Mexico, where she has been involved in projects on film piracy, projection and distribution practices, ecomedia. Nowadays she lives in Athens and gives seminars to children and young students about film history.

Would online film festivals become a new direction? Using Hugoeast Virtual Cinema Festival as an example
Shawn Pan (Columbia University)

Abstract: Hugoeast Virtual Cinema is a young but vibrant film festival that was founded in 2018 in New York City. With its unique focus on screening Chinese films, it quickly owned a place among Chinese young students and filmmakers. In response to Covid-19, Hugoeast Virtual Cinema put forward the idea of an online film festival and successfully held it for the first time in May in 2020. Although till now, many film festivals, including the top ones, are trying to put the screening events on the Internet, Hugoeast Virtual Cinema is without doubt one of the earliest festivals that tried to do so. What was Hugoeast Virtual Cinema’s strategy? What’s the difference between different online screening events? What’s the audience’s response? Would online film festivals be more popular? These are the questions I want to explore in this paper.

Bio: Shawn Pan is a first-year graduate student from School of Arts of Columbia University. Before joining in the Columbia University, I had an MFA and a BA from Nanjing University. My research interest includes contemporary Chinese cinema, film festival, new media arts and digital storytelling.