Fall Film Festivals: a Virtual Year of Great Programming

This pandemic year of 2020, we all face challenges. Many of us felt lonely as we quarantined, unable to see loved ones or to travel. We lost loved ones to COVID-19 and had to give-up in-person gatherings. We faced conflict–in our families, our lives and in our divisive politics. We continue to struggle to stay sane and safe. This is a year of reckoning. A year we learned that some people felt emboldened to flaunt their white supremecy and wave the American flag like it’s a Confederate Flag. The parades of yahoos in gas-guzzling fleets seemed to be on their way to a big truck rally. We have people stubborn and narcissistic enough to let others die so they can attend a wedding/Sweet Sixteen Party/BBQ. Climate Change Deniers became COVID deniers and conspiracy theory spreaders.

There’s so much fear and anger but also some hard truths were revealed. Many of us marched for social justice. We had the largest voter turnout in our history. Our International friends and allies watching in pity and horror as America squabbled and acted contrary to common sense and against our own best interests.

In this Year of the Pivot, it was no surprise that many film festivals cancelled their events. Those that rose to the challenge, reconfigured their festivals to explore online platforms, Zoom interviews and drive-in screenings. For those of us that work festivals and attend them regularly, it was a disheartening year. No celebrating cinema with our tribe. No gathering in our favorite places to see new films and compare notes on what we loved/hated; what challenged us or surprised us. Yet in this strange year there were some perks: access to festivals that we’d have never traveled to, links to films that we may have missed if we’d attended in person, and more content, creatively-curated, available to stream anywhere.

Here’s a quick run-down of my experience of six fall film festivals.

Woodstock Film Festival (WFF 2020): I traveled to the Overlook Drive-In in Poughkeepsie, NY. The screenings were all a double feature with a local or smaller film with in-person talent — then the bigger feature following. Even though it was raining on and off, I was surprised at how few cars showed up for the Ammonite screening. I was also grateful to get to see Nomadland after having watched it on my laptop. The film is full of close-ups of Frances McDormand’s face, scenic vistas and lovely low-light cinematography that was wonderful on the big screen.

Favorite: Nomadland at the Overlook Drive-In

New York Film Festival (NYFF58): I loved that there was talent at many of the Drive-In screenings and that NYFF spread the love by having 3 screens in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. There were plenty of recorded Intros and Interviews with Directors. I wish I’d been at one of the American Utopia screenings to see David Byrne and Spike Lee and maybe to dance outside my car. It was disheartening to watch a concert film on my laptop.

It was the first time I’ve paid to watch a short film. I love Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton and the interview was longer than the film, The Human Voice. Both were wonderful and inspiring.

Favorites: American Utopia, Almodóvar/Swinton interview

British Film Institutes London Film Festival (BFI LFF): There were some great interviews streaming on Facebook for free. I particularly enjoyed the talk with Christian Petzold (Director of Transit, Undine). That interview helped me understand Undine with it’s very Berlin-centric talks and the German folk tale/myth that’s the basis of the story.

American Film Institute (AFI Fest 2020): I tried to squeeze in a few films that I’d missed at other festivals. Sadly, I missed Wolfwalkers but I’m hoping to see that lovely animated film on a big screen. I watched Uncle Frank and Farewell Amor and a few of the tributes.

Favorite: Tribute to Mira Nair

Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF43): A festival near and dear to my heart. I’ve attended and worked for MVFF for over 30 years. I wish I could’ve traveled there to go to Drive-In screenings. Known for the Mind the Gap program to highlight women in film, I watched interviews and roundtable discussions than films. What was missing was the career retrospective clip reel that usually accompanies a Tribute. AFI Fest 2020 did a better job with that.

Favorite: Tribute to Dame Judi Dench

Denver Film Festival (DFF43): A wonderful balance of documentaries, shorts programs and feature films, I haven’t been able to give the program my full attention as I’ve been in the process of moving. I was delighted to discover an unusual film, Little Fishes that shared a theme with an earlier screening, Apples (Mila). What was missing was Intros and Q&A’s with filmmakers. How is it a festival if there are no filmmaker insights? Otherwise, it’s a curated streaming of independent films.

Favorite: Little Fishes

One take-away from this year of online film festivals, I think that many will continue to use this new hybrid model. If a festival like MVFF that uses small auditoriums for some of it’s biggest ticket/celebrity events, can make them accessible to a larger audience—why wouldn’t they continue to offer an online version for sale? If a festival like AFI can gather filmmakers and film critics from around the world to appear together via Zoom and cut the costs and climate affects due to travel—why wouldn’t they continue to do so? Perhaps due to the online nature of screening, more people were exposed to films that they wouldn’t have watched in-person. Was there the same buzz generated? Will it help films get the attention to attract buyers and distributors? That remains to be seen.

What was missing to me was the comradery. Many times I’d watch a film and feel that need to discuss it. With screenings available in multiple time frames and mulitple platforms, it wasn’t the same to jump on social media to compare notes. The joy of gathering in person to hear the gasps and laughs and share the joy and tears elicited by a screening with talent there to discuss their experience and shed insight–that is something that can’t be beat.

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