New York City – where catastrophes on a global scale climax in near-record frequency. And when it comes to COVID-19, New York City is definitely able to defend its claim here.
For me, this Hollywood cliché became reality when I was a guest at the New York International Children’s Film Festival in March. As I flew in on 6 March, I could not imagine that for the time being this would be the last festival I would attend in a conventional manner – and I am now open to the accusation that I did not take the warnings from relevant sources, such as “The Simpsons” TV series, seriously enough – but we are always smarter afterwards.
After quite a turbulent journey back home, I am now living here in the day after tomorrow – in a world of virtual online film festivals.
In this new world order, the first festival I was allowed to attend was the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The AAFF turned 58 this year, meaning that it is not exactly in the generation of the digital natives, the young people who have become socialised with digital communications technologies. All the more impressive how well and especially how quickly the festival created a complete digital version from scratch.
The talks and discussions among the filmmakers were held as Zoom conferences. And while almost no one needs an explanation of what this means today, at that time it was a completely new experience for me. The word “zoom” certainly lives up to its name, as I was able to determine quickly: Over the last few months, I have been able to scrutinise more nostrils with microscopic precision than I would normally be used to as a 1.80-metre tall person.
uring our Zoom meeting for the short film competition, filmmakers from Turkey, Japan, Korea, Germany and the USA joined in the discussions. All of the filmmakers from this block actually managed to be present online regardless of how early or late it was at this time where they were. This made it a truly unique event, one that was far less likely to have occurred this way in Michigan, probably. I would certainly not have been there.
Prior to the start, the presenter gave us some easily understood instructions and the opportunity to get to know each other. Which was nice. Moreover, the festival had already uploaded the films online prior to this by live stream (curated and with fixed screening times) and compiled questions from viewers that were then forwarded during the Zoom conference. Of course, it was a pity not getting to know the presenter and the other filmmakers personally and not being able to have talks and discussions with them. On the other hand, after the screenings I was able to look at their websites and other works in a concentrated manner, which you easily forget otherwise in the hustle and bustle of a festival. Moreover, several online guests contacted me via platforms such as Facebook or vimeo after my screening, so at least my digital network was expanded.
I do not want to claim that this may be better than interpersonal contacts. It is different. But, under the circumstances, it is in my opinion a nice and frankly interesting attempt to make and have contacts by using the means available.
Furthermore, the Ann Arbor Festival offered radically reduced submission fees to all of the guests invited this year for the next festival edition. Which was for me a gesture of goodwill that strengthened the community.
This event was followed by FiSH Film Festival Rostock, where I had the honour, as a jury member, of participating in further video conferences. The FiSH organisers had already tested out various communications platforms, such as Jitsy or Discord, for instance. But Zoom proved to be the most stable one. Events such as the official opening and the awards ceremony were broadcast live via YouTube, with no registration of any sort required to view them. I would personally be grateful to have to register with as few further platforms as possible in the future. FiSH achieved impressive international viewer numbers, which hopefully led to broader name recognition.
The VIS Vienna Shorts, the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film and Annecy International Animation Film Festival also set up their own online platforms, via which it was possible with an accreditation to view their films, special programmes and courses on end devices at home. I would like to mention a few aspects here that left positive impressions on me: What I liked about the VIS Vienna Shorts was that I was proactively offered and paid a screening fee for a film that was selected as part of the special programme (which should of course be taken for granted but, as I have heard of other experiences in this regard, I wanted to emphasise it positively here). Likewise, I thought it was good that the complete programme was not viewable from the beginning, but only firstly on those days when the related screenings would have really been held in the cinemas. This meant that as a viewer I was able to decide to watch the curated short films together with other viewers at the same time, which did at least give the feeling of having a shared, mutual experience. And for that, there were still further opportunities to see the films again afterwards in case you had missed any of them.
A further very positive effect of the online events is that I was able to listen to far more masterclasses and rounds of discussions than would have been possible otherwise. Especially at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, the demand for events with top-name guests or popular topics is often so enormous that you rarely manage to get into them. Not to mention the people who are unable to travel to the festival at all for various reasons.
And finally there is one aspect that simply has to be mentioned: Unlike over the last few years, for once I did not crisscross the globe on airplanes in 2020 as thought there is no tomorrow anymore. Already over the last year I had done my best not to get on any planes. But in the film scene, there is always a certain pressure to be part of everything everywhere and at all times in order to represent your film as well as possible and shake as many hands as possible. And this will also continue to be important, presumably. But we should all try to arrange our stays abroad more sustainably and more consciously, and give serious consideration to which trips are really necessary and important – on the one hand, for our personal careers and, on the other hand, for the good of humankind. Now this may sound dramatic. But I am even going to go one step further: If we do not do so, there will not even be a tomorrow.
The Corona Short Film Festival, the “first and hopefully last one”, as it was worded benevolently in its self-description, proved to be a completely unique experience. This festival was established at the initiative of the actor Dejan Bućin in reaction to the international isolation. Calls were issued to filmmakers and enthusiasts to submit films that were made while complying with the contact restrictions. 36 films were screened online, the online audience got to choose their favourite and an illustrious jury awarded the main prize. The festival achieved an amazing reach and coverage within a short time, and the organisers used this to draw attention to the work being done by the Doctors without Borders organisation and appeal for donations. A worthy cause.
But what are online festivals not able to do? Well, they are not able to recreate the wonderful experience of having dozens of people from all possible cultures sitting together in a darkened room while they all experience and live through the same lucid dream. I cannot imagine that anyone would seriously wish for film festivals to be permanently shifted into online formats. But what we can take from the experience of the pandemic, which has become part of our lives for now, are the opportunities to make events more accessible for all those interested.
Digital communications can give filmmakers the chance to have exchanges with the audiences about their films without being put under pressure to always necessarily be personally present on location at the specific festival or event. And this is also related to the opportunities (for single mothers, artists with minimum income, people with restricted travel permits, filmmakers with disabilities, etc.) to receive awards. Which could, in turn, improve equal opportunities. The film festival world from the day after tomorrow could be a clever combination of the internet and the real world – whatever the latter may even be.
 Despite this I would like to do so: Zoom is an online startup from the USA that offers online video conferences in which a number of people with digital end devices can participate at the same time. Since March 2020, the platform has advanced to become the international market leader. I would, however, like to point out that there are also alternatives that should be used for comparison purposes if you are interested in data protection.