How film festivals present themselves to viewers on the internet in lieu of, or in combination with, an actual on-site festival is a pressing topic in these days of a lingering pandemic, in particular as hybrid formats may very well be the wave of the future. Sven Schwarz, administrative director of the Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg, talked about his experiences with Reinhard W. Wolf. They spoke in particular about concepts that look beyond the arguably futile attempt to simulate an on-site festival online and yet manage to preserve the essential character of the festival, and also about which formats are suitable for this purpose and show potential for further development.
Reinhard: The Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg could not be held as scheduled in June 2020 due to the pandemic. But you wanted to at least show the competition films at the cinema the following November. Even if there had been no lockdown at the time, this still would have meant abandoning everything that distinguishes a festival from a normal everyday film screening. In 2021, the scenario threatened to repeat itself. Relatively early on, it was clear that it would not be possible to hold the 37th festival either as a physical event with guests and an audience.
So you and your colleagues opted for an online event, which you interestingly enough did not call an online festival but an “Online Happening des Festivals”. Sven, could you please explain first why you chose that designation and what it signifies for you.
Sven: At the beginning of April we decided that the festival would be viewable almost exclusively online. At least for the most part, that is, because, in addition to the online activities, we were able to present an exhibition of video installations by Lebanese video artist Akram Zaatari on site.
We deliberately called our online edition “Online Happening” to distinguish it from a mere presentation of films online. It was important to us that the festival should feel like “Hamburg” and that we could make the individual character of our festival tangible online. It was supposed to happen online! One of the key elements was that the festival would be held at a certain time. What makes a festival unique is usually what happens only once, on site. For that reason, 90% of our online events were live, with no possibility of later “re-watching”. This meant that viewers had to show up on time, just like at a real festival – you have to be there or you miss it. The filmmakers who took part in the film talks, for example, reacted very positively to this concept, as you can talk much more freely online if you’re not thinking in the back of your mind that whatever you say will be available online for all eternity.
Our opening and our awards ceremony were also online happenings! We didn’t want to just drag the familiar formats of these events into the digital space but to work with the totally new possibilities that opened up. If we can’t be at the cinema, we don’t have to be at the cinema, so we can free ourselves from the spatial constraints and protocol of an official event at the cinema. That allowed us to really freewheel it.
Reinhard: I didn’t watch your online opening. I don’t find festival openings that exciting even under normal circumstances. They are often stiff and formal – in other words, boring. You don’t really need to simulate that online, do you? How and where did you present the opening online?
Sven: True, festival openings are rarely very exciting, and if the element of getting together and seeing each other again in person is missing as well, you’re entering pretty unattractive territory. So we definitely didn’t want to just reproduce on the internet what we normally do at the movie theatre. Personally, I find it rather depressing when speeches are held before an empty auditorium and then streamed online. Like I said, we couldn’t be at the cinema, so we didn’t have to hold the event there. With the help of the Hamburg video artists from Auge Altona (who, among other things, produce a lot of videos for the group Deichkind), we developed a concept that can best be described as an opening mashup. The speeches given by the festival directors were filmed before a green screen in our festival warehouse, the usual address held by the State Senator for Culture was turned into a fast-paced, edited question and answer session, the whole thing was mixed with film clips and graphic elements, and then the usual components such as the presentation of the juries and the thank-you’s to patrons, sponsors and the team were integrated as snippets. Opening and closing the event was a live (on tape) performance by the Hamburg musicians’ collective One Mother, which we filmed at the Metropolis cinema. There, too, we were able to deviate from the usual stage setting and let the musicians roam throughout the auditorium. So we freed ourselves from the corset of protocol and spatial constraints customary for an opening and were able to produce something that we really had fun with!
On opening night, viewers were able to watch this opening mashup for a very limited time only. Here, too, we wanted to approximate the uniqueness of the moment, so you had to be online at a certain time if you wanted to be there. Just like at the cinema – if you arrived late, you missed out.
Reinhard: I looked in on the awards ceremony. If I saw things correctly, it was produced in a hybrid manner. On the one hand, as a recording you made as organiser, which almost looked like a party. In your offices? And on the other hand, video feeds of the jury members’ justifications were interspersed along with statements by the award-winners, all of whom were unable to come in person. How did you link the live and online components? And which parts were you able to shoot more freely than when the ceremony takes place on location?
Sven: To be honest, the entire awards ceremony was pre-recorded so we weren’t completely at the mercy of the challenges of a live stream. But we did do the recording as close as possible to the morning of the last day of the festival. I guess we didn’t want to work completely without time pressure, and besides, we still had to wait for the results of the audience awards. Peter Haueis, who directed the awards ceremony and was also responsible for the editing, worked on the final version up to the very last minute – and even a while longer. That’s just part of producing an awards ceremony, even under normal conditions.
The “party” you mentioned was in fact shot at our offices. That was after all where the festival took place for us, because we spent a week of very long days there with the core team, and we also came up with the amusing idea of letting the Cumbia band “Estrellas de Carla” simply play on our premises amid all the desks. Here, too, the same motto applied as at the opening. If we can’t go to the cinema, we don’t have to. This is definitely a kind of freedom we have gained from what is actually a very restricted situation. And the fact that the whole team had a lot of fun with the entire production – despite the large amount of effort required – is also very important. I am convinced that this mood came across in our version of an awards ceremony and that the filmmakers also picked up on it and it gave them an idea of what our festival is actually like. Basically, you might say that the common thread of our online events was that we didn’t want (or need) to do many of the things we usually find boring but that are somehow just part of the event. I think we managed to free ourselves from them quite well and to produce something that really feels like our festival to us – a real online happening.
Reinhard: What I find interesting and remarkable is that it is not immediately obvious to viewers whether they are watching a live broadcast, a “canned” one, or a hybrid of the two. Such phenomena have so far been treated in media theory only in the context of television. But here we find ourselves in the border zones between several different media and cultural practices: the on-site festival event, the recording of the event on film, and its digital reproduction and distribution on the internet. So it’s quite paradoxical that you – like many other festivals – offer the programmes to interested viewers only during a limited time frame in a medium whose great advantage over others is anytime, anywhere access for an unlimited number of viewers. However, I do find the hybridization of production that you mentioned very interesting and think that it probably holds great potential for further development. This really is new territory!
We are probably in agreement that the essential feature of a film festival, namely the social and sociable proximity of the participants, can never, ever be replaced. But can you imagine such hybrid presentation formats remaining an integral part of festivals from now on?
Sven: I’m sort of on the fence here. On the one hand, there is hardly anything festival organizers long for more than to finally present a “real” physical festival again, which will clearly shift the focus away from online formats. That said, what we have learned in the last one and a half years has opened up opportunities to reach completely new target groups who cannot or do not want to come to Hamburg for various reasons, but to whom we would still like to offer a festival experience that conveys our idea of a festival in a fitting manner. We will certainly transfer some elements from the online festivals to a “regular” festival format just because we have now learned how it works and the infrastructure is there. Nevertheless, we must not forget that a hybrid festival always means double the workload – even if only a few elements are hybrid.
Reinhard: You’re right! After the pandemic is over, that additional effort would still have to be put in and financed. Under current conditions, the expenses can be offset by reduced costs for travel and guest services. And instead of paying to rent rooms, you have to pay for hosting on servers. The costs can only be offset, though, if savings are realized on personal on-site presence and direct communication. But for the latter, especially for conversations with and between filmmakers, there are, in my opinion, no technically or conceptually acceptable solutions that would be viable beyond the emergency situation.
By this I mean in particular the recording and broadcasting of so-called video conferences. The algorithms on all the major platforms only allow for a kind of single-channel selfie, with tiles on a screen that only give the illusion of meeting up in person. This may work for people who already know each other, such as family members or colleagues. But getting to know someone new and having a productive dialogue beyond just exchanging statements hardly seems possible to me using this medium. And that’s really what festivals are all about. What do you think? Completely foregoing the participation of filmmakers from a distance is surely not a solution. What do you think would be an acceptable way to go about this?
Sven: I think that in the near future there will be no getting around having filmmakers participate in our festivals digitally. With an online-only version at any rate, and with hybrid versions as well. While there will be a great desire to attend festivals in person again in the future, the necessity of travel is for many reasons more likely to be questioned than it was before Covid-19. For that reason, the tiles we have now become accustomed to will probably be around for a while longer. But I am sure that with good camera work and, even more importantly, better moderation this can be done in an exciting way. Simply streaming six tiles live does not have to be the standard that festivals work with; it can be made more interesting and loosened up a bit. One option would be hybrid conversations such as those seen at the Dokfest Munich and the Berlinale Shorts, but here, too, we must keep in mind that a lot of work goes into making this possible.
In our case, we noticed that filmmakers felt very much at home in the live streams thanks to good moderation and that something like real communication developed between participants in the discussions. Perhaps the fact that our film talks could only be viewed live was what allowed this relaxed and open conversational atmosphere to unfold. At the end of the day, though, content is – and should always be – more important than form, so maybe we’ll manage to ignore how we often find video calls rather uninspired.
We can basically say that we learned over the first one and a half years of the coronavirus how the technology functions and that the next step will be to work on using it in an interesting way. But we shouldn’t underestimate how steep the learning curve has been in recent days and how we have all participated in a development that under normal circumstances would not have happened at all, or if so, only very slowly.
Reinhard: Yes, some festivals had to go online at very short notice. So it is understandable that they had to make use of the tools at hand with all their inherent shortcomings. But as we may be forced to make use of telemedia for a long time to come, or we may deliberately choose to use them in future hybrid events, I anticipate that especially those active in the film sector will strive for cinematic quality here just as in their regular work and will not neglect to enforce the high aesthetic and social standards that apply to selecting and presenting films and to the culture of conversation. Therefore, as you say, the next step would be to work on making better use of the available technology.
Do you have any suggestions? And do you and your colleagues in Hamburg already have plans for your online presentation of the upcoming festival?
Sven: First of all, let me just say that I have the utmost respect for what everyone in the (short) film festival industry has achieved during the pandemic. The basic conditions for the various festivals, especially from a financial standpoint, are extremely diverse, so that the starting points were and are of course completely different for each festival.
But I think we’ve reached the point, as you also noted, where we’ve learned how to use the tools, so that how well we present ourselves online now is really a matter of content.
Of course, I don’t have any universally valid suggestions, and we in Hamburg have certainly not yet polished our presentation and interview formats to perfection, so I don’t want to presume to tell anyone else what to do. But we are naturally already devoting thought to how to approach the topic of online presentation for our next festival. We would like to take advantage of the elements we think are good – and for which there is a need – in a “regular” festival as well, in order to broaden our audience and our online presence. However, I am very sceptical about an online presence for all the festival’s content where there is no need for it.
Especially in summer, the desire to watch short-film programmes at home is rather limited, and if the industry has already been able to view the films online elsewhere, a large group of potential viewers is immediately eliminated. So I think the opportunities for an online presence lie beyond the area of film programmes. Whether and how we will present larger film discussion panels digitally is not yet clear; there are still questions to be answered, such as whether individual Q&As should also be brought into the auditorium via live stream. I see the focus as being instead on panel and workshop presentations where we can bring in participants digitally, among other things to deal with the problem of travel.
Basically, however, the two elements of moderation and camera work are the levers we can manipulate to ensure that our guests are presented well online and feel integrated into the festival.
And then there is the huge topic of virtual meeting places, where there is certainly still plenty of room for improvement …
 Alongside artistic director Maike Mia Höhne. For contact information, see “Team” at https://festival.shortfilm.com/en/contact