A Spring of Stories – The Flowering of Online Film Festivals

Adi Iskandar logs on to see the tree from the forest of online film festivals.

Hitting our stride in December is probably not the best of times to entitle an article using the word ‘spring’. Following the more conventional understanding of northern hemisphere weather patterns, we’re looking at the autumn of falling leaves, perhaps even a winter of discontent, rather than the bright sunshine of April.

However, in the context of Southeast Asian film appreciation, it does feel like a flowering of sorts. Soon enough, the online Luang Prabang Film Festival will be upon us, showcasing some intriguing stories from the region. The model mimics the SeaShorts Film Festival; held in September, that Malaysia-based event was the culmination of a two-week film fiesta in the country, as we also took in Pesta Filem KITA and the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival in quick succession.

The online mode has been catalysed by the COVID-19 global lockdown. The shuttering of many countries in March earlier this year have not led to a prolonged suppression of cinematic appreciation. Yes, the likes of the Cannes Film Festival have taken a leave of absence for the year, but others have come in to at least try to bridge some of that gap. The We Are One Global Film Festival, for instance, was the first major one, hosted on the streaming platform YouTube.

While I greatly appreciated the abundance in films and stories, not all are impressed by it. “It is a modified and downsized version,” said Dina Iordanova, a University of St. Andrews film lecturer. “It was lacking any territorial experience, and any proper contextualisation. Because of this, the film festival cannot play its corrective role.”

The comments were made in the course of a virtual talk entitled ‘Film Festivals in the Pandemic Era’. Hosted by Monash University in August, that session saw Iordanova hold court as she waxed lyrical about the pros and cons of online film festivals. The long and short of it is that she does not foresee this as displacing the actual film festival experience. “The assumption is that this is some hiccup, and then things will go back to normal, so one searches for a one-off solution.”

She does admit, however, that the smaller size also means greater accessibility, allowing for more people to watch films without great expenditure. “I cannot remember such an abundance of film material on my fingertips,” she noted. “In the early days, I found myself quite overwhelmed.” This is true; as much as I like what We Are One had to offer, it’s also difficult to navigate a path through the random selection on offer.

There is, however, that greater flexibility in schedule. Iordanova reflected upon her experience of the online film festival hosted by the Federation of Film Societies of India. “I usually dedicate 14 to 16 hours a day for festival activities. So 8 to 10 hours per week is actually manageable.” It helps that on this occasion, where possible the film’s makers take part in a post-screening discussion, better mimicking the real-life equivalent. “I felt I was part of something curated.”

This form of curation is what piques her interest. After all, what is a text without its context? Answering that question helps to position it better against alternative options. “The festival is in direct competition with the curated platform,” said Iordanova, referring to on-demand streaming services and other online entertainment. “If Netflix regard Epic Games as their main competitor, I think festivals now have to wake up and acknowledge that they’re in direct competition with these curated platforms.”

They’re also important financially. In addition to watching films, people also partake in a variety of activities, a boon to the local economy. Ergo, a lack of physical events to attend will result in decreased footfall. “In the longer run, if not held live, larger festivals bring few benefits for the immediate economy, so there will be fewer festivals, fewer jobs, fewer beneficiary cities,” said Iordanova. “It will be increasingly difficult for festivals to assert their relevance.”

This impact can be felt beyond the festival timeframe, as festivals are organised as much as a geographic marketing exercise as it is a celebration of cinema. “The festival is an economy of prestige event,” she says, highlighting their importance in the projection not only of films, but also branding; the allure of Cannes originates in the film stars setting its skies alight annually, and it is this gravitas that justifies the bill. “The figures of the festivals do not make sense unless we make define it differently.”

Additionally, that air permeates the perception of the films selected for screening. Marijke de Valck, in ‘Film Festivals: From European geopolitics to global cinephelia’, explains the other side of this business of cultural prestige using Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Through the selection of his films ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’, ‘Blissfully Yours’ and ‘Tropical Malady’ at events like Cannes and Rotterdam, he gains a currency he wouldn’t have otherwise.

She notes how these films, already unconventional to begin with, can be elevated in the eyes of the audience and, perhaps more importantly, the financiers: “Weerasethakul is one of the many Third World filmmakers who depend on the international film festival circuit and its related opportunities.” Though she is not wrong, her wording suggests a strong white European bias we must bear in mind in these analyses.

I am also not in total agreement with Iordanova’s suggestion that the primary focus of film festivals is not on the films themselves. “I am quite critical of the cinephile view of festivals, that the festivals are mainly to showcase films and cinema,” she said. Perhaps that is true in how the festivals are seen by organisers and local authorities. However, I feel that the main anchor of these events remain the films and their communal celebration; that other factors are equally true need not diminish this fact.

Beyond the economic context, there may also be a downward spiral of creative catalysts. Ian Christie, a film academic participating in the Iordanova session, noted this damaging spiral. “What is disappearing is perhaps a Bazinian notion of a festival,” he said, invoking Andre Bazin’s concept of the film festival experience to a form of pilgrimage. “If you can’t be there, then you have to ask yourself whether that’s gone, or whether that can be recovered by other means.”

For many, that is the key to unlocking the next levels of their career. In a previous article we published, Edmund Yeo noted how the response from and interaction with foreigners is invigorating. “Being able to attend a screening of my own work was mind-blowing,” he said of his experience at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival, representing ‘Chicken Rice Mystery’. “I was so excited to know that the hard work of my cast and crew was recognised by a film festival so far away.”

That same article also noted how such symbiosis can be important to unlock the next level. “Due to the clout of Berlinale, they were able to bring in some of the world’s best script doctors,” said Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan, whose ‘Popeye’ was selected for the screenwriting lab Script Station at the 2014 Berlinale. “It was a humbling experience, to say the least, to have your script read by one of the advisors there.” Iordanova terms this as an industry node, where creative types and suits can come together at festivals to catalyse further endeavours.

What is certainly true is how the online mode have democratised the film festival experience. True, we may lose some by way of ‘prestige’ and industrial links, but I appreciate opportunities to view films I wouldn’t have otherwise. Similarly, the sudden ubiquity of Zoom sessions has also normalised webinars, allowing for a greater flow of ideas that would have cost so much in time, money and effort to attend.

It is ironic, for without the above, I would not have partaken in Iordanova’s session the way I did. She may be skeptical of the means, but while there is merit in her points, it does not invalidate the value of how this mode of online festivals has become à la mode, offering us more windows to the world than we would have otherwise.

We previously republished a piece by Iordanova on the Cannes Film Festival.

Featured image credit: Towards Data Science

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