Film festivals in post-pandemic mode

A discussion on “The state of film festivals around the world” was held in November during the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) with event organizers from the four corners of the earth: America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Thanks to new digital tools, film festivals are continuing to provide safe havens for freedom of expression in an increasingly crisis- and conflict-ridden world.

The first legacy of the pandemic is technology. “We quickly discovered that we could all be connected simultaneously from anywhere in the world,” said Claire Diao, a festival programmer working in Europe (Cannes Film Festival and Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival) and in Africa (Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou: FESPACO).

At the peak of the pandemic, a number of festivals were entirely online, but all switched back to in-person format as soon as they could. Burkina Faso’s FESPACO was back to in-person as early as October 2020. “Guests from the West were still afraid to travel, but African participants were all there and happy to let the good times roll,” Diao said. “Everyone forgot about COVID as soon as they were on site. Once we got into dancing and partying, we realized just how much we needed human contact again.”

But the new digital tools were not forgotten once the pandemic was over. Switzerland’s Visions du Réel Film Festival, for example, kept one of its significant components online. “It was a good way for us to expand both our existing public and industry audience,” said Visions du Réel artistic advisor Madeline Robert. “Visiting Switzerland can be a very expensive proposition for those working in the sector.”

Many festivals have also evolved into hybrid models that include public screenings and an online component for business meetings for industry participants. “Given the current shortfall in funding, I think it was a smart move to maintain online meetings so that not everyone who participates has to pay for airfare and accommodations,” said Diao.

Videoconferencing has now become an essential arrow in today’s communications quiver for most festivals for getting around bureaucratic barricades as well as for enabling some surprising appearances…like when characters from director Khoa Lê’s Mère Saigon documentary were refused visas and were still able to greet the audience at the Montreal International Documentary Festival…or making it possible for Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to give a speech during the opening ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival.

A safe haven for the voices of diversity and freedom of expression

Now that the pandemic is behind us, festivals can once again focus on their mission of bringing creators, audiences, industry players, and the artists themselves together. “I really can’t imagine a documentary film festival without interaction between audience, creators, critics, and jury members, along with the thrill of watching a film about the real world and discussing it afterwards,” said International Documentary Film Festival of Mexico City (DocsMX) general manager Inti Cordera.

“The Visions du Réel festival never hesitates to program works that touch on social issues or provoke debate,” Robert said. “Our mission is, after all, to create a venue for freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas.” Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) programming director Wood Lin is in full agreement. “Our priority is to show a diversity of cultures. TIDF has been working for the past ten years to build bridges with an audience in China, where it’s next to impossible to produce and show independent films,” he said. “Hong Kong, for example, wants to be able to see its own cinema and the only way they can do that is to see it in Taiwan.”

For DocsMX’s Cordera documentary festivals provide a platform for artists “helping us to understand deep-seated crises,” and exploring “ideas for moving forward.” And there is no shortage of crises as far as Diao is concerned, “from kidnappings in Mexico, the war in Ukraine, and the recent coups d’état in French-speaking Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, not to mention climate change and inflation.”

On the other hand, should we be worried that crises like these could also pose actual threats to film festivals themselves? It appears that a lot depends on the political climate and funding decisions made by the host country. “We’re extremely fortunate to be in Switzerland,” Robert said. “Our budget is guaranteed by the government, so we don’t have to make any major cuts.” Lin is in the same boat. “The Government of Taiwan has been guaranteeing my budget since 1998. My job is to spend the money wisely.”

Other festivals don’t have it so easy. In Mexico, DocsMX made the decision to diversify its financial partners to offset the impact of the government’s dwindling interest in culture. Diao pointed out some of the political stakes in Europe and Africa. In France, the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival had its regional funding cut in half, a move some elected officials saw as a way of punishing the event for providing a platform for criticism of the government. In Burkina Faso, FESPACO got a lot of blowback for inviting nominees from a certain country because of internal geopolitical wrangling. And finally, in Tunisia, Africa’s oldest film festival – the Carthage Film Festival – cancelled its 2024 edition in support of the Palestinian people. All sure signs that film festivals should never be taken for granted in good times or bad, pandemic or otherwise.

Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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