Diary: Fondly Remembering Festivals

by MLP

This (non)year, ‘film festivals’ referred to a melange of (largely virtual) gatherings unlike those we have grown so accustomed to. With so many festivals suddenly happening at once in more or less the same space, all vying for our already-fractured attention, this year’s stream-scape became at times a mix of heaven and hell.  

One of the best virtual programs (not a ‘festival’ per se) that I investigated was the ‘After Civilization’ series put on by Maysles Cinema, which I learned about through the indispensable Screen/Stream Slate. Their founder and editor Jon Dieringer also named it one of the best in his ‘Six Months’ piece. Screen Slate has consistently provided incredible resources for learning about new (and interesting!) streaming programs and one-off screenings. They also highlighted ‘Radical Acts of Care‘, curated by Greg de Cuir Jr. and presented by Media City Film Festival’s Dark Dark Gallery — which featured a pristine new presentation of The House Is Black. Media City subsequently presented the next chapter in their ‘THOUSANDSUNDS CINEMA‘ program, which was nothing short of remarkable, and included a title I had not expected to see available to stream — one of my favorite works of the last decade: Brouillard: Passage #14 (2012), by Alexandre Larose.

In 2015 I attended the Berlin Film Festival for the first time, the primordial event of my ‘film career’, as it were. It has become a yearly staple for me, the only festival I have attended every year without fail since. It was my first time at any major festival, and I was representing a small outlet run by other budding cinephiles, The Focus Pull. We were so proud to have coverage of a major international festival that you can still see a side banner announcing my daily coverage on the now-defunct site (guess what year they stopped publishing). I was excited to be there, and ended up cranking out an insane 10 daily reports, 12 reviews, and a ‘Best of the Fest’. Afterward, I shared a link to all of this material on reddit, where someone pointed out that I couldn’t just report on a festival with diary-style entries, because I wasn’t Roger Ebert. I’d like to dedicate the following diary-style thoughts on festivals to that user, wherever they may be. Thus this article is a catch-all catch-up (and obligatory collection of links — reinforcing the web, which is worldwide!) for…an awful lot of viewing.

VILNIUS

In April of 2019 I was graciously re-invited to the Vilnius Film Festival, or as it’s known in Lithuanian, Kino Pavasaris – ‘Cinema Spring’. While at the festival I managed to see five films on the big screen: Burning (2018), Maya (2018), Hyenas (1992), Nenette & Boni (1996) and White Material (2009).

The last two titles were screened (on 35mm!) as part of the festival’s Clare Denis retrospective. Hyenas was screened as part of the other director retrospective of that year, Djibril Diop Mambéty. While it was not screened on celluloid, it was a beautifully restored DCP, in which the colors and music truly shimmered in the desert heat. Although Mambéty made four other short-to-medium length films, the retrospective only featured his sole other feature-length film, 1973’s Touki Bouki.

As part of the Talents Nest conference, I attended an informative talk about what it takes to run a film festival, which featured speakers from New Horizons, CPH PIX and Vilnius’ own festival. At the time they all spoke of initiatives begun in extending screenings into the digital realm, something that really paid off when this year’s crisis meant most festivals had to be moved to a virtual streaming model or canceled outright practically overnight.

On my last night in town my local friend (who is the largest part of the reason I have been twice invited to the festival, thank you Karolis!) took me to a concert which was literally underground, in the basement of a rather official-looking building. The band, Epic Schmetterling (‘Schmetterling’ being German for ‘butterfly’) was a two-piece from Strasbourg, France (right on the border with Germany) playing some rowdy & danceable chiptune rock.

During my stay I managed to see a much larger part of the city than last time, as there weren’t many screenings prior to the afternoon. I brought my camera along for the walks and wound up with a Mekas-homage film which developed into a music video for the Chicago duo Good Fuck, who ‘Barely Made It Out of Italy‘ at the beginning of the pandemic.

The 2020 edition of the Vilnius Film Festival was held virtually, featuring a catalog of on-demand titles. The 2021 edition of Vilnius IFF is currently slated for March 18 – April 1.

This year’s on-demand catalog included two films we’ve written about:

ROTTERDAM

It’s only been a year, but it feels like a lifetime ago; memories of freewheeling through physical space in another city… My critical reactions to films at IFFR this year came (much to my own surprise) in the form of two videos rather than written texts. The first was a short video essay tribute to my own mother, via an homage to Marion Hänsel’s Nuages, lettres à mon fils (2001), also known as Clouds, Letters to My Son. It premiered on Festivalists:

The second was an impromptu interview asking me to share my thoughts on Nasir, the best film I saw at the festival. Nasir later played in the ‘We are One’ festival on youtube, as well as in the Mumbai Film Festival. Certainly one of the best films of 2020.

Two other notable titles from this year’s edition: 15 Days (1980), a diary spoken direct-to-camera by writer-turned-filmmaker Suzuki Shiroyasu, and Judy Versus Capitalism (2020), in which experimental veteran Mike Hoolboom uses audio recordings of iconic second wave Canadian activist-feminist Judy Rebick as the score for a variety of visual manipulations, mixing found footage of Judy on the news with more abstract material filmed on his own.

Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the 2021 edition of IFFR will take place online and in person February 1-7 and June 2-6.

BERLINALE

Attending Berlin this year, I had no idea it would end up being my last in-person experience at a festival for the foreseeable future. Actually I guess I had a vague idea — already in Rotterdam I wondered if I was being reckless simply by traveling to a major international event where Covid-19 was sure to make a guest appearance. Near the end of Berlinale a friend told me he’d heard the first case had been officially recorded in Berlin, and that it would be announced the day after the festival ended.

My festival reports via Photogenie, as well as one interview here on our site:

ANN ARBOR + FID MARSEILLE

Ann Arbor and FID Marseille were both covered for us by Ejla Kovačević this year, the former online and the latter in person.

SHEFFIELD DOCS

This year Sheffield held a special focus on experimental filmmaker Lynne Sachs, which happened to line up nicely with our own Sachs interview, conducted by Tijana Perović.

Sheffield took the most ‘long-haul’ hybrid approach to streaming their festival, in that as I typed this (in October), they were holding a new streaming event which included one of my favorite 2020 short films, Point and Line to Plane by Sofia Bohdanowicz.

OPEN CITY DOCS

At Open City Docs I was most interested in Bottled Songs 1-4, a desktop-documentary correspondence between Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee, alternating authors from section to section. As each filmmaker drafts their next email to the other, we are lead through their internet-rabbit-hole investigations of terrorist acts, ISIS propaganda, and questioning how to identify documentary truth versus staged performance when our only primary source imagery comes directly from a group like ISIS.

Bottle Songs seemed to be in unconscious dialog with a short film from the festival, Good Ended Happily, in which the camera careens shakily through a realistic war movie ‘set’ as off-screen directions are called out once in a while, “Everyone inside! Die! All of you!” The horror and absurdity of so many convincing dead bodies, absolute stillness, and being told not to move reverberates through the empty spaces. “Americans!” are summoned. There is constant visual noise in the darkness, as the camera’s sensor is pushed beyond its limits.

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

Patrick Preziosi gave us a review from NYFF:

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

and Ruairí McCann gave us five in-depth reviews from the London Film Festival:

ULTRA DOGME VIRTUAL FILM FESTIVAL

And of course, we kicked off a virtual festival of our own here on the site, with 15 programs before going on a 4-month hiatus followed by our first live-stream. Clicking this image will take you to the listing of all 16 programs:

FRACTO EXPERIMENTAL FILM ENCOUNTER

This was my first year as assistant curator at Fracto, and we managed to hold an in-person festival shortly before Berlin’s second lockdown, alongside a parallel streaming event. At least two films from the festival are available to stream on their filmmakers’ respective vimeo pages, so feel free to check those out for a taste of Fracto:

The Whole Shebang by Ken Jacobs

Avant l’effondrement du Mont Blanc by Jacques Perconte

That was more or less our year of festivals. There were plenty more streaming events, and our contributor Ejla Kovačević ensured the success of in-person screenings (including the premiere of a new Dorsky film) at 25FPS in Zagreb.

When things felt somewhat ‘normal’ again for a short time in the summer, I was asked back into work at the end of July and saw a poster for what I believe was the first new film to play freshly re-opened cinemas; What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? Seeing that poster, the question no longer felt rhetorical.

Near the end of the summer I finally worked up the courage to attend one outdoor screening before it got too cold; Little Women. This was a film that I had no desire to see when it came to cinemas a year earlier, and I still held little desire to see it now, but outdoor screenings in Berlin summers have always been wildly limited in their offerings.

Personally, apart from Fracto, I have been to a cinema once since Berlinale this year: for a Sunday afternoon screening curated and hosted by Robert Beavers and Ute Aurand at Arsenal, the kino which sits in the basement of the same building which houses the Film museum and DFFB film school. Here is what they screened (though they ended up showing All My Life first):

“For ages 6 and up”, as this was just one screening in a multi-city (though not this year) series by Aurand and Beavers, aimed at introducing the joys of experimental cinema to younger viewers. I wrote a little bit more about this in my tribute to Bruce Baillie over on Photogénie. Suffice to say it was a very pleasant Sunday afternoon.

So that’s more or less my festival diary. Sure, we all miss festivals. Sure, there was no shortage of new material to watch. Yes, being at home all the time has meant most of us curate our own viewing habits like never before, as there is rarely a shortage of time in which to see what we want to see. And while I know the end of 2020 does not by any means mark the end of Covid, hopefully the road ahead to a world of hugging friends is much shorter than the one behind us.

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