HFM Boat Sessions 2020: How Do Stories Shine in the Pandemic Age?

Steered by Hayet Benkara (Locarno Pro, IFFR, TIFF), a boatful of expert panel­lists told of their expe­ri­ences in navi­gating the murky waters of the pandemic during 2020. Hayet’s fellow crew members were Hannah Verboom (Cine tree), film­maker Déa Gjinovci, the Bristol Watershed’s Mark Cosgrove and Richard Pena, (director emer­itus, New York Film Festival) Hannah opened the conver­sa­tion to explain how her cineaste streaming plat­form rose to the pandemic chal­lenge. She described her company as a mission-driven plat­form, as a David within a Goliath country. But Covid accel­er­ated us to do what we are set up to do”. She initially adjusted her program­ming online to offer up hopeful” titles, and we were able to make our service avail­able for every­body for the first weeks of Covid, because we really felt strongly that we wanted to do some­thing, that we wanted to give some­thing in a time when every­body suddenly had to stay home.” Numbers grew as the company solid­i­fied busi­ness rela­tion­ships with festi­vals such as Movies that Matter, and they also put online collec­tions from IDFA and IFFR and a small collec­tion of NFF. For TVOD we have been looking espe­cially at how we can facil­i­tate the film festi­vals because we saw that a lot changed there. We have a beau­tiful collec­tion now with Movies that Matter, films about human rights. But for SVOD, our main core, we didn\‘t see that much differ­ence.” Some­times we have campaigns…we try to use certain films, like I Am Not Your Negro when Black Lives Matter happened, together with the distrib­utor to make the movie for free. On social media it went viral and many thou­sands of people watched the film and there were so many discus­sions and conver­sa­tions because of that film.” I think the audi­ence is really hungry to watch these stories,” she added. Film­maker Déa Gjinovci spoke of her disap­point­ment in there being no live world première for her debut feature docu­men­tary Wake Up On Mars, selected for Tribeca and Visions du Reel, among other festi­vals. It was quite devas­tating because every­thing happened so fast,” she says, after a long period of hard work for which she received no money, making a lot of sacri­fices, and then no live première. I needed this catharsis, this moment to have with my crew, with the char­ac­ters of the film, and the film to really have a sense of comple­tion and to see it more as a ritual to say, now the film is done and it is going into the universe and will have its life’. We [normally] have this cere­mony that is very impor­tant.” She added: There are sublim­inal moments in a filmmaker’s life where you can always imagine your first big festival or your first big screening and not to have that was very diffi­cult.” She voiced her dissat­is­fac­tion with some festi­vals which didn\‘t offer much by way of feed­back, whether in terms of online viewing numbers, feed­back or even the date of screening. It is weird to see a work of art you have created, and not being able at all to engage with it and the reac­tions of the audi­ence.” But not so Visions du Reel. Visions was good because we pre-recorded a Q & A. They gave us stats at the end telling us how many people watched the film. It was crazy. In 24 hours in Switzer­land there were 4000 people who watched the film. That would never happen in a phys­ical edition of Visions du Reel.” Richard Pena was asked how, in these times of pandemic, festi­vals can keep the audi­ence contin­u­ally engaged with the films they select. I used say to my colleagues that what we present at the Lincoln Centre is movies plus’. In other words, if it’s just movies then you are competing even now more with plat­forms, people having enor­mous home systems, so you have to give people more than movies…People want more of an expe­ri­ence than that. So of course it starts with in-person dialogue with film­makers, or experts or with panels.” He pointed out how, as a example. when program­ming an African season they would organise a fashion a fashion show, as there are a lot of African designers in New York. He continued: Increas­ingly, program­mers now have to think, what are we doing with this group after the screening, as our job as program­mers doesn\‘t end just because the film is over. A new phase begins, and maybe the pandemic has made that audi­ence even more avail­able… So the work of the programmer has evolved to really think of that post-screening time as a time of active inter­ven­tion.” Mark Cosgrove of the Water­shed cinema and arts complex in Bristol discussed the past six months as much within a polit­ical frame­work as an epidemi­o­log­ical one. The cinema that I have been working in, inde­pen­dent cinema, and the work that I do at the Water­shed, the film is part of a conver­sa­tion, part of a discus­sion, it does not come out of nowhere. Films come out of the shared culture that we live in, and audi­ences want to engage in more than just watching the film,” he said. He cited the example of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Bristol was involved in the slave trade. We just recently toppled the statue of a slave trader. When you show a film like that in a city like Bristol, you can’t just show it. People want to discuss what that means. We did a whole lot of events with black organ­i­sa­tions in Bristol. We worked very closely with a group called Come the Revo­lu­tion which is a black curating group, and we set up formal and informal ways that [the film] could be engaged with, and there were some of the most powerful conver­sa­tions that that film started.” The film was a major focal point, but actu­ally one of the most impor­tant spaces was our café bar,” he added. I cannot reit­erate how impor­tant a social space is for the pre- and post‑, and its actu­ally that point when the meaning of the film, and I am talking about when meaning becomes mean­ingful, when those conver­sa­tions happen.” On the subject of Covid, Mark stressed how we no longer existed.. An exis­ten­tial crisis happened in the sense that for the first time in 100 years cinema didn’t exist… We thought we would close for 6 weeks… but then it was obvious it was more serious.” He points out that he was very quickly approached by the online plat­form MUBI to offer online subscrip­tions. They are a bril­liant supporter of cinema and of film culture in its broadest sense, so we set up a free subscrip­tion for our members. We worked with the BFI to have a programme on their player, and then we started doing virtual cinema.” And now as we have reopened, what I am real­ising is that the tools that were talked about in terms of online, that Covid has driven expo­nen­tially the change that digital promised, which is that it’s all avail­able, it’s all there. But there is so much [content] now that I think people still want a sense of cura­tion, a sense of trusted engage­ment. Who are the voices?’ What is it’ What is trying to be said?” We screened a number of films virtu­ally like Clemency and Coup 53, and we have done box office splits with these, and I know that is going to become part of the vocab­u­lary of film exhi­bi­tion in cinema and online, and we will use these tools as we are at the moment as we go forward. But I still firmly believe that festi­vals are really the heart­beat of the inter­na­tional film world. Some­thing happens at film festi­vals which is really impor­tant, and impor­tant for film in general.” Richard added on main­stream exhi­bi­tion: I think the main­stream commer­cial world is going through a really radical change. They are ulti­mately only inter­ested in the money, and if they can get the money through online plat­forms then they don\‘t need the theatrical. The demise of the movie theatre? The pandemic has speeded this up [and] I wonder if they will re-open. They’re not a profit point. Very few films make money and the recent failure of Tenet should serve as a warning.” He also touched on the global versus local ques­tion, citing the example in Brooklyn of micro-cinemas popping up to show local films. Maybe more atten­tion will be placed on local product,” he said. The panel­lists offered up some final words before disem­barking from the film boat. Déa expressed how there are still a few months left of 2020, so instead of seeing it in a nega­tive light, let’s cele­brate as the films of 2020 seem more as a triumph.” Mark under­lined how film and film­making isn’t going away… and we are getting audi­ences that want to come back and see films. From my own side it’s about making sure we get through this pandemic as a busi­ness. I have seen three film­makers locally already who have made their first features, and I want to help them get their films onto the screen. It will be a hybrid but I think that is now going to be part of the vocab­u­lary of cinema going forward.” Richard observed that even­tu­ally things will return — but not to normal, if we mean by normal what used to exist. Some things I think are changing and I think what we have to do is to prepare ourselves to make sure that those changes are to the advan­tage of the inde­pen­dent film commu­nity, the world film commu­nity, but we’re not going back to where it was. That really is for me some­thing that is beyond repair, and it’s because the world has changed.” For Hannah, there were three issues. We are in the world cinema, not commer­cial, so we really need to work together …we need to be inno­v­a­tive, we need to be so on top of things because it is really tough busi­ness-wise, even for an online plat­form we have already seen a small decrease because people are looking at their member­ships and their fees so busi­ness wise we need to be really clever.” Secondly, she under­lined cura­tion to satisfy curious and smart, and thirdly we need to think of the films as campaigns. How is this film rele­vant? Keep blazing a conversation.”
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