Like it or not, 2020 is the year of virtual film festivals

Online film festivals can't re-create the energy and electricity of a live screening, but will offer us an escape from day-to-day coronavirus life

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      By Norman Wilner

      If not for the coronavirus, you’d be paging through NOW’s big Hot Docs issue right now, scanning our reviews and coverage to pick a documentary worth standing in a rush line to see.

      And me? Having already written 30 or 40 of those reviews, I’d be walking around glassy-eyed, trying to enjoy a few moments of the May sunshine between screenings at the Hot Docs festival. And I would be happy, because however much I might crab about being overloaded during the spring film-festival season, I would be enjoying the hell out of it.

      There is no spring film-festival season this year, of course, unless you count the parade of cancellations and postponements that started in March, when theatres shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, and continued through April, as it became clear those theatres wouldn’t be opening back up any time soon. Now even the fall festivals are working on virtual editions.

      As the film industry figures out how to negotiate this weird new normal, some festivals are taking themselves online. Hot Docs struck a deal with CBC to broadcast a modest selection of the festival’s premieres and organizers announced that over half of the festival’s 2020 titles will be available to stream online starting May 28.

      The Canadian Film Fest, which was to take place at the end of March, will now hold a “virtual festival” on Super Channel Fuse from May 21 to June 6.

      The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is going digital instead, announcing it will make some 35 features and documentaries available to stream in the GTA from May 30 to June 7 while still planning to hold a physical festival from October 22 to November 1.

      Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, normally held in early May, will be online from June 18 to 26, with live events and pre-recorded Q&As.

      And just a few days ago, Montreal’s Fantasia declared that its 2020 edition would be going virtual in August – and available to all of Canada, not just Montrealers.

      It brings up a certain existential question: can an online festival even come close to recapturing the spirit of a physical one?

      But most film festivals have a retrospective component. The real thrills come from stumbling onto something new—a film, a filmmaker, a movement—surrounded by a rapt audience.

      I’ve attended hundreds, if not thousands, of festival screenings over the decades—yes, I am old—and I treasure those rare moments when the whole room suddenly clicks onto the movie’s frequency.

      I’m thinking of the world premiere of The Shape Of Water at the Elgin in 2017, when 1,200 people swooned at Guillermo Del Toro’s romantic vision of a Universal creature feature, or the press and industry screening of Sound Of Metal last September in the IMAX room at the Scotiabank, where a few hundred critics held their breath at the audacity of Darius Marder’s final shot before exploding into applause. (That almost never happens at press screenings; mostly we just nod appreciatively and start scribbling down notes.)

      Can you replicate an experience like that at home? Is it even possible? Will a harrowing documentary like For Sama or On the President’s Orders grab you the same way if you’re safely situated in your own environment with a pause button readily available, rather than trapped in a dark auditorium with no sense of control?

      Part of the bargain—and the appeal—of a film festival is our surrender to the collective experience: we walk into that theatre, sit down with everyone else, and watch a movie together. In the best version of that experience, the audience becomes a single organism, laughing or crying simultaneously… or very nearly so, anyway.

      The Vancouver International Film Festival is trying to replicate that thrill of discovery by releasing a handful of titles: its new at-home series includes some new films like France's Alice and the Mongol Derby documentary All the Wild Horses.

      Hot Docs is dropping all of its features and shorts at once on the morning of May 28, with prerecorded Q&As attached to every title.

      There’s also the We Are One Global Film Festival, a 10-day digital festival featuring “films, shorts, documentaries, music, comedy, and conversations” curated from film festivals around the world, including TIFF, Cannes, and Sundance. Produced by Tribeca Enterprises as a benefit for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, it’ll launch on YouTube May 29, programming to be announced.

      But of course the question isn’t whether online film festivals are a good idea. They’re literally all we have right now, and we have to make the best of it. And by “we” I don’t just mean moviegoers—a term that has become antiquated in a matter of weeks—but filmmakers as well. Festivals let them bring their work to buyers as well as audiences.

      This year, of course, the whole thing is happening online and the pitches are prerecorded, which will remove some of the energy and spontaneity from the sessions. But it’s still going forward, and some of those projects will find homes as a result. Whether they’ll actually be produced this year is another question, of course, and one that no amount of funding can affect.

      Which gets me back to the other reason we should look forward to these virtual festivals: if nothing else, at least they offer us an escape from the day-to-day desolation of coronavirus life. It’s not like any of us has a choice, after all.