The gains and losses of online film festivals
In January and February 2020, the Berlinale, the Sundance Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) all managed to hold in-person screenings before COVID-19 gathered at such a scale iimpossible. The following year, those same three festivals felt the full brunt of the constraining impact of the pandemic, forced to scale back their schedules and bring films to their online audiences. In 2022, the Berlinale will once again take place in cinemas, but citing the increase in Omicron cases, IFFR and Sundance have taken the decision to move their January events to online platforms for the second year in a row. .
Seeing the work at film festivals in a form in which participants are so geographically dispersed presents some challenges. When in-person events started moving online, there was a lot of talk about the opportunities presented by transformation. In March 2020, when events scheduled for CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival) were transplanted to the web in just three days‘ opinion, the conversation focused on the fact that streaming movies online increases both access and affordability. However, filmmakers who had to create their works in this way generally seemed much less enthusiastic about the move.
IFFR’s 2022 Ammodo Tiger Short Film Competition provides an effective way to examine both what is lost and what is gained in the artist dialogue experience‘ films as part of a virtual film festival. Something that was evident in the selection for this year’s competition was the suitability of a particular style of filmmaking for online presentation: the essay film, as Maryam Tafakory‘s Nazarbazi (2022) and Hsu Che-yu The making of crime scenes (2022). Works that relied more on sound design or visual spectacle – such as the sensory work of speculative fiction by Juanita Onzaga Tomorrow is a water palace (2022) or the rhythmic and spiritual bodily odyssey by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic songs to live (2022) – were somewhat diminished by the small screen, being deprived of the impact they would have in a cinema.
Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner Constant (2022), however, seemed to develop in the context of an online presentation. Exploring the history of standardized measurement, the two artists use a number of different visual techniques, such as animation, photogrammetry (extraction of 3D information from photographs), and 360-degree videography. – all of which are themselves cinematic technologies often used for measurement purposes – to delve into the social and political ideas that their chosen subject puts forward. A dense and discursive film-essay as we associate it with Harun Farocki or Hito Steyerl, or more recently with Theo Anthony, Constant is a work that deserves to be viewed in a web browser. Having the ability to pause and reflect on the playful, sardonic storytelling was helpful – replaying the film helped reveal the complexity of its construction.
Although it was conceived as a six-channel installation, Sara Cwynar’s installation Glass Life (2021) also performed surprisingly well in a single-screen format online. Even denser in sound and visual content than Constant, the film plays with ideas of incomprehensibility, layering lines of comedic narration and quotes alongside stacks of fast-moving, fast-cut images with a beguiling yet confusing pace and rhythm. All of Cwyner’s recent videos explore similar themes of consumer culture, capitalism and identity, but here the artist’s ideas materialize in their sharpest, most musical and colorful form.
Watch Artists‘ Online movies aren’t new — there have been services for a long time that offer a way to watch them legally at home. What’s different about watching works as part of a festival is the ability to access them in volume over a short period of time. Normally, IFFR schedules its short films and works by artists in moving images so that they are all presented over a single weekend, allowing artists and enthusiasts to come together for an intensive collective experience that includes screenings, discussions and performances. A viewer viewing these works online finds themselves able to access much of the same film material from the festival in its conventional form, but without the attendant community experience. The work itself may be what counts, but without the presence of other people, something unquantifiable is lost.
A work presented as part of the Tiger Competition, that of Rainer Kohlberger Respond to the sun (2022), managed to retain some flavor of the distinctive character aesthetic experience usually found at this particular festival, although something was still lost without the social element. An hour-long audio-visual assault comprised of shifting sequences of radiant flashing patterns and light fields, the film does not present new ground for the artist – rather it is an extension of his established practice. Still, with an inexpensive household projector at their disposal and the free time to ensure an hour of focused isolation, any IFFR participant might have a singular visualization experience, absorbing colorful sound and sound prompts that by design would be different for each viewer. It was a shame then not to be able to discuss it with anyone afterwards. IFFR organizers obviously value the collective experience, but such a context also happens to be one in which a highly infectious virus thrives. Kohlberger’s film is definitely not a work of art meant for virtual transmission, but in difficult times, you have to make the most of what you have.
Main image: Sara Cwynar, Glass Life, 2021, film still. Courtesy of IFFR