“My son turns around to me and says, take it online, go for it”
A record number of Australian Film Festivals have now either transitioned events or gone entirely online in 2020, with two new Festivals in this day past announcing digital programs the length of traditional runs and five events set for this very evening.
“We were all very happy planning for our second Festival and of course COVID came along,” continued Sydney South African Film Festival Co-Director Claire Jankelson; today announcing a heft of features set to stream from May 16-26. “We ran our first Festival in 2019, we played at Event Cinemas and we sold out six out of eight films.”
“The essence of our Festival is that we are a not for profit and are funding Education Without Borders, a project in the Western Cape in South Africa. It was announced that cinemas are going to shut and I was completely devastated and upset because we have a commitment to Education Without Borders.”
Originally slated for May 7-17, the turnaround of several weeks saw the Festival crew and Claire’s immediate family developing the online platform to deliver flicks only 8 days later than originally scheduled. Permitting patrons to access features and indeed an all-in pass, for the first time SSAFF will go national, with a focus, much like the recently announced We Are One, very much on getting the support to those who need it most.
“This time of COVID has brought everybody much closer to their screens; there have been people approaching us from Melbourne and Perth and other places already after last year’s Festival longing to get the Festival to those places,” said Claire. “We haven’t had the wherewithal to take it there but we’re so excited it now has this reach; we would have liked for it to have an international reach but there are of course so many restrictions because of the licensing agreements with the filmmakers given fears about piracy and security – at this stage it’s only Australia wide.”
“We’re so strongly driven by our commitment to the infrastructure that has been created through Education Without Borders, that was our strong motivating factor; not knowing when the shutdown would end. We didn’t know if and when we would be able to get the money that is needed to South Africa – we’re holding out for a really fantastic response.”
“The screen culture environment is a dynamic one and in recent years it has seen massive changes in digital exhibition and a trend toward embracing streaming services – as audiences have changed, so have how to reach them,” said Festival Director Richard Sowada. “It’s up to Festivals – and the film industry at large – to keep moving, experimenting, seeking out new audiences and shape-shifting accordingly in this new landscape.”
“For us, it’s become a great opportunity and something the team were able to launch into by virtue of our collective experience. It’s quite exciting for us to explore new directions, new contexts and new audiences despite the challenges. Our program content naturally contains a high level of experimentation and motivation, so the filmmakers are right behind everything we’re doing.”
Slated to screen dozens of shorts, the communal atmosphere essential to audience participation at any Festival and moreover continued investment online has remained no small factor, with fixtures at Festivals across the country too poised to reflect, thematically and technically, the challenges uncommon to filmmakers beset by the current circumstance.
“We’re taking that spirit and giving what we can a red-hot crack by re-interpreting the Festival with talks, professional development, retrospective and curated programs, all of which are free to view on the website,” continued Richard. “The most important thing for us is providing access to an already intelligent and sophisticated program that speaks to the high standard of Creative Play short-form filmmaking in this country.”
With a record number of online events scheduled to take place tonight from numerous Festivals that have either gone online or had runs postponed or cancelled, Tasmania’s Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival will become the first major regional Festival to go online, with three weekends worth of screenings commencing this evening. Monster Fest will continue their Friday Fright Night Watch Parties with ‘Sheborg Masscare,’ SF3 will host multiple screenings of 2019 Feature Winner ‘Blue Moon,’ Static Vision will for the first time join Film Club in any evening of Canadian-centric Canuxploitation and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival will too host the Fest’s first virtual watch party.
“We have ‘Freak Show’ playing this Friday; it was actually our Opening Night film a couple of years ago at the Festival,” said MQFF CEO Maxwell Gratton. “We’ve got so far a thousand people interested to join, we’re expecting a reasonable patronage.”
“What we’re really hoping to do is engage with our audience during this challenging time. It can be isolating for many people, particularly those living alone and the elderly, but anyone during this time needs to reach out to other people and we’re hoping to create a forum where people can connect with each other. The moving image is such a powerful medium to build communities and we’re hoping to do this for those who may be isolated, who are alone, who may be vulnerable and everyone who misses that contact and connectivity; hopefully we can help build a little bit of solidarity.”
MQFF called off the remaining 8 days of their 12-day run originally scheduled for March 12-23. Devastated to do so, the Festival underlines that it was the correct decision to ensure the safety of those in the community including those with compromised immune systems, even if the sense of community the Festival engenders couldn’t be realised in its traditional form.
“COVID-19 caused us to look at our online and innovative offerings; I suspect into the future these would be good mediums and avenues to build on our existing audiences and to reach out to audiences who are unable to engage with the Festival say due to geographical constraints, for people in regional areas or for those who are for whatever reason unable to attend in person,” said Maxwell, who is hoping for a physical event in the fourth quarter of the year. “We create safe spaces, a community vibe – for that reason online offerings wont necessarily replace anything we do but can very much complement our activities in the times ahead.”
MQFF have too instigated Couch Critic; a forum where MQFF devotees can still share any and all of what they’re watching.
“It’s a lighthearted way to encourage our audience to remain connected and to share with each other queer films they’re currently seeing in isolation,” continued Maxwell. “We encourage you to do your own review, you can do it on your phone, as fancy or as simple as you’d like; what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, what’s funny, then share it with the MQFF audience.”
“We’re going to have a finale where the weekly winners will become the finalists and there will be a judging panel to present the winner who will become the MQFF Couch Critic at the 2021 Festival, write further reviews and attend films and signature events with an all-in-pass.”
Not alone, the Setting Sun Film Festival, a stalwart of Melbourne’s Sun Theatre, will too venture online for it’s seventh edition and prize-giving with an abridged series of shorts set to screen during the Fest’s original dates of May 6-12, now accessible via the Festival’s website. tilde Melbourne will likewise bring it’s community together for an online event on May 15. The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival will screen online, only four days later than its originally planned run, from May 18-24. Slated to feature one film per day each with an allotted themed, the initiative has been named ‘Humankind.’
With so many Festivals going online, the lack of technical expertise, resources and indeed tight turnovers can be hugely prohibitive. Responding to the barrier, Screen Queensland have launched the V-Fest initiative to reach Festivals where they’ve found themselves.
“The $50,000 V-Fest initiative is intended to help Festival organisers develop and deliver online experiences for existing events, or for entirely new virtual events,” said Screen Queensland via Zoom. “We believe that V-Fest has the potential to help existing events retain audiences that enjoy their physical events, but also engage with people that may have never connected with them before – this is incredibly exciting for us to be in a position to expand the reach and engagement for screen culture in Queensland.”
Helping the successful applicants address the costs involved in running and delivering a virtual screen Fest in the next 6-12 months, no doubt with a reach not limited to the north, the initiative is now open.
“V-Fest is part of our core Screen Culture funding program that promotes and highlights screen content that inspires, entertains, informs and connects audiences. While the focus for V-Fest is primarily for Queensland-based audiences, we hope to support events that may also reach a larger virtual audience across Australia and potentially the world and that V-Fest will ignite the passion for Queensland-made screen stories in local, national and international audiences.“