Is an Online Festival Still a Festival?

in 50th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Salvatore Marfella

2021 was an important year for the IFFR (International Film Festival of Rotterdam), one of the most important European film festivals in the world. Indeed, it was the fiftieth anniversary of this glorious event taking place in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, these most adverse circumstances obliged the organizers to show the films remotely. No guests, no red carpets, no frills, no flummeries—all stripped away. Mainly, no queues or screenings in cinemas: Guaranteeing safety in these pandemic times was considered to be too dangerous.

Although it was probably less difficult to manage, the Festival Board did its best to create a familiar atmosphere, with seminars between old and young critics, and meetings between them and the festival staff, but it is quite clear that such an experience is not desirable as the future of film festivals. What happened during this week of screenings? Critics, accredited press, and public were committed to watching film in solitude, in their houses, possibly with their laptops on their knees or through a TV with cable connection, and so on. It is clear that cinema needs a big screen, with people (either insiders, professional, or public) joined together in the dark, with no physical distance, enjoying the films, thrilling during the screening, sharing their opinions and, in case of a jury, “fighting” for making their ideas and considerations as persuasive as possible without any problem with an Internet connection (which may happen even with this, of course).

Whilst writing, cinemas have re-opened in some countries whereas most screens are still off in the majority of them. The whole cinema chain has been keeping alive mostly in streaming, and most productions and sets have been blocked due to the pandemic and forced lockdown. Like other Festivals (recently even the prestigious Berlinale, which operated a different choice from Cannes) Rotterdam was forced to adhere to this method of use: streaming premieres, Zoom conversations, Q&A, and online marketplace. Nevertheless, Covid-19 permitting, from 2-6 June an event on location should take place giving the Festival its real identity and vocation. Moreover, a film festival is the place where the buzz is mostly generated, where the industry representatives meet and negotiate purchases and sales of the whole sector. But, aside from the industrial aspect, the aesthetic one needs to be considered. It might be stated that many films risk being diminished by streaming, and in some ways, a lot of directors may be starting to re-conceive their works considering that they will never see the dark of a cinema theatre. As for the latter, this phenomenon is already widespread with TV series or films conceived for streaming platforms (such as Netflix, HBO, Disney+, etc., etc.). As far as the first aspect is concerned, keeping into consideration the Rotterdam Film Festival, there were some films strongly influenced, in a negative way, by streaming. For instance, works like the Thai The Edge of Daybreak (2021) by Taiki Sakpisit, which was the FIPRESCI winner, boasted a shining black-and-white photography and the artistic use of monochrome for revealing internal feelings, a skilful use of shadow and light: In summary, an aesthetic precision that only a viewing in a cinema is able to enhance. The same discourse can be made for other films included in the Tiger Competition: another couple of black-and-white works, Bipolar (2021) by China’s Queena Li, and Black Medusa (2021), written and directed by Tunisia’s Ismaël Youssef Chebbi, and I Comete – A Corsican Summer (2021) by Pascal Tagnati, where the French director catches the magical light of a Corsican village.

In the end, our hope is that all festivals will soon be a live experience or, at least, a hybrid one, because, even if we usually watch a great deal of cinematographic works sitting on our sofa, it is necessary to keep in mind that a film viewing is a moment involving blood and flesh, heart and mind. Post-pandemic, hopefully people will again want meetings with directors, film discussions drinking coffee or during a quick lunch, and walking through the streets. In brief, a festival experience. Silvano Agosti, an independent Italian director and cinema owner used to say: “Watching a masterpiece in a cinema theatre is like living a whole life!” We do endorse this definition.

Salvatore Marfella
Edited by Robert Horton