By Dina Iordanova.
My interest, however, is in the festival as a shell – its structure and functionality; the films are a component that is vitally important but also ephemeral. And, in the year 2022, there is a lot to say about how film festivals in Europe emerge post-Covid.”
It is Spring 2022. And whilst restrictive measures are still in place in many countries, film festivals start bouncing back after the two-year hiatus of Covid-19. Finally being able to travel without the complications of overwhelming tests, in April I attended two European film festivals – first the GoEast festival of East European cinema in Wiesbaden, Germany and then the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) in Udine, Italy. Here I would like to share my impressions of their post-Covid 19 editions.
I should start with a caveat – in this piece I will discuss only the shape of the festivals themselves, not the films that played in competition, retrospectives, and the other sidebars. Why? Because the length that I had agreed for this essay was only sufficient to discuss the structure of the festivals which I believe to be of paramount importance and is usually ignored. The traditional pieces on film festivals would normally contain a paragraph on the festival, and then spend the rest of the space discussing the films that played – and in this way they would offer film criticism whilst saying next to nothing about the festivals. My interest, however, is in the festival as a shell – its structure and functionality; the films are a component that is vitally important but also ephemeral. And, in the year 2022, there is a lot to say about how film festivals in Europe emerge post-Covid.
The arrival of the pandemics in 2020 made it impossible for events to be held in public – and forced many festivals to adjust, quickly. Many moved entirely online, others used hybrid models, some cancelled or downsized. In 2021 – even though a variety of festivals around the world (in Seoul, El Gouna, Dhaka) did stage in person editions – within Europe it was still considered unsafe to hold festivals in person. So, most of the European film festivals either stayed online or came up with imaginative hybrid solutions and new models that combined online with in-person. In the process of this, festivals discovered that by moving some screenings online, they could reach out to new audiences – and have their program viewed also by those who could not attend in person. With Europe opening up at the end of the pandemics, question is what of these models will persist.
Both festivals had planned the events many months in advance, which means they had taken a gamble with the decision to hold an in-person event, as up until the last moment it had been far from sure what will be the situation with restrictions. And indeed, by the time the festivals took place in April 2022, Covid-related measures in Italy were still very much present – obligatory mask-wearing in any enclosed public spaces and during screenings, filling out forms, verification of green-pass status requiring a third vaccination dose and so on (even if all this was lifted just a week after the end of the festival). In Germany things were more relaxed, but even there the festival had lost an unvaccinated juror who had not been admitted to the country; masks were also compulsory in screenings and discussions.
In every other regard, however, it seemed that the festivals were on the way to restoring their previous shape, precisely as it was known: an exciting combination of theatrical screenings, live debates and masterclasses, parties and dinners. Yet, this time around, there was one more dimension to both events – the online festival. A large selection of the titles shown in theatres – which I estimate at roughly 30% or about 25-30 films — were now accessible for viewing online as well. Online accreditations were sold to those who were registering to attend from within Germany or Italy, and in the case of FEFF Udine – to those who were in attendance from anywhere in the world, including Asia. Which meant, in practice, that people who were not able to travel to the festivals could still see many of the films.
The online dimension of the festivals is gradually becoming a standard addition to many other film festivals; it is marked by some specific features. One of these is the geoblocking: a film may be online and still only available to certain territories, depending on what agreement the festival has reached with distributors. As distribution rights are still held by specific geographical territory, many of the online screenings are only accessible to those who are based within the country of the festival, Germany or Italy in this case. However, in some instances, and again depending on the rights held, films may be accessible throughout the European Union or even worldwide (this was the case with several of the Asian titles shown at Udine). Another matter is the subtitling: many of the films, made originally in a variety of languages, would be subtitled in English which has established itself as the standard international language for films; in the case of Udine – and this was dictated by Italy’s protectionist policy on language and film – many of the films were only subtitled in the Italian language.
One of the new models used at Udine was making a film available online only for a ‘premiere’ event which lasted six hours – one could log in and see the film during a six-hour window, scheduled approximately at the same time as the film would have screened live in the theatre. This sounded like a good idea, but later it transpired it had not worked for some of those who had registered to attend at a distance – a participant from Melbourne who had purchased online accreditation remarked that a viewing window between 2-8 pm in Europe was deep into the night for him, so he had to miss some of these special premieres. I am certain, however, that such glitches will gradually be sorted out.
Bottom line is that even if the online section of film festivals came about in response to the Covid crisis, it is now clear that it is a way to reach out to new audiences and create an additional revenue stream. It is a feature that will stay on.
This year’s edition of both festivals was taking place as Russia’s war in the Ukraine – having started less than two months before their opening dates – was in full rage. GoEast, which specialises in films from the affected region, had to react quickly and radically. Many of those who are involved with the festival in Wiesbaden are somehow connected to Eastern Europe – many have migrated to Germany from the countries of the former Soviet Union, others have studied Slavic languages – so undoubtedly the moment was awkward and difficult, particularly for team members who were now engaged in soul-searching, especially the festival director Heleen Gerritsen who spoke frankly of the difficulties.
In response to the international calls for boycott of state-sponsored Russian culture, GoEast had dropped some of the Russian films that had already been programmed; some other Russian films were withdrawn. Then, the festival added a special screening of the observational documentary MARIUPOLIS (2016) by Lithuanian filmmaker and anthropologist Mantas Kvedaravičius (1976-2022), who was brutally killed at the besieged city whilst shooting there for a sequel. Giving the word to filmmakers from the Ukraine, GoEast also held a discussion entitled Boycotting Russian Cinema: A Ukrainian Perspective, an event that drew wide attention and can be viewed in full on Vimeo.
In contrast, the topic of Udine’s FEFF, which is focused on genre cinema from East Asia, was far from Ukraine. Nonetheless, the festival did not stay indifferent to the tense political situation. Like many other cultural institutions in Italy at the time, it chose to manifest its solidarity with Ukraine: On a short notice they changed the design of the festival bag – an essential piece of paraphernalia. It now featured the work of Ukrainian artist Grassya Oliyko and was saying, ‘Ukraine is My Home.’
Politics aside, what I find most important about GoEast and FEFF is that they are typically European festivals – of a kind that is mainly found in the countries of Western Europe. What is specific to them? These festivals normally specialise in surveying and showcasing the cinema of a region/group of countries. They usually take place in a middle-sized city of secondary importance, a location that has a good cinema base and is usually more affordable than the big city centres. Over time, they develop a dedicated local audience whilst simultaneously building up a following of committed participants who would return year after year – I am one of those, being interested both in East European and Asian film, so no wonder I had also visited the two festivals in previous years.
Festivals of the type of GoEast and FEFF usually screen between 50 and 100 titles, a number that makes them more user-friendly, as it is possible to see most films at the festival if one attends from beginning to end, as many of those committed to attending do. At these places one can come across programmers from elsewhere who have come to see what’s new and select films for their own festivals. They are covered by various international journalists and critics, who are also accredited to attend in person: at Wiesbaden there was a popular newspaper critic from Estonia (Tristan Primagi), a Barcelona-based Bulgarian critic who writes for the online bulletin CinEuropa (https://cineuropa.org, Mariana Hristova), and some twenty others. FEFF Udine was attended by critics and academics from around Italy, as well as Belgium, the UK, Norway, and from many Asian diasporic organisations.
Generally speaking, in Europe one can distinguish four tiers of festivals, by size and focus. First, there are the so-called ‘big three’ (Cannes, Venice and Berlinale) which show in excess of 400+ films. They feature a high-profile international competition alongside multiple sidebars and concurrent events, and organise a marketplace or talent campus as well as pitching forums. They also benefit from corporate sponsors with deep pockets.
Then, there are the sizeable ‘survey’ type international festivals of the ‘second tier’, that are giving preferential attention to certain regions: such as the festivals at Locarno in Switzerland, San Sebastián in Spain, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Karlovy Vary in Czechia, and so on. They feature a competition, sidebars and various industry events, showing around 200+ films.
Next – and this is the type of festivals I discuss here – there is the ‘third tier’ of specialised international festivals, which are showcasing 50-100+ films and which focus on a specific aspect of cinema. This could be the cinema of a certain region, as in the given case. Or it could be a specific kind of film such as documentary – e.g. IDFA in Amsterdam, Netherlands (since 1988), animation – e.g. the festival in Annecy, France (since 1960), or shorts – e.g. the festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France (since 1980) – and some of these events are really large, with the number of films shown running into several hundreds. Finally, there are a vast number of small festivals of local importance which showcase a smaller number of films per edition, but usually more than 50. In association with the specific focus of the festivals I discuss here – Eastern Europe and East Asia – I would name two other examples of such smaller yet older events: the Vesoul International Festival of Asian Cinema in France (since 1995) and the festival of East European Cinema in Cottbus, Germany (since 1991).
Coming back to GoEast and FEFF, there are quite a few further similarities between the two festivals, all linked to their ‘Europeanness’ – by which I mean they are both typical products of the recent decades of cultural policy found within the countries of the European Union. Both have been around for about two decades. FEFF Udine started in 1999 and has since been run by founders Sabrina Baracetti (President) and Thomas Bertacche (General Coordinator), both natives of the Friuli who started in film distribution and who are still actively engaged in film exhibition for the rest of the year. GoEast held its first edition in 2001. Its recognised founder is film historian Claudia Dillmann, who had worked closely with the late Hans-Joachim Schlegel (1942-2016), a renowned German programmer specialized in Eastern European and Soviet cinema. The festival has had a string of directors (Christine Kopf, Nadja Rademacher, Gaby Babic); since 2017 it is helmed by Dutch Heleen Gerritsen who has built a formidable team of collaborators.
Location-wise, each of these festivals is taking place in a non-capital city that has good cultural base. Both cities are home to good Universities. Wiesbaden, the main city of Hessen, is near Frankfurt, which facilitates the commute; its population is over 250,000. Udine is between Venice and Trieste; the population is around a 100,000. Food is excellent in both places, even if Italy wins with the extensive Friulian culinary tradition.
Each one of the festivals evolve around two physical screening spaces that not far apart from one another: in Wiesbaden these are the beautifully restored Caligari theatre, as well as the modern space of the smaller arthouse theatre Murnau. In Udine most screenings take place at the large Teatro Nuovo Giovani da Udine (UDINE), an interesting building that combines a modern architectural exterior with a plush and lavish art deco interior in red velvet; fewer films are shown at the smaller Visionario theatre and sometimes in open air. Panel discussions and talks would take place either in foyer of theatres, or at other agreeable spaces – like the Museum Wiesbaden, which this year served as the festivals’ headquarters. All this makes the spatial positioning of the festival within the city (one of the key factors that festival organisers must consider) quite user friendly – an easy walking distance between theatres, venues, hotels, restaurants and party places. Nice springtime weather helps, too – even if Udine was quite rainy this time around.
The distance between theatres, as well as the scheduling, are of decisive importance for the atmosphere of every festival. Does the spatial positioning of the venues force the attendees to have to select one strand of events and screenings over another strand or it enables them to attend films and panels scheduled at different locations? How does one overcome the overlaps in the scheduling of films that people want to see? These considerations are important at the time the programme is ‘locked’. At Udine they have an original solution – they treat all films as equal and do not manipulate the screening slots (as most other festivals are known to do): Each film on the programme only screens once, and I have heard it rumoured that a film’s place on the schedule is determined in a draw. Screenings start at 8:30 am; there are some eight slots throughout the day – and the late-night screening wraps up around 1 am.
By way of further comparison, both festivals receive grant financing from a variety of sources, both domestic and international, and make up the rest from accreditations, screening fees, market participation, hotels and so on. Domestically, their largest funder is the local government (the provinces of Hessen in Germany and Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy), but this also means that the festivals are exposed to the volatility of local politics and to the performance of the economy in their respective regions.
Both festivals have a small permanent staff of several people. Then they have advisors who are retained on a freelance basis, temporary staff who look after hospitality, marketing, and a swathe of interns and volunteers, usually young people who either study film and media management or are somehow linked to the countries covered by the festival, know or study their language and culture. At Wiesbaden the volunteer that I spoke to was a young Moldovan woman, an aspiring archaeologist with interest in documentary cinema. At Udine it was an Italian film student at Oxford, who had travelled back home and was helping out with interpreting and logistics. The audiences were quite diverse – besides those with special interest who had travelled from far and wide, there were many local students but also older people.
Even if they do not run film markets as such, both festivals play an important networking role. Many of the attendees are here mainly for the sake of pitching new projects and look to meet people who control production financing or distribution. Others have come to pick films for their own platforms or events. Many of these attendees could not go to the screenings but would rather keep busy with networking meetings all day, formally or informally. The festivals also network with organisations like the European Film Academy and MUBI, both represented at GoEast. Or with other festivals – for example, the director of Rotterdam was jury president at Udine and easily approachable.
FEFF works with a group of country-specific advisors: Maria Ruggieri for China, Tim Youngs and Ryan Law for Hong Kong, Mark Shilling for Japan, Max Tessier for the Philippines, Darcy Paquet for South Korea, Paolo Bertolin for Malaysia and Indonesia, Anchalee Chaiworaporn for Thailand. And, a transnational festival veteran as Roger Garcia who has run festivals in the USA, Hong Kong and China, is a special advisor. He keeps returning to FEFF year after year with a variety of historical programmes. These are people who either live in the countries they cover or have built close contacts with the film industries there. Their role involves various aspects. They monitor the new production, select and secure the films that participate at the festival. The survey-type country essay that are featured in the festival catalogue – a competent source for industry insiders – are written by them. And, they attend and moderate the Focus on Asia sessions that FEFF organises – even if not a real market, this is a key networking site where projects are pitched, discussed and deals made.
This time around all worked well. We avoided catching Covid – and hopefully we will soon forget all about it. We enjoyed the togetherness, the open air and the parties. We spoke to one another. We saw a range of great films – and spoke at length of the films that we could not see and of the state of the world. I look forward to seeing where we will be next year in terms of togetherness and mutual understanding.
[i] The footage shot by Mantas Kvedaravičius in 2022 was smuggled out of Ukraine, along with the director’s dead body, by his partner, Hanna Bilobrova. She then put together a rough cut of it for the two-hour MARIUPOLIS 2, which was presented at a special screening during the Cannes Film Festival, on 20 May 2022.
[ii] Other festivals that belong to this category would be the 3 Continents in Nantes, France (since 1979) and Africa in Motion in Edinburgh, UK (since 2006).
Dina Iordanova is Emerita Professor in Global Cinema at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She works on matters of transnational cinema with special expertise in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the lands of the former Soviet Union. She has published extensively on global film festivals, having led the series Film Festival Yearbooks (2009-2016) which covered matters of the film festival circuit, festivals and activism, imagined communities, as well as the festival scene in East Asia and the Middle East. Besides the two festivals discussed here, she recently served on juries for the Athens IFF in Greece and the Fajr IFF in Teheran. Next, she is giving masterclasses at the Sarajevo IFF.