Notes from attending a ‘digital’ film festival: Wider audience and hope for sustenance of cinema

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This year marked my seventh New York Film Festival (NYFF), but it was the first one I attended from 8,000 miles away.

Notes from attending a 'digital' film festival: Wider audience and hope for sustenance of cinema

New York Film Festival 2020 was digital and part-drive in. Twitter

This year marked my seventh New York Film Festival (NYFF), but it was the first one I attended from 8,000 miles away. The all-digital, part drive-in edition of NYFF 58 was both a stark reflection of the deep hole we’re still in, with regards to the global pandemic, but a hopeful reminder that cinema as an art form is still alive and well, even though theatres might be struggling.

The last time I watched a film on the big screen was over seven months ago — don’t ask me which blue hedgehog it was about, I’m embarrassed to say — though by that time, people were already approaching public spaces with caution, so I was the only person in attendance. Admittedly, I chalked it up to a temporary disruption of the way we lived; little did I know, it was a preview of things to come. Sad trombone.

Had I known it would be my last film in-person for a while, I think I’d have stayed through the credits. That’s something most people don’t do unless it’s a Marvel movie, but at film festivals, it’s part of the collective ritual. It’s digesting. It’s resetting. It’s absorbing what you’ve just seen.

And if you’re lucky enough to be in good company, it’s starting a conversation while you’re still in whatever headspace some undiscovered gem has had you in for several hours. Now, it means messaging friends on Twitter to see if they caught the same films you did. 

For press at NYFF, the ritual usually begins with gathering early at Lincoln Center’s 268-seat Walter Reade Theater (or, for the occasional gala screening, the ornate 1086-seat Alice Tully Hall) while coasting on a familiar combination of caffeine and fest adrenaline. It’s an exhausting experience, but in a good way. People don’t necessarily start random chats at the local multiplex, but attending a film festival often means being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers — a now almost repulsive thought — whether in line or inside, and striking up conversations about cinema and life in general. This year, both the press screenings and ticketed showings were isolated, by design and by necessity.

If you were lucky enough to be in the New York area, you could watch a handful of films in person, but from within the confines of your car. For the rest of us, the big-screen experience had been shrunk down to our laptops, or to our TVs if we could manage to Airplay or Chromecast the films from our phones. If you don’t have a steady, high-speed internet connection, you can already see the problems emerge.

The festival was geo-blocked to the US (with safeguards against VPNs), so the only way I could “attend” from Mumbai was as part of the press to begin with. Even so, not every title was made available to critics outside the US — I can’t decide if that made things more or less inclusive. Not being granted the same access as my peers can be frustrating, but from a non-press perspective, the festival was available to a much wider audience than usual, geographically speaking, since you don’t have to be physically present in New York to avail of it.

Part of me hopes this new paradigm widens its net, should it be forced to last. The only way some major titles from European and North American fests get Indian releases is through the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which had to cancel its 2020 edition altogether. The release pipeline has also slowed significantly; who knows when most of these films will be picked up for a western theatrical release, then given a western run on streaming, before finally arriving on Indian platforms? For big blockbusters like Tenet, Mulan, and New Mutants, all of which are yet to release in India, it’s begun to feel like the days before Harry Potter, when major titles would get staggered releases globally, by which point eager Indian viewers would’ve resorted to piracy anyway — so I wonder what hope indie and arthouse fare really has when it comes to being seen by a wider global audience. 

The 2020 KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival was unique in this regard, offering its selections to both Indian and foreign viewers alike via streaming (among them was the recently rediscovered Badnam Basti, India’s first queer film!). But alas, at NYFF, even the likes of Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, the first Indian selection in its Main Slate since 1996, remained unavailable to press and audiences outside America.

Still, despite my gripes about access, which is often determined by distributors anyway, the festival itself managed to offer an eclectic lineup of not just features, but shorts (like Letter From Your Far Off Country by Suneil Sanzgiri) and talks with various filmmakers, all of which were just as enticing. Lincoln Center’s digital screening room might’ve felt lonelier than its real-world equivalent, but films were often accompanied by curated Zoom sessions with the likes of Tamhane, Chloé Zhao, and Steve McQueen — whose opening night film Lovers Rock, ironically, felt like the ultimate social gathering wish-fulfillment.

Sure, these digital Q&As lacked the intimacy of the lights fading in just after a screening and the filmmakers walking out onto stage, just a few feet ahead of us — but for now, it’s the next best thing. 

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