It has been months since most of us have stepped foot inside a cinema, and the depravation is starting to show. Online sites such as Netflix have been offering some reprieve, though we’re still chomping at the bit for solid content. You know you’ve been streaming for too long when above average films like Uncorked suddenly seem like masterpieces in amongst a wasteland of generic movie material. Now with less and less new releases being uploaded per week, it seems that even they are starting to dry up in terms of content.
So if you’ve woken up bleary-eyed, ready for another day of movie watching, you’ll be pleased to learn that the We Are One film festival begins today. Described as “a historic film festival event”, over twenty of the world’s largest festivals have banded together to curate “an unprecedented 10-day digital film festival” all for free and available on YouTube. So from May 29 till June 7, selected films will become available one by one at set times (the festival is running on the EST time zone) operating much like a single-screen cinema complex.
But don’t worry if you’re not available during certain session times (or are like me and live in Australia, where the entire festival is running overnight from 9pm till 8am!) as a number of films from the selection will become available on VOD after their premiere for the duration of the festival, though there are no details as of yet as to which films this will be (though my guess would be the films featuring in the first few days will also be the ones that will be available later on).
The best part is that the whole festival is geared towards raising funds for COVID-19 research and relief organizations and charities. With the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Cannes, Guadalajara International Film Festival, International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM), International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Jerusalem Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Marrakech International Film Festival, Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI), New York Film Festival, San Sebastian International Film Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, TIFF, Tribeca Film Festival, and Venice Film Festival all participating, this very much seems to be the online filmic “Live Aid” equivalent of recent times.
Yet as fantastic as this is, it’s rather sad to admit this patchwork quilt of a film festival pales in comparison to the vibrancy of what the industry has lost. The collection, which consists of 31 features and 72 shorts (including documentaries and animations) along with a number of special talks from the likes of Jackie Chan and Guillermo del Toro, whilst impressive, make up a mere fraction of what is usually on offer. Online streaming may operate like a Band-aid, but the problems underneath are still deep and complex.
Normally at this time of year the Cannes Film Festival, considered by many to be the most prestigious in the world, would be wrapping up, with some of the best films to be added last-minute to my local festival—the Sydney Film Festival. To use it as an example since it’s the one I’m most familiar with, the Sydney Film Festival showcases over one hundred films utilizing a number of different venues all across the city. I’m pleased to report that the Sydney Film Festival is still going ahead this year, though like many others it has adopted an online format. There are only 33 films this time, with 13 of them being shorts, available at a price at any time during the festival dates. I’m in two minds: sure, I won’t get FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) this year as it’s possible to finally watch everything the festival has to offer, but it also makes me wonder what happened to the rest of the entries. The closing date for the Sydney Film Festival was before COVID-19 restrictions occurred, which begs the question as to what will happen to the rest of the content?
While there are some foreign entrants, I’ve noticed the 2020 Sydney Film Festival has developed more of an intense interest in Australian cinema. It makes sense to support local filmmakers, though it does mean a lack of crossover. Generally speaking, filmmakers push to complete their films towards the later end of the year to be eligible for Sundance, and from there they ride the festival circuit, which if they’re lucky will finish at the Academy Awards (Oscars) the following year. It’s a process that could score a film greater distribution leading to theatrical releases or lucrative deals with major streaming sites.
Yet COVID-19 has severely fractured this intricate supply network. While Sundance was able to go ahead unhindered, none of the award-winning films are featured as part of the We Are One free film festival. Likewise, there are no films that are part of Sydney Film Festival that are also featuring in We Are One; it’s as though the Sydney Film Festival are keeping their movies as exclusives, and instead of selecting new films from the surplus of entrants they would have received, instead they’ve picked older releases to showcase.
This turns the We Are One festival into less of an opportunity but more of a celebration, with various nations sharing some of the lesser-known hits they’ve had in the past, and as the title of the festival suggests, a united world in an appreciation of art. It’s a lovely gesture, yet it’s not an answer to 2020’s film industry problems. If every film festival that manages to go ahead ends up favoring local talents and casting aside others due to a limited program, then is it even possible for a film to do the traditional circuit this year? Will this cause supply issues that will filter down all the way into 2021?
Another unforeseen gatekeeper is the classification system. Despite being online, the Sydney Film Festival still has only a limited number of tickets for sale citing classification reasons. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (though one could say the less people participating then the lesser the risk of piracy), yet it does put a dampener on the Internet’s ability to spread art worldwide when each country is bound by their own content guidelines, distribution, and censorship laws. The idea of being able to finally attend film festivals across the globe thanks to a digital format has been squashed; it seems the Sydney Film Festival is only available to Australians, and likewise it seems that other festivals will follow suit with their respective countries. The Cannes Film Festival, which has not only postponed till later in the year but also eaten some humble pie regarding online streaming, is still rather limited in its offerings. The festival this year is geared towards investors, turning the cinema scene into a marketplace as opposed to a celebration of the artform that can be enjoyed by everyday people.
This all makes the We Are One festival just that little bit more special; it’s available to all, and these films have somehow managed to dodge classification guidelines. Though I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the surrounding buzz; that exciting horse-race factor where you see one film grabbing awards from one festival to the next. Since the majority of its selection contains older released films, it might be a collaboration, but it’s not a cog in the machine for 2020’s award season.
Scrolling through the We Are One selection, it does seem that short films are the true winners out of all this. Rarely obtaining a theatrical release or further distribution, their journey usually starts and ends with film festivals, so getting showcased in such a way is a really big boost for those filmmakers. A lot of the loglines that grabbed my attention were short films: there’s a homage to Star Wars in The Light Side, and two VR pieces that involve Greek mythology (Isle of the Dead and Minotaur). Meanwhile I’m totally down for 72 minutes of experimental filmmaking where exquisite dishes are displayed with musical accompaniment (Mugaritz Bso does read like the restaurant version of Fantasia). It would be remiss to not also mention Crazy World, as being part of Wakaliwood I know that fellow GUG film critic, Tyler Hummel, is excited for that one.
Suffice to say, there’s something for everyone from VR experiences, to celebrity talks, feature films and intense documentaries. It may represent just a small fraction of what film festivals usually have to offer, but that doesn’t take away from We Are One’s unprecedented existence; it may not be perfect or contain a lot of that buzz, but for this one moment in time, several film festivals from across the globe have collaborated in constructing a program that truly does break down barriers, even if it never will replace the real thing.