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When, in mid-March, Swiss authorities closed cinemas and banned group assemblies for the foreseeable future, Visions du Réel artistic director Emilie Bujès found herself in a tough spot. For weeks she held out hope that her festival, which was due to kick off late April, would still be able to go forward as planned, but these new measures put an end to that.

The planners were bereft: While postponing the event – a leading documentary showcase that world premieres several new features per year – wouldn’t work due to several logistical reasons, cancelling it would deal a sharp blow to organizer morale and to the producers and sales agent who rely on the berth to launch new titles.

“From a psychological perspective, canceling the event would have been very, very hard,” says Bujès. “We had built relationships with our partners, we had selected their films and offered them a launchpad, and then all of a sudden tell them we wouldn’t do anything and wish them good luck? It didn’t sit right.”

Because Visions du Réel was so reliant on world premieres, Bujès was initially skeptical that the festival selection could successfully migrate online, but as each day brought with it another cancellation, her thinking changed.

“We felt the industry’s rising anxiety,” she explains. “With all the festivals that had already been canceled, people were equally stressed about their films getting stuck in limbo. We wanted to offer them a firm launch.”

Following the March 13 announcement, Bujès and her team spent four whirlwind days gauging the interest of sales agents and producers, while dealing with online platform Festival Scope to see how much of the selection it could host. Once the platform gave the okay, the festival organizers made their pitch, only to be taken back by the response.

“We wrote to 84 rights holders, thinking we’d got maybe 50 or 60 to agree,” says Bujès. “We had no idea how they’d respond, but in the end 82 of them said yes, and of those that didn’t, one was unable to finish post-production.”

Starting in mid-March, the team began the task of rethinking their mission, using the selected films and building around them to create a new festival space online. At root was a question of positioning: How could they make online premieres feel like events in and of themselves? How could they recreate that sense of engagement and exchange?

The team worked to strengthen their digital communication outreach, pre-recording interviews and conversations, and asked each filmmaker to submit a three-minute introduction video, giving them carte blanche to do as they saw fit. “Rather than simply speaking into a web camera, the filmmakers can make what they want, to evoke their own situation. They’re also living the same thing as everyone else, and we wanted to let them express that,” Bujès adds.

The festival also maintained planned masterclasses with honorees Petra Costa, Peter Mettler, and Claire Denis, and will stream the conversations alongside selected work from the three filmmakers at a point in time where industry and public attention has moved wholly into the digital sphere.

Indeed, recent editions of CPH:DOX and Series Mania Digital Forum have shown that industry events can successfully move online, while Jean-Luc Godard’s recent Instagram Live masterclass became a unifying moment for a film community fragmented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s Visions du Réel will be all the more auspicious as it will be the first event to take advantage of a newly launched joint venture from Festival Scope and streaming expert Shift72 offering festivals a dedicated, fully-integrated platform that provides digital attendees a single, simple point of access.

In order to keep its local flavor, the festival will offer all films with French subtitles, and will launch a telephone helpline on April 17 to assist older audiences that are not digital natives.

Though this edition looks very different from what was originally planned, Bujès remains upbeat. “For the festival, what’s happened is both sad and joyous,” she says. “The fact is, we found a solution, and along with it a new energy. People are following with interest, and that, for me, means that we’ve already won.”

“If the films get a lot of views, that will mean that we did the max that we could in this situation,” she adds. “So that’s the only question we have left.”