The closure of Polish cinemas earlier this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, dealt a temporary blow to the 17th edition of the Millennium Docs Against Gravity Film Festival, which was slated to take place in May. But the organizers were determined to hit the ground running as they geared up for a fall reboot, which will unspool across seven Polish cities between Sept. 4-13 with some 1,200 screenings—“more than at the Berlinale,” notes festival founder Artur Liebhart.
Liebhart (pictured, left, with director Roberto Minervini) has spent nearly two decades at the forefront of Poland’s documentary film community, both through Millennium Docs Against Gravity and through his distribution company, Against Gravity. “From the very beginning…our main goal, and our main effort, and all the plan was focused on developing [and] increasing the audience for documentary films in Poland,” he says.
To that end, he has eschewed the format of many large-scale international documentary festivals, where co-production markets, pitching sessions, and other industry-focused events make up a large part of the program. “I decided that we don’t want to be another dot on the map of commissioning editors,” he says. The festival instead aims to deliver “that which is the most precious for filmmakers: we have the audience.”
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The logistical challenge of hosting a film festival simultaneously in seven cities is something that makes Millennium Docs Against Gravity a one-of-a-kind event in Europe, says Liebhart. Each city also hands out its own awards for what local juries and audiences determine to be the best films in competition, with the main jury this year headed by Academy Award-winning Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida,” “Cold War”).
The 150 films selected for the festival are grouped into thematic sections that address some of the most intriguing, problematic, and pressing issues of our time. The four films in “Understanding China,” for example, chart the rise of the economic superpower by focusing on stories drawn from daily life, seen through the lens of economy, faith, and environmental catastrophe. “Climate for Change” presents eight films that address the climate crisis, analyzing the current threats while also offering forms of expression that give hope for a better, eco-friendly future.
In addition, there will be a masterclass with Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hubert Sauper (“Darwin’s Nightmare”) following a screening of his Sundance award winner “Epicentro,” as well as a masterclass with acclaimed war correspondent Jan Grarup, who is the subject of Boris Bertram’s documentary “Photographer of War.”
Since its founding, Millennium Docs Against Gravity has been at the forefront of expanding the documentary space in Poland, and Liebhart sees it as instrumental in helping to revive the exhibition sector following the long closure of cinemas due to the pandemic. “We can also be part of that force which will get people back to the cinemas for the restart,” he says, adding with a laugh: “‘Tenet’ and Millennium Docs Against Gravity will bring people back.”
Key to that has been aggressively promoting the festival to the audience group most likely to return to cinemas this month, with Liebhart describing the 18-to-30-year-old demographic as “our prime target.” Since May, when the physical fest was postponed and replaced with an online edition, the organizers ramped up promotional efforts through both traditional outlets and social media.
“Somehow, COVID gave us the imperative that it’s now or never” to reach younger movie-goers, he says. “Either we will reach the new audience through online tools now, or we can forget about it.”
Liebhart says the May event, dubbed Docs Against Isolation, was a rousing success, with a curated selection of 40 documentary films from previous festivals each wracking up more than 110,000 views. That gave the organizers confidence that Millennium Docs Against Gravity could pull off a successful hybrid edition, with plans to offer more than 100 films from this year’s selection on the festival’s website from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4.
That will mark the launch of a new VOD platform, offering a dedicated streaming service for documentary films year-round. It’s a recognition of “how the festival adjusted to the new normal,” says Liebhart, not merely in responding to the coronavirus crisis, but in acknowledging that even if Millennium Docs Against Gravity can pull in 100,000 theatrical admissions, as it has in years past, many movie-goers are happier to watch films from the comforts of their own homes.
In that regard, Liebhart sees only an opportunity for reinvention. “Some wise people said that in every crisis, you have to look in the mirror and find a new way of acting, which could be a new chance [to evolve],” he says. “We are taking…that chance.”