The Taipei Film Festival kicked off as a live, physical event Thursday, making it likely the first in the world to occur in-person since the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus — albeit without international guests.
Scheduled for June 25 to July 11, the festival will occur ahead of FID Marseille, which will take place with in-person screenings from July 22-26 and has also previously claimed the milestone.
Planning a festival in the midst of a global pandemic was a process plagued by unknowns and sudden about-faces, Taipei’s senior program assistant manager Stephanie Su told Variety.
“We weren’t sure whether we could even have a physical festival a couple of months ago. We had many plan Bs and plan Cs going at the same time,” she said. She explained that the uncertainty had also made it particularly difficult to cinch sponsors. “It was a really bizarre work experience. We were kind of on hold and not sure what would happen next.”
The decision was made to go ahead with some form of an in-person event in mid-May. Cinemas in Taiwan were never formally ordered shut, but the rules for what kinds of precautions should be taken fluctuated frequently. On June 7, however, authorities lifted any lingering protocols with an announcement that cinemas could begin selling out screenings instead of leaving empty seats to allow for social distancing.
Life has more or less returned to normal for some time now in Taiwan, which has had one of the best coronavirus responses globally, with just seven deaths.
The Taipei Film Festival is set to feature 142 films, including 11 VR works, across three venues and six screens. It hosts two main competitions — the Taipei Film Awards, focused on local productions, and the International New Talent Competition, with a dozen selected titles.
Now in its 22nd iteration, it has both downsized the number of films selected this year but upped the numbers of screenings for each, as well as doubled in length, running for two weeks rather than one.
Initial concerns about the box office turnout have melted away, as ticket-buyers have shown up in unexpected numbers.
In past years, an average of 43,000 viewers have attended the festival, but this year, organizers expect that figure to grow to around 50,000. On the first day of ticket sales, the event sold out 19 films, compared to just four last year.
“A lot of people have been confined at home for a long period of time, and I think after that, they just want to get back to the theaters,” she said, adding that with so many news reports circulating about struggling cinemas, people seem eager to support the industry. The festival may have also received a publicity boost since all others up until now have been cancelled due to COVID-19.
The event typically brings in around 50 to 100 international guests, but this year, it will have to make do without, since Taiwan is still barring entry to most foreign travelers as a COVID-19 prevention measure.
To make up for this, the festival has prepared pre-recorded Q&As with most of the absent directors to show after their screenings.
Basic COVID-19 prevention measures will be in place. Masks will be required, even though they are no longer mandatory for people in public areas in Taiwan, and temperatures taken upon entry.
On Tuesday, the festival announced that its Taipei Film Awards jury will be chaired by actor, screenwriter and director Wu Nien-jen (who starred in “Yi Yi”), while the International New Talent Competition jury will be chaired by director Yee Chih-yen (“Blue Gate Crossing”). The winners for the former will be announced July 11, and the latter on June 30.
“The Silent Forest,” the telling of a horrific incident at a deaf school in Taiwan from first-time female director Ko Chen-nien, world premiered as the opening night film, with about 1,000 viewers in attendance.
“I think we are really lucky to have such an environment where we’re able to have this kind of event in this kind of unprecedented time,” said Su. “We want audiences and filmmakers from other countries to not give up the hope and just keep doing what they can.”