Visions du Réel Director Emilie Bujès on Running a Festival ‘in the Eye of the Storm’

Visions du Reel Director Emilie Bujès
Sébastien Agnetti

The lockdown that went into effect in March 2020 left Visions du Réel artistic director Emilie Bujès in an unenviable spot. The festival director and her programing team had spent months putting together the various sections, securing rights and inviting talent – but with new sanitary measures putting the kibosh on any physical event, the team made an unprecedented choice, and over the course of a few frenzied weeks, moved the festival online.

One can say the bet paid off. Last April’s online edition proved successful not only for the accredited public, filmmakers and press, it also drew international attention, assuaging a skittish industry that the digital model could offer a durable, workable solution in socially distanced times.

As they planned their 2021 edition, the team hoped to take that model a step further. “We partly said ‘never again,’ while recognizing that there could be no way to move backwards,” Bujès tells Variety. “I think there will always be a digital interface [from here on out], so it would foolish to limit the new opportunities. We’d have to find a new balance.”

In many ways, putting together this year’s hybrid edition, which runs from April 15-25, proved an even greater challenge. As Europe went in and out of lockdown, Bujès and her team had to navigate a festival calendar that was ever in flux, working remotely as they sifted through nearly 3,000 submissions.

Despite complicated working conditions and a newly elevated profile, the festival remained steadfast in its programming mandate. “Last year allowed us to position ourselves in certain contexts where we weren’t so readily known,” Bujès says. “That granted us a degree of visibility we would not otherwise have had.”

“[With that in mind], we needed to further our reputation as a place that reveals new talents,” she continues. “I think that’s what we do best, and have for some time. We try to reveal new talents and help them break into the circuit. That is an essential part of our mission.”

“We’re at once an international reference, while remaining fairly small in scale,” Bujès adds. “That’s something we want to maintain. The fact that we remain ‘small-scale’ grants us a kind of unity and coherence. Anyone attending the festival, either in person or online, can meet anyone else; there’s a common understanding of a cinematic vision we’re trying to defend.”

As Bujès sees it, that cinematic vision is animated by a sense of inhibition. This year’s guest of honor, author and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère, and the two filmmakers offered tributes, Pietro Marcello and Tatiana Huezo, have all forged personal paths unrestrained by genre or form.

“The three invitees have always giving us the opportunity to tell a story,” she says. “[They all] work with real freedom, treating questions of literature and poetry with a powerful visual language.”

If the festival organizers were able to evoke such freedoms when putting together the program – which houses 170 nonfiction films of diverse sizes, scopes and ambitions – they were rather hamstrung when it came to planning the actual event.

“We hoped to do a real hybrid edition,” says Bujès. “As late as January, I didn’t want to make a final decision to go wholly online, because if the theaters were to re-open, it would have been wrenching not to use them. The stakes were too high, we had to leave things open as long as possible.”

For months, the process was touch and go. At one point, Swiss authorities indicated a willingness to re-open theaters, only to backtrack one week later. As the April 15 kick-off drew closer, the festival team settled on a bittersweet compromise: Though they couldn’t hold public theatrical showings, they could bring in a select number of invitees while screening competition titles at local universities. It would be a hybrid, no doubt, even if the bulk of the action would be online.

And then, on Wednesday, the day before the festival was due to kick off, the local authorities announced that cinemas would re-open.

“We were in the eye of the storm, but what a wonderful storm,” Bujès says. “We immediately organized an emergency meeting that night to understand how to seize this new situation.”

The team opted to add four days of public screenings, which will run from April 22-25, while keeping everything else, including the student screenings and digital window, which is geo-blocked to Switzerland, in place.

“We’re basically holding three festivals,” Bujès explains. “There will be the online component, the student/press/professional component, and then a final leg entirely for the public. We preferred to add these four days instead of trying to do everything at the same time. To keep things separate in order to assure that all attendees would be able to attend.”

With screenings capped at 50 seats maximum, and only four theaters at their disposal, the Visions du Réel team still have a significant amount of logistical issues to work out, even as the festival runs on at full steam. But the team has proven adept at last minute curves.

“Last year we had to move everything online in a mad rush, and now we find ourselves reorienting towards live events with a similar frenzy,” laughs Bujès. “And we couldn’t be happier to do so!”