Stream Spirit: Scotland's Virtual Film Festivals

Cannes couldn't and EIFF effed off till later in the year, but some film festivals have embraced taking their programmes online after in-person events were kiboshed by COVID-19, including the upcoming Take One Action and SQIFF

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 31 Aug 2020
  • Glasgow Film Theatre

Many industries have taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, but among the worst-affected must surely be red carpet manufacturers. Not a foot of the stuff has been unfurled since March, with film festivals around the world shutting up shop as concern around the rampant spread of COVID-19 saw public gatherings outlawed.

Scotland’s overflowing film event calendar became so scored with crosses it began to look like Donald Trump’s cognitive exam. Some festivals cancelled altogether while others postponed (Hippodrome Silent Film Festival rescheduled from March to October). For a select few, however, the old attitude of “the show must go on” held water. Out of this chaos and uncertainty emerged a fascinating new breed of film event: the virtual film festival.

The question was: would these virtual festivals look any different to most of our front rooms? In the early stages of the nationwide lockdown that began on 26 March, film lovers starved of the big screen began creating their own mini versions of Cannes from home, except the dress code now included PJs and the chief film curators were Netflix and Amazon. It’s a problem that festivals of all stripes have had to tackle, of making a festival 'feel like' a festival – some have done better than others.

Cancellation was out of the question for Edinburgh International Film Festival. After all, it had its claim as the world's longest continuously-running film event at stake. We are still likely to get some form of live EIFF event later in the year, but in EIFF’s usual June slot we had EDFILMFEST AT HOME. A partnership with Curzon Home Cinema that featured fourteen titles, it essentially amounted to little more than some previews of features due to arrive on Curzon’s video-on-demand platform later in the year, although the additions of Q&As with filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers and Ron Howard added some of the star power we usually associate with Scotland’s biggest film celebration.

Glasgow Short Film Festival, Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival

More lively and creative was the “12th and a half edition” of Glasgow Short Film Festival, which took place in August. Its opening night began as so many events in quarantine culture have, with a moodily-lit Zoom chat, in this case between the festival’s artistic director Matt Lloyd and co-director Sanne Jehoul. Just when things couldn’t get more depressing, with Jehoul looking set to throw in the towel, the familiar scene broke into a Minnelli-esque song and dance routine. This Technicolor effervescence continued throughout the week of screenings, panels and workshops, which were only slightly diminished by happening on our laptops rather than in the hum of GSFF’s hub at the CCA in Glasgow. It’s fair to say that the high watermark for all other digital festivals in Scotland has been set.

Of course, GSFF had more time to prepare than others, having rescheduled from its initial March dates when lockdown hit. Acting as the canary in the coal mine for other film events in Scotland was Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival, which became the first major festival on these shores to step up to the challenge of hosting a fully digitised event. “We didn’t just stage a virtual festival,” Rachael Disbury, Alchemy's production director, tells us. “We staged an emergency festival.”

Taking place in the Heart of Hawick arts centre and in various other venues around the Borders town, Alchemy has garnered a reputation as one of the most stimulating and imaginative moving image events in the UK, blending screenings of world-class avant-garde cinema with symposia, site-specific video installations and expanded film performances. As the scale of the pandemic became clear in March, the Alchemy team found themselves with only six weeks to pivot from a fully curated in-person event to a streaming event – all using a home broadband connection thanks to lockdown restrictions.

Gone, of course, were those site-specific installations and expanded cinema events, but Disbury explains that it wasn’t just a matter of dropping the rest of the programme online. “Our key aims, which we always came back to in every decision we made, were to retain the quality of the screenings and curation, to deliver a meaningful experience for the audiences maintaining elements of community and clarity in how to watch the festival.”

One key difference in Alchemy’s approach to the other festivals that followed with their own digital events was its screenings were live; no playback, no pausing. “It was important for us to find ways to cultivate community around Alchemy Live and make it feel like an ‘event’,” says Disbury. “Live-streaming one single screening of each programme, rather than offering films on demand, allowed the closest replication to the way films would be viewed at our festival in-person, in terms of a one-time-only format.”

One experience that can’t be shared online, of course, is the enthusiastic jawing in the Heart of Hawick foyer that follows every Alchemy screening, inevitably spilling over to more discussion at a local watering hole. And it’s not just Alchemy's attendees who missed this physical presence: the fragile economy of Hawick also took a hit. “We estimate that we brought more than £345,000 into the town across 2018-19, for instance, which is dramatically reduced by going virtual,” says Disbury.

Bringing the festival online does have one chief advantage, though: it makes the festival accessible to people reluctant to take the bone-rattling X95 bus to the town. “This number of screening visits this year [15,334] is unprecedented in the festival’s history,” says Disbury, “and is only surpassed as an organisation by the 27,030 visits recorded at our Scotland+Venice exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale.”

Take One Action, Scottish Queer International Film Festival

Over the coming months, two of Scotland’s most community-focused festivals will take their own adventure into the brave new world of online film festivals. Since 2008, Take One Action's aim has been to bring people together for positive social change, using film as a springboard for discussion and debate. How does a festival do that when bringing more than a handful of people together in one space is outlawed?

“First we had to find a sense of purpose in doing this [digitally] and making sure that the motivation and the heart that goes into it is actually still there,” the festival’s executive director, Tamara Van Strijthem, tells us. “And that's what motivated me; not just because we have to put something on but because we feel there's a space that needs to be filled, and there are stories that need to be shared in a way that we wouldn't be able to if we just sat back and didn't deliver anything.”

One thing Van Strijthem knew she didn’t want to lose was the lively discussion that follows every TOA screening. “We didn't want to put on a film and for there to be no compelling conversation afterwards, because that's an absolutely key part of the festival. It doesn't make sense for us to just present a film online and just be a film library, we're presenting films because we are supporting, encouraging and nurturing a conversation around the issue the film explores.”

Van Strijthem and her team did have to accept, however, there would be elements of TOA that simply couldn’t be recreated online. “The word community gets used a lot, but there are spaces we go to that have very specific communities that look forward to our screenings, like the Grassmarket Project, for example,” Van Strijthem explains. “So obviously there's a flavour of what you do that disappears by going online.”

Scottish Queer International Film Festival (aka SQIFF), which will take place in October, is similarly focussed on community, providing a warm and welcoming space for LGBTQ+ film fans, who might not always feel at home in the traditional cinema space. SQIFF’s producer and programme coordinator, Helen Wright, had one question on her mind when it became clear that planning a live event would be a risky proposition. “We asked ourselves, 'How do we make this not just people watching films by themselves at home?'”

The solution was to blend the convenience of home viewing – allowing all the films to be watched on-demand at any time throughout the festival – with live components. “Most of the films will have live watch parties, as well as also being available on Vimeo,” Wright explains. “And then obviously we wanted to have some workshops, and a couple of parties online as well.”

Like Alchemy, SQIFF and TOA are also finding silver linings to taking the festival online. “A big benefit is we're now UK-wide – people can actually join the watch parties from anywhere in the world, technically,” notes Wright. "We've always tried to reach queer audiences around the whole of Scotland, but it's always more difficult to reach people living in more rural areas or away from the Central Belt. So hopefully this will increase the access for those audiences."

Van Strijthem agrees that the accessibility benefits of going online are huge. “We're removing all the costs associated with just getting to the cinema, which can be such a barrier for so many people; removing the issue of childcare. And we've made sure that every film we presented has captions this year, not just a selection, but all of them.”

While we desperately miss the buzz of a live film festival – its chattering crowds, its distinguished guests, its seemingly endless free alcohol – any situation that opens these inherently privileged events up to new audiences who have previously been excluded from such gatherings can only be a good thing. 

Take One Action, 16-27 Sep,
SQIFF, 5-18 Oct,