Reflections on the 58th AAFF from Festival Director, Leslie Raymond
Top row from left to right: Lynne Sachs and Leslie Raymond, Bottom row: Lisa Steele and Osbert Parker
No words could properly express just how much your 58th festival transcended the physical obstacles this demonic COVID-19 pandemic blunted upon all of us experimental artists. I was not only glued to my screen since Tuesday- watching one after another film that transported me away from my home space, but I was awakened to a monumental scale of works made from all around the planet.
–Joey Huertas, filmmaker
Twelve days before the opening night of the 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival, the governor of Michigan closed the schools and restricted public gatherings. Up until that point we had been following the lead of the Michigan Theater, our primary venue, and wondering if they would remain open. We had been expecting the festival to go on, or at least acting as if it would. We couldn’t imagine an alternative at that time, in the early days of the crisis.
It takes our tiny staff nearly a full year to create the six-day festival of over 50 film programs, performances, salons, workshops, exhibitions, after-parties, and other satellite events. When news of COVID-19 began unfolding by the hour, the programs had been set, plane tickets purchased, filmmaker hosts arranged, festival passes printed, venue contracts signed, and dozens of other details attended to.
We held an emergency meeting with the board and were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to cancel our in-person, in-theater gathering. After considerable deliberation and assessment of our resources and capabilities, we decided we would try to bring some form of the festival online. Doing this would require tossing out a ton of planning and starting fresh with 12 days to go. It would require a complete re-steering of the ship — adjusting and adapting staff roles, enlisting volunteers in ways we never have, and redirecting our marketing and messaging. But beyond this were the technical issues, and a host of curatorial and management challenges — we contacted all participating artists to answer their questions and get their permission to screen their artwork in a different format. In the midst of all this, the pandemic forced us to close down the office and begin working remotely. We persevered!
We chose to stream the festival programs one time, in sequence, sticking as close to the original schedule as possible. We moved everything three hours earlier to accommodate viewers and makers in Europe. When we are at the theater, two programs play at once, so we had to decide how best to structure the single-channel stream and elected to prioritize films in competition. We were forced to cancel special programs, but were fortunate to retain the juror's presentations.
It was important to us that we stream the festival for free as it was simpler to do so in such a short window of time, but more than that, we saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the community in an historic time of need.
Jurors for the 58th AAFF were Osbert Parker (London), Lynne Sachs (NYC), and Lisa Steele (Toronto). Each juror was shipped their own hard drive with a complete set of exhibition files so that they would be able to review all of the work at its highest quality. They worked out a system to review and discuss throughout festival week, spending a good deal of time videoconferencing.
We are grateful to all of the filmmakers for their prompt cooperation. Of the 143 originally programmed films in competition, just three did not participate due to aesthetic (e.g. taking celluloid to digital) or distribution issues, but those films were still reviewed by the jurors in consideration for awards.
Post-program filmmaker discussions, an important part of our festival, are an opportunity to meet the individuals behind the artwork. This year we had the highest number of filmmakers take part due to the ease with which they could “travel” to the “stage.” These sessions were sweetly intimate as a result of everybody dropping in from the comfort of their own individual living spaces. The makers were engaged, received feedback, and made great connections. I really enjoyed checking in with them in the videoconference space as they waited to go live. Our event brought people together from all around the planet, which was amazing, and we got to see each other all in the same boat!
Circumstances forced us to adapt and do something awesome that we might not have ever done. The virus is horrible, but the quarantine led the festival to new discoveries. While we could not duplicate the physical sense of gathering in the theater and watching on the big screen, we assembled, viewed, and experienced a sense of community for that one special week. We are incredibly proud of what we accomplished. There were 16,709 feeds (unique IP addresses) from 50 different countries. Survey results indicate that an average of 1.65 viewers watched per feed— 27,570 people in total. This is over 2.7 times the number of ticket holders we typically see at the theater. Thank you to everyone in the community for supporting us on our journey and for tuning in to the AAFF livestream!
We learned a ton from executing the festival online and there are clearly some strategies that can enhance next year’s in-person event— in particular, the extension of our international reach as we saw this year. I was surprised by how much the streaming festival felt like an event with ample engagement and an abundance of connectivity. Ultimately, our physical presence and face-to-face connection are integral to our identity, and we know nothing can compare to the experience for attendees and artists both. We are a festival with a strong embodied sensibility, and we look forward to seeing everybody in person, in Ann Arbor, for the 59th Ann Arbor Film Festival, March 23 - 28, 2021.
Here is the documentation of our process from the technical standpoint, written by University of Michigan Converging Technologies Consultant Tom Bray, who also happens to be our tech director. (lucky us!)