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The future of film festivals

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Several of the world’s most prestigious film festivals are uniting for the first time with “We Are One: A Global Film Festival,” a 10-day digital event that will kick off on Saturday, May 29, and continue through June 7. It’s an unprecedented collaboration, which may end up being a reflection of what could be the new normal for film festivals around the world. And Rochester is no exception.

Produced and organized by Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube, “We Are One” will feature a program of more than 100 films co-curated by 21 festivals from around the globe, including the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and the Venice International Film Festival. The films and programs will stream exclusively at youtube.com/WeAreOne, free of charge.

The films scheduled to screen hail from 35 countries and include 23 narrative and 8 documentary features, as well as 57 narrative and 15 documentary short films. The lineup also includes 15 archived talks, along with festival exclusives and VR works. A full festival schedule can be found at weareoneglobalfestival.com.

“We Are One” aims to “elevate films that have the power to create change and bring audiences from around the world together to create meaningful connections,” according to provided press materials. “Each selection was handpicked for inclusion to highlight the singularities of each participating festival, while also providing a voice to filmmakers on a global stage.”

The event will benefit COVID-19 relief efforts, allowing viewers to give money through donation buttons or links on every film page. Organizations set to receive funds include the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation, and Give2Asia, among others.

Each film will have its initial screening at a scheduled day and time. Following that, most of the films will be available on VOD to watch at viewer’s convenience through the remaining days of the festival.



World premieres of documentaries in the lineup are set to include filmmaker Josh Swade’s “Ricky Powell: The Individualist,” about the renowned street photographer, and “Iron Hammer,” directed by Joan Chen, about legendary Chinese Olympic volleyball star Jenny Lang Ping.

Viewers will also have access to specially-curated talks from past editions of participating festivals as well as new discussions. These talks will feature Francis Ford Coppola with Steven Soderbergh, Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho, Guillermo del Toro, Jane Campion, and Claire Denis.

In addition to acting as a fundraiser, “We Are One” may function as a convenient way to get audiences around the world accustomed to changes that will likely be coming to their favorite regional film festivals some day very soon.

In the age of coronavirus, the future of public events is still unclear. Indoor movie theaters remain closed for the time being, leaving many film festivals facing the decision of whether to cancel completely, pivot to becoming a virtual event, or cobble together some hybrid of virtual and in-person programming. The question of what form these film events will take from here on out is one faced by many in Rochester’s own community of festivals.

The One Take Documentary Film Festival, which would have been held from April 30 to May 3 this year, was postponed and is pending new dates. Organizers of the High Falls Film Festival also made the decision to postpone the 2020 edition, with plans to return in November of 2021.

In early April organizers of the JCC Rochester Jewish Film Festival announced that its event, originally scheduled for July 12-19, would be postponed. A virtual mini-fest is currently being planned for July, which will feature a program of five films during the week, all virtual, as well as Zoom conversations with filmmakers. As for long-term plans, Festival Director Andrea Miller said organizers are remaining flexible.

“Our best guess is that the majority of our festival devotees will not be comfortable gathering until the pandemic is over,” Miller said. “We plan to continue with virtual programming, and conversations with filmmakers and local experts. We have a very supportive base and hope that if we offer strong content, they will stay with us until we can be together again.”

That uncertainty over what audiences will be comfortable with — or what kinds of public activities will even be allowed months from now — is the most challenging aspect of festival planning, said Michael Gamilla, Programming Director of the ImageOut Film Festival. A virtual component to the festival (currently scheduled for October 8-18) is inevitable, according to Gamilla, though what form that will take remains undecided.

“How does one plan for the unknown?” he said. “The reality is we have to have backup plans over backup plans, or we won't be able to cope with all the changes in regulations.”

But the current situation provides an opportunity for film festival organizers to be creative and try new things, Gamilla said. And he’s confident that these transformations won’t be contained solely within the remainder of 2020. “If some of those changes work well, like a virtual component, I think they are worth considering for future iterations. This might be an opportunity to expand our services like we never thought possible before.”

As events like “We Are One” demonstrate, finding a viable way forward is going to require arts organizations to work together. And that’s something local festivals are well-prepared for, Gamilla said. “The great thing about the film festival community here in Rochester is that we’re all friends, and we collaborated well together even before this pandemic. So we’ve tried to discuss our plans and concerns for making things work for our respective festivals this year. We don't know yet what's going to happen, but at least the communication lines are open.”

Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this story can be directed to Rebecca Rafferty, CITY's arts & entertainment editor, at becca@rochester-citynews.com.