Still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914)

Death and the online film festival

One of the first blog posts here was about cinema as ritual, in two senses: as a social practice and as a formal set of actions that may address an abstract or supernatural purpose. The pandemic has brought about a crisis of collective rituals, from the quotidian to the transcendental. This unravelling of common habits has mundane consequences, like losing track of the days of the week, but also profoundly painful ones. At tens of thousands of lonely hospital beds and funerals, the conventions that allow human societies to cope with death and grief are tenuously sustained by video-calls. It is both miraculous and crushing in its banality.

If the most sacred and necessary of rituals are being mediated by online streaming, it is no surprise that everything else, from pub quizzes to orchestras, is streaming somewhere. After a spate of cancellations, film festivals and academic conferences have also now returned as online programmes, and probably stand a better chance of survival than the cinema venues and universities that would have hosted them. For anyone lucky enough to have a computer, an internet connection and a safe home, and who isn’t being forced to risk their lives at work, this situation has generated a surfeit of ‘content’ far beyond the usual limitations of geography and timing. The expanded remote access includes participants that otherwise would have been excluded due to disability or location, and it excludes others who have divergent relationships to technology. I don’t want to enter into a discussion of whether streaming is good or bad, better or worse than cinemagoing or conference panels, as I have no interest in protecting those rituals. I don’t care if they survive; I care deeply about the people who depend on them for a livelihood, but that’s a different issue.

This is not a festival venue

This is not a festival venue

Online access is the consummation of mechanical reproducibility, and as Benjamin argued, the breakdown of uniqueness can demystify the reproduced object and wrench it out of the sphere of ritual. The tension between reproducibility (of the film) and uniqueness (of the event) is constitutive to the existence of film festivals, conceived as a way to ‘eventify’ film. This is being negotiated online in many different ways, as the sector fumbles towards new models that may enable some semblance of survival. Live streaming, time-limited access, and live Q&A sessions are some of the strategies that festivals are using to assert a sense of occasion, which is to say, a ritual time. The first online festival I attended this year was Alchemy, which had live screenings and a very pared down, straightforward interaction centered around brief introductions by programmers and a chat box after the film. As a taste of the new normal, and it had many advantages, such as an international audience and the ability to eat lunch during the screening without bothering others. But it didn’t have the treasure hunt of site-specific screenings around Hawick, the floor-to-ceiling screen in perfect darkness, or the gap between screenings to write notes in a sunlit window, go charity-shopping, or eavesdrop on earnest filmmakers at the café. It’s the ‘in-between bits’ that are missing, as Tara Judah wrote a few days ago. The gaps are backfilled with housework or email, and so the ritual contract is fragmented.

It becomes very difficult for festivals to offer a distinctive experience without their unique locations. In a recent piece, Erika Balsom considers how “presented online, moving-image artworks risk absorption into a ceaseless cascade of undifferentiated “content.””. From behind a laptop screen it all looks pretty much the same, despite the bewildering proliferation of platforms and logins. It is all also a bit more intentional, less random, like most things online which depend on being called up by the consumers, and are therefore less likely to surprise them. The waning of unintentional, unplanned sociability is harder to articulate as a loss in the pandemic, as governments entrench a worldview where the important relationships are those of wage work first, and normative family unit second. Online film viewing is – in my experience – similarly tending towards the productive or the familiar, more fully realised as labour because the stretches of time around it have been minimised. With no travelling to the cinema or waiting in the lobby, there is nowhere online where you can just sit and do nothing, let things unfold that don’t depend on your intervention and choice.

The fantasy of digital availability of everything presents itself as a fugue from mortality. You can’t miss anything – you can always watch it later (I am still genuinely upset about MUBI’s departure from its 30-days-only model, which at least allowed you to move on if you had missed a film). But of course, you don’t have infinite time. You don’t know if you can ever watch it later. Life is literally too short. The life of images can also be shorter than you think, links rotting all over the web, emulsions sliding, nitrate burning. At Alchemy, several films reflected on the failure of the archive to deliver the future promised by the past. In Salma Shamel’s short film, Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad, an inkjet printer sits in a backyard, printing certificates intended to reward contributors of oral testimonies of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The bureaucratic attempts can’t help but extinguish the same radical fire they intend to record, and soon succumb to the reactionary collapse of the popular uprising. In another screening, Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You lingered over the rusted cans of the Nigerian Film Unit. The decay of analogue film has a well-established romance, perhaps because its time is just out of reach, within living memory, and hence its destruction is imagined as preventable. But as with any technology of memory, the loss of film is as indispensable as its survival to its history.

The Orphan Film Symposium is premised on this ephemerality. Orphan films survive by accident. They give the lie to the fantasy of total availability, representing as they do the tip of a lost iceberg. Meant to serve a time-limited purpose, the passage of these films into history has been crafted with today’s arguments, technologies, and archival optics. Often meant to be private, their public existence diffracts their modes of address and complicates their understanding. This is perhaps the logical setting in which to think about death, and this symposium offered a needed space to do that. It was also one of the best academic conferences / film festivals I have ever attended, and its expanded universe of blog posts and videos constitutes an incredible, generous, and timely resource. Against the relentless futurity of business as usual, the mood at this event felt more authentic. The incredibly skilled technical team greeted us from Mexico DF, wearing facemasks. Presenters joined in from around the world, lamenting a missed appointment at Amsterdam, and always finishing with ‘stay safe’. The combined themes of the symposium – water, climate and migration – reminded us that beneath the current emergency there is a catastrophe that hasn’t gone away with the decreased CO2 emissions of recent months. In other words, widespread death, closed borders, and a retrenchment into the private sphere are not going to stop the waters from rising.

There were two moments in the festival that confronted me with death more directly. At the end of the first day of screenings, as I watched from my sofa well past midnight, I was taken by surprise by a film where Eiren Caffall reflected on her life with the same chronic illness that will probably kill me one day. Safe and alone in my house, I could let my fear run through me until it exhausted itself, find a healing use for that metaphor of the sea within. In that moment I was glad not to have to make small talk with colleagues over canapes afterwards. Then on the third day, also late at night, Ja’Tovia Gary introduced her extraordinary essay film The Giverny Document. Watching this multilayered inquiry into Black experience and pain, on the day of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, amplified the rage that the images demand. The artist talked about the intricate, beautiful work of animation directly onto film as a somewhat therapeutic practice, which created a powerful tension with archive footage including evidence of police brutality recorded on phones. In conversation with archivist Terri Francis, they consider the fact that thinking about Black media is also thinking about the moving image as evidence. Over the days since then this question has been on my mind, as the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death, filmed by a black teenager, join this ‘counter-archive’ of atrocity and injustice.

But also in the archive: a Black child twirling in the sunshine with a paper plane.

And also for the archive, today: the statue of a slave trader being hauled off its plinth and into the water. Signs of life.

(via GIPHY)


The featured image is a still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914), one of the films screened at the Orphan Film Symposium. It can be seen here with an introduction by Ned Thanhouser, but please be warned that it is a disturbing, cruel film infested with animal death and deploying a racist, colonial gaze.