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A big festival for small screens: Visions du Réel goes virtual again

The pandemic looms over the Swiss documentary festival, but is far from being the main topic. Some films tackle the social effects of quarantine, such as Pacho Velez’s “Searchers”, which explores how social networks helped to compensate for the loneliness of isolation. Visions du Réel

After last year’s record edition during the Covid-19 lockdown, Visions du Réel – Switzerland’s largest documentary film festival that opened on April 15 – faces the challenge of repeating its success amid “Zoom fatigue” and high expectations from industry professionals. Organisers hope a new virtual platform will do the trick.

A year ago, Visions du Réel was about to begin when Switzerland implemented its first Covid-19 lockdown. “We just had five weeks to move entirely online, so we barely had time to think of anything,” says Émilie Bujès, the festival’s artistic director. If she had realised the work ahead, she would have “freaked out”, she adds.

Moving the festival online was not just a matter of cancelling the theatrical screenings and creating virtual sessions. Many films, and all of those in competition, had chosen Visions du Réel as the main occasion for their world premieres. Would the producers and distributors agree to premiere their films to a virtual audience, without ovations, launch parties and business meetings?

Bujès was relieved to learn that practically all of them, with only one exception, were willing to move ahead. “We were very lucky with the timing because journalists were very keen on covering things and the audience at home was a bit desperate,” she says.

Last year’s festival set a record with more than 60,500 spectators, many more than usual, according to Bujès. She was also pleased with the press coverage and the industry presence.

A year later, with Zoom fatigue

But this year’s edition, running until April 25, poses a different challenge altogether. A year ago, online events and video chat platforms were novel, says Bujès. Today, “Zoom fatigue” has entered the lexicon for many.

And last year, many of the films were exceptionally made available for viewing outside Switzerland, which helped keep streaming numbers high. Bujès and her team quickly approached producers for the rights to stream some films abroad, and many were receptive because of the exceptional pandemic circumstances. But this year’s offering will be limited to viewers located in the Alpine country, except for accredited industry professionals.

That left Bujès and her team faced with the immense challenge of keeping viewership high putting on a virtual festival one year into the pandemic.

First, as is the case every year, the director and a selection team of five people had to watch around 2,700 films to select the ones they would screen – a process complicated this time round by physical distance.

“Usually we watch the films, exchange impressions and talk along the way,” says Bujès. “In the screening room this process is very fluid, but remotely it is much more time-consuming.”

Catering to the industry

They also needed a seamless platform to virtually reproduce the festival’s dynamics. While last year’s platform was an ad-hoc arrangement using mainstream technologies like Zoom, the Visions du Réel organisers adopted a customised platform, developed by the Swiss start-up WYTH, for the 2021 edition.

Festivals are crucial for film industry professionals. It’s the first opportunity for new films to gauge the reaction of an audience of cinephiles. Film festivals also allow producers and filmmakers to pitch their projects directly to the buyers: distributors, TV channels, potential co-producers, funding officers of arts and film councils from different countries. For most filmmakers, festival parties and events are not for fun – they’re business.

Bujès hopes that using this new electronic environment, which was also integrated into the world’s leading festival management platform Eventival, will allow all of those industry exchanges to take place in the virtual realm. Participants can watch films, manage their own agenda, book meetings, join private rooms to discuss about their projects in development, with the possibility to exchange documents, pictures, and watch promos, and without leaving the festival environment.

The platform debuted in January in the When East Meets West film market, which took place parallel to the Trieste Film Festival in Italy. The designers of WYTH hope to expand their range of clients as the pandemic, and distancing measures, continue in most countries. It remains to be seen whether the attachment to the virtual realm will continue after cinemas re-open and social distancing becomes a thing of the past.

Festival information

From April 15-25, Visions du RéelExternal link presents 142 documentary films (26 of them Swiss productions or co-productions) from 58 countries, 41% of them were made by women. The films will be accessible online for 72 hours each, within the limit of 500 available views per film. Spectators may choose between individual tickets at CHF5, or an illimited pass for CHF25. This year’s edition limits access to the films to people with a Swiss IP address.

Certain sessions and special events were originally limited to schoolchildren. However, following the  decisions of the Swiss Federal Council this week, a quick change of plans ensued. The festival announced, a few hours before the official opening, that it will hold around 50 public screenings over four days from Thursday April 22 to Sunday April 25.

Consult the updated programme on the Visions du Réel websiteExternal link.

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SWI – the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Since 1999, has fulfilled the federal government’s mandate to distribute information about Switzerland internationally, supplementing the online offerings of the radio and television stations of the SBC. Today, the international service is directed above all at an international audience interested in Switzerland, as well as at Swiss citizens living abroad.
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