Pushing Virtual Boundaries at the Austin Arthouse Film Festival
Celebration of experimentation does some experimenting of its own
What do you do when the pandemic makes it impossible to host an in-person festival? Do more, and sooner. That was the response from the Austin Arthouse Film Festival, the local celebration of experimental cinema.
"While people were at home, we had opened up the festival to include film contests," said Giselle Marie Muñoz, who founded the festival in 2018 with Elizabeth Tabish. Back in the spring, filmmakers were issued prompts and guidelines, and the first experiment was so successful that they held three more 48-hour challenges across the summer. Muñoz called the competitions "an opportunity to bring some creativity out of filmmakers, especially if they weren't feeling it on their own."
One consequence of the competitions was that the booking team had a selection of brand-new titles all ready to include in the 2020 festival. That just left one question: What would the 2020 fest even look like? There have been three basic stages of festival responses to the pandemic. Those in the first wave were just forced to cancel. The second wave worked out how to transfer their regular festivals over to a virtual format. Now is the era of innovation. Festivals are changing the equation, adding dates, even running in two cities simultaneously.
Muñoz explained that this year, AAFF is going from one long night of shorts at AFS Cinema to a week of streaming events and access. They'd already become experienced at virtual screenings, as they'd hosted titles from previous festivals on their Vimeo page. As a result, she said, "We'd started to exercise these muscles of receiving films, and uploading films, and sharing films online."
Every festival has a specific role to play in the fate of films, and Tabish explained that AAFF is no different. "So many of these larger festivals are an opportunity for filmmakers to get films in front of distributors, or people who may help with the future of their film, whereas our festival, because it's so intimate and we have a really specifically curated selection, our whole goal is about exposure for these films, for people to really appreciate the artistry that goes into them." Going online for a virtual edition, she added, "gives us an opportunity to share these films that we love so much with an even bigger audience that doesn't just have to be in Austin."
However, a pandemic-era festival means pandemic-era booking. "When we were in a live theatre," Tabish said, "so much of our programming was dependent on knowing how long people could sit in a chair." Since everyone is on their own couch, watching the 55 titles at their own leisure across the six days of the fest, that stricture does not apply. This year sees AAFF adding in features, with two titles – Pedro Pires' Alexandre the Fool and painter-turned-director Stavit Allweis' Execution – breaking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' magical 40-minute mark. "This time, we don't have the time constraints."
The virtual format is also interactive. Even within the curated list broken down into six subgenres, it can be hard for audiences to navigate the lineup, so the team created a 10-question quiz to ease the selection process. Tabish said, "Based off your answers, we recommend a handful of films that you may like."
Muñoz said, "More than anything, we've been building on this celebration to create community ... We find what feels good, and we find what's bringing people together. I don't see us not doing any of the things we've done this year."
Austin Arthouse Film Virtual Festival runs Dec. 26-31. Festival passes $25. More info at www.austinarthousefilmfestival.com.