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Reflections on 4 Festivals/4 Countries/4 Weeks in the time of COVID-19

By Toni Bell

IDA Filmmaker Services Manager Toni Bell (center) in South Korea as a guest of Korea Next Media Group.

The world has radically changed over the past four months. Not only has the work of documentary filmmakers been significantly disrupted, but so has the celebration of that work. We are certainly adapting to this brave new world that has been thrust upon us; the hopefully temporary loss of those spaces for celebration should be contemplated, if not grieved. Festivals are our party, our reward after years of work and labor in isolation. Watching a filmmaker's work on the big screen, seeing them doing a Q&A, and taking their work into the new world to bring knowledge to us all is like attending a high school graduation. I feel like that distant cousin or that long-time neighbor who watched a film move from a stumbling development baby to a full-fledged distributed adult. And I couldn’t be more proud. Of course I wasn't there for all the ups and downs, but I’ve seen the struggles and was hopefully there for important moments to lend a hand. 

Since COVID-19 hit I have

I have also taken meetings with filmmakers for NALIP. All these were done and/or will be done virtually. These moments have been fulfilling and robust; there is so much incredible, innovative, rich work. But I do miss the festivals. I do miss seeing my documentary family and celebrating. 

And I can’t help thinking about my last international trip. It was a whirlwind. From late October to November, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to attend four documentary-focused festivals, in four countries, across a four-week period. Little did I know, it might be one of the last film festival trips I would take for a long time. All in all, I took a total of eight planes on four airlines, one bus, one train and several taxis. By far, the winner for the airline with the coolest safety video was Korean Air, which featured the K-pop group SuperM


First Stop: Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival

My first stop was the Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. This was my second time attending the event. One of the themes of the festival was sustainability and climate change. While some festivals may give lip service to these issues they claim to address, Ji.hlava developed a thematic throughline that ran deep throughout the festival planning. From the festival badges, judges and panelists, hotels, festival cars, and the awards ceremony, the team at Ji.hlava provided an incredible template on how to create a festival event that not only educates but wants to effect change. When I landed in Prague, I was piled into a small car with three other festival guests. Being the shortest in the car, I volunteered to sit in the middle. The ride was definitely tight, especially after traveling for well over a half a day, but I reminded myself it was for the planet. When we got into town, we headed right to the festival headquarters; rather than providing a plastic sleeve, we were given badges made of recycled, biodegradable cardboard.

I ended up staying at the same hotel I did the previous year, the Hotel Villa Eden. This accommodation, like many in Europe and Asia, utilized smart lights in all the common areas and hallways. In the evening these lights only come on when they sense someone has entered the space. In order to turn on the room lights, a keycard has to be inserted into a slot near the door. This is a great feature because it keeps you from forgetting your key if you’re leaving in a hurry—like, say if you’ve almost overslept for a meeting due to jetlag. And at night, when you're ready to sleep, there's a master switch right by the bed that turns off everything. When leaving the room and removing your key, all the lights automatically go off.

Whenever I go to festivals, I tend to always miss the VR projects. When I arrived in Jihlava, I made a point to prioritize the VR Zone. The beauty of virtual reality is that it allows the viewer to experience both real and imaginative worlds. There were certainly some stand-outs. France’s Amaury La Burthe, Jan Kounen and Romain de La Haye-Sérafini (Molécule) take the viewer on an Arctic journey in their film -22.7°C.  Many of us have read the stories and seen the videos of huge chunks of ice breaking off from glaciers. We also recognize how the melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels. This project transports viewers to the base of one of these giants. The soft sounds of ice cracking and melting crescendo into near awe-inspiring, deafening crashes that speak to the power of nature and our influence over it. The crashes that drop the viewer into blackness then reveal beautiful scenes of ever-extending galaxies; we return to  Earth, its night sky illuminated by the Aurora Borealis.

Screen grab from Nicolas Thepot's 'Master's Vision: Claude Monet--The Water Lily Obsession.'

There were several VR installations that took the viewer directly into the artist’s world, experience and psyche. Master's Vision: Claude Monet - The Water Lily Obsession, from director Nicolas Thépot, takes you into the apartment and psyche of Impressionist painter Claude Monet as he dialogues in letters with his friend George Clemenceau. During the five-minute film, the scenes shift from a gallery view to the inside of Monet's paintings, his apartment as a drawing and then as a photograph and back again. I learned many interesting facts of Monet: He nearly went blind from cataracts when he was beginning his Water Lily series; and Clemenceau offered words of comfort, consultation and encouragement and told him despite his failing sight that he should continue painting. The film also mimicked this loss of sight. When Monet describes only being able to see yellows and reds, the painting surrounding the viewer is stripped of all but those colors, and we feel the deletion and separation from the texture. Monet later had surgery that saved his eyesight and in letters expressed his gratitude to those who supported him. This goes to show the power a friend’s words can help us to expand our own small worlds.

Ji.hlava invited some of the leaders of the global sustainability movement to sit on panels and participate in the film festival as jurors. For many, it was the first time they had been invited to the festival. Considering the impact media has to educate and inform people to make changes, this joining together of forces is a natural fit. At a press breakfast, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Sophie Howe, the First Future Generations Commissioner of Wales. In 2015, the Well-Being for Future Generations Act was passed. Howe's role is to act as a check on all 44 of the policy bodies of the government and ask them one question: How will this policy benefit those born 20 to 25 years from now? The goal is to build sustainable, ethical, and equitable practices into every policy decision. Howe isn't just a figurehead; she has power. It was her intervention that stopped a roadway from being built through the Gwent Levels wetlands, one of the primary water sources for the Welsh population, as well as an essential wildlife refuge.  "The goal is to create a more equal Wales," Howe maintained. One of her challenges is overcoming the myopic view and territorialism that exists within various departments. Because Howe was the first "Minister of the Unborn," she has led the charge in assisting governments around the world in creating similar positions in their own countries. New Zealand sent a group to Cardiff in 2019, and Howe has traveled to Dubai to speak of her experiences at the World Government Summit.  

Later that day, Howe was on a panel entitled "The Future has a Veto Right!" that was moderated by political scientist Jonathan Terra. Other panelists included scholar Kateřina Smejkalová and philosopher Jan Sokol. The panel sought to challenge assumptions of the sustainability and efficacy of continuous growth as well as how to speak to the interests of future generations.  Howe stressed that telling younger citizens that they must deal with the inevitable is a recipe for inaction. Finding that new normal will most certainly be a challenge to the current economic system. It's a shift from a focus on acute or being reactive to a long-term proaction. I must admit that even with my level of urgency around issues of climate change and the other ways in which humans have impacted the planet, going through a pandemic has certainly brought the narrative to the forefront. What kind of new normal are we creating for the generations that will come after us? 

We must also make sure that even though we may bat about words and phrases like "climate change," "sustainability," "energy conscious" and "recycle," we need to make sure that those who choose to engage with one another have the same values and goals in mind. The Circle, from director Margit Lillak, examines what can go wrong when assumptions are made. The film is about the trials, tribulations and triumphs that happen when a group of people decide to form a sustainable and environmentally friendly community in Estonia. The group is part of the Global Eco-Village Network. Although all starts out well, conflict soon arises when it is clear that people have different ideas of what environmentalism and sustainability actually mean. A back-and-forth love triangle develops that threatens the community, and the children of the group demand more structure. The documentary is a cautionary tale about the importance of people who on the surface have the same goals but fail to go deeper into the conversation. The film unfolds like narrative drama with poignant and funny moments, and is a microcosm of everyday life where misunderstandings lead to miscommunication and unintentional missteps. 

The festival wrapped with one of the best and most entertaining awards ceremonies I have ever attended. I’ve never been a fan of them, actually.. I find them tedious and boring, particularly those with celebrities that get on stage, wear their ribbon or mention the hashtag of the day, and offer nothing specific. But this was not one of those awards ceremonies. As one of the most-watched televised events in the Czech Republic, the ceremony delivered:  Grocery bags rained down from the ceiling above the stage; and hosts, jurors and award-winners swatted away the bags while speaking eloquently about the documentary field. This was a funny and serious reminder of how pervasive is our dependence on plastic. International jurors and presenters such as Howe and Isabella Salton, executive director at Instituto Terra in Brazil, noted specific actions citizens in their respective countries were taking to fight the battle. Each Czech presenter offered an action or something they personally did to make a difference. The ceremony ended with a performance from Extinction Rebellion, who, amidst a  cacophony of sound,  took the stage brandishing flags and dressed head to toe in blood-red habits. It was an incredible testament To the necessary power of disruption.


Next Stop: DOK Leipzig

From Juyeon Yang's 'My Missing Aunt.'

My second stop on my multi-continent junket was DOK Leipzig in Germany, but my work with the festival began long before my arrival. I was driven from Jihlava to Prague at 4:00 in the morning and dropped off at the bus station there. I waited a few more hours to get my bus to Leipzig. I was named to the committee that selected the winner of the Development Prize for the Best Female Director, presented by the Saxon State Minister for the Arts. My fellow jurors and I met the day before my festival travels to discuss the 20 eligible projects. And the 5,000 Euro prize went to South African filmmaker Godisamang Khunou, for her project Black Women and Sex. The film explores the tension between black women and the politics of sex through the voices of three women from Nigeria, Zambia and South Africa. We also cited a special mention to My Missing Aunt, from South Korean director Juyeon Yang. The project is a personal documentary wherein Juyeon discovers that she has an aunt who had died some 40 years ago. Juyeon goes on a journey of self-reflection as she learns about this relative, with whom she discovers she has a lot in common.

There were also several up-and-coming projects from very promising directors. A Place to Stand, from director Tess Hutson, is a deeply personal journey investigating how violence manifests in relationships families, and communities by seeking to uncover the secrets surrounding a horrific tragedy. Adam Sedlak's Fed Cup 86 examines the Cold War through a 1980s tennis match between two players of Czech descent: Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova. One of the most exciting projects I saw was Kongo Is Burning, from director Arnold Agaanze. The film is a contemporary and celebratory tale of fashion and disco balls told by La Duchesse and Conoée, two transgender women flourishing in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The project is a recipient of the 2020 Hot Docs-Blue Ice Documentary Fund Development Grant and was also pitched at the Hot Docs Forum. Pure Unknown, from Italian directors Valentina Cleogna and Mattia Colombo, features anthropologist and coroner Cristina Cattaneo and her battle to identify the bodies of Jane and John Does in an effort to give them the dignity and respect that all human beings deserve. It'll be fascinating to see how this project develops in light of COVID-19. Lastly, director Rama Thiaw's Zion Music examines the contemporary Rastafarian music and movement in Africa. 


The Other Side of the World: South Korea

I flew back to Los Angeles, where I spent a little more than a day—just enough time to run a few errands, unpack, do laundry, spend some time with the cats and pack again. Then I was off to South Korea. It was my first time in the country and I was incredibly excited at the opportunity to eat Korean food there. I was invited by Korea Next Media Group and Be Bold. Next Media Group is a media agency that works closely with broadcasters in South Korea, China and Taiwan to assist in marketing strategies. It was a short trip, but it was so eventful and inspiring. Jane Ray from the Whickers Awards and I were there to mentor the documentary fellows, and we bonded over a visit to one of the many raccoon cafées. The following day was a round of presentations in front of Korean broadcasters. 

Toni Bell delivering a presentation at Korea Next Media Group.

I was nervous to discover that this talk was to be given on a very large TED Talk-inspired stage with camerapeople operating equipment on the ground and on cranes. I did a presentation that was part of the "International Co-Production Cases & Strategies" on "Co-Production in the United States." Even though co-production isn’t a formal thing in the United States, I discussed the various ways international filmmakers can work with US-based filmmakers from the funding to the distribution space. Since my presentation was in front of primarily broadcasters from South Korea, China and Taiwan, most of the questions after my talk centered around how they as broadcasters could partner with US-based broadcasters. Unfortunately, this is not an area in which I am well-versed. Streaming was a hot topic, and the majority of the presenters who went before me spoke about the big players like Amazon, Netflix and Disney+.

I also did a presentation for the documentary fellows entitled "Using the Core Application to Pitch Your Best Pitch Forward." The presentation was to prep the filmmakers who were slated to attend this year’s Hot Docs. Jin Jeon, director of the award-winning documentary Becoming Who I Was, pitched her latest film, The Pie Shop. It's a coming-of-age film that examines what happens when a promising young chef from South Korea whose dreams clash with those of his beloved South African mentor. Boram Kim, whose first film was For Vagina's Sake, came to the presentation with his second documentary, Nervous Curve, which offers an intimate portrait of a single mother and her daughter as they attempt to bond while they each battle their own eating disorders.


O Canada!

My last stop was the 22nd Montreal Documentary Film Festival. Flying from South Korea to Montreal is not for the faint of heart. After close to 20 hours of travel, I was beyond the point of fatigue and was more than happy to check into what turned out to be a suite at the Candlewood Suites. I was asleep by 7:00 p.m. and I slept for 12 hours. The next day, I went to buy a coat as I had left mine at the airport in South Korea while doing way too much duty-free shopping. When I went to pick my credentials, I met the festival's executive director, Mara Gourd-Mercardo. I told her I was surprised to meet her because she was the first executive director of a festival that I had actually met during that festival. She laughed and said, "I believe in being visible." That evening the festival hosted a dinner at a phenomenal Mediterranean restaurant, Restaurant KazaMaza, where I had great conversations with filmmakers such as Ina Finchman (DocuClub Alum Laila at the Bridge), who had advised me on coat-shopping in Montreal; several filmmakers; and Muhammad Refaat, commissioning editor at the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel

I also met with filmmakers working on some very innovative projects. Elise Bois' feature-length project Mama No Himitsu profiles 57-year-old Japanese-Canadian Noriko Oi as she travels back to Nagasaki to reconstruct the past of her mother, who survived the August 9, 1945 atomic bombing of that city. Producer Marina Serrao's Jimmy celebrates the work of bodybuilder/photographer Jimmy Caruso, whose most famous student was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Producer Guylaine Maroisit's Backlash examines misogyny in the digital age through the eyes of five people around the world who have been targeted and in some cases silenced by this 21st-century form of bigotry. Filmmakers Hannah Donegan and Chloe Sosa-Sims' film Hunting in Packs offers unprecedented access to three women lawmakers in the UK, Canada and the United States as they battle clearly less-qualified opponents, and endure ridicule and death and rape threats. Melissa James' and Sarah Sharkey Pearce's Witch was probably my favorite; it examines the resurgence of witchcraft in the United States and the movement to "hex the patriarchy." 

My last gig on my globetrotting excursion was a co-presentation with Nadja Tennstedt, DocSalon Coordinator with the European Film Market. Our presentation was called "All About International Labs." During our talk, we discussed the various labs and funds available for filmmakers in Europe and North America, as well as what filmmakers should expect when pitching at these various markets and forums. I wrapped our presentation with a few words on the Core Application, its origins, how it could be used to hone the pitch, as well as tips to make proposal-writing stronger.


Homeward Bound, and Zooming Around the World

It was a whirlwind of a trip and the longest I had been out of the country since I was in college. I cherish the memories that I created and I long for a world where it is safe to engage with one another. I read an article once that pointed out that before the telephone, the only way we could engage with one another as human beings was face to face. This may seem a bit obvious but it is incredibly profound. In my lifetime, we’ve moved from rotary phones attached to a wall to tiny computers in our pockets. All of this may seem natural to us but in the scope of human history, we’ve only been using this means of one-on-one communication for a minute. Our evolutionary development hasn’t quite caught up with the pace of the technology, and that may be the cause for a bit of the malaise we’ve been feeling. Of course there is the stress of the pandemic, but we have been physically cut off from each other. All our public interactions are now on Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime or some platform. So, what do we miss when we can’t engage with another? What social queues do we miss because we aren’t in the physical presence when so much of our communication is nonverbal?

The contrast between our festival lives then and our festival lives now couldn’t be more different. Amidst the anxiety-inducing, constant news about the pandemic, I can still meet with filmmakers. In addition to learning about their projects, it’s been fascinating learning about the differing health systems across the globe. I’ve been working with documentary lab fellows at SEEFest for a few years now. This year, because we had to use Zoom, lab participants who still lived in Southeast Europe but would not be able to afford the trip to Los Angeles were able to attend for the first time. I was able to catch up with Arnold Aganze, who I met at DOK Leipzig and who recently received the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group Award for his project Kongo Is Burning. It was great to see how the project has progressed and to hear that in all of Uganda fewer than 200 people had passed away from the disease. Uganda established protocols early and also has special pandemic hospitals. I also feel like I am getting to know filmmakers beyond their work. I’m learning about their friends, family, and the other people who support them in their work. So, there have been some positives.

And yes, it's still been an incredible adjustment. While at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February, I attended a celebration dinner held in honor of the Nia Tero and 4th World Indigenous Media Lab fellows. In a later conversation with Tracy Rector of Longhouse Media, I mentioned that one of the songs a fellow, Mia Kami, sang reminded me of something my grandfather implicitly taught me: I might not benefit from the actions that I take today, but I must think about the futures of those who will come after me. As I thought about my grandfather, one of the speakers asked those of us at the dinner, "What kind of ancestor will you be?" Thinking back to Jihlava, Commissioner Howe as well as the staff of Jihlava were in their own specific ways asking, addressing and answering that question. This pandemic has forced all us to be hyperconscious of our collective responsibility both within our public and private lives. In our conversation, Tracy also said, "There is medicine in gathering together in person, sharing story, and talking story." Festivals aren’t just a place of celebration but a place of medicine. This is what I miss. But as Queen Elizabeth II said in her April address to the UK regarding the pandemic, "We will meet again." While we wait, I hope that we will take the time to make the change we want, evaluate what works for us individually and as an industry, and be conscious about creating a documentary community that is beneficial to the filmmakers and those in the industry who will come after us. 


Updates: The Jihlava Documentary Film Festival is scheduled for October 27 - November 1. They are planning to have some form of physical festival.  Here is the statement they released in May. Their submission deadline is July 31, 2020.

DOK Leipzig is scheduled for October 26 - November 1. They are planning a hybrid festival. Over 120 films will be screened in theaters and on demand. The DOK Industry Programme will be held online. The DOK Co-Pro Market is accepting submissions until August 1, 2020.

The Montreal International Documentary Festival recently announced a three-week hybrid event, from November 12-December 2, with an extended online section. 

Toni Bell is the Filmmaker Services Manager and curates the DocuClub Work-in-Progress Screening Series at IDA.