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Film Festival returns, but not as we’ve known it

film fest new logo [1]

by Lindsay Shelton
The 48th Wellington Film Festival was launched last night, with two sold-out screenings at the Roxy as part of a unique hybrid programme that offers the premieres of 79 new films online as well as a limited number of cinema screenings. The festival, now renamed Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, had to call a halt to its usual planning when the covid-19 lockdown began in March.

The lockdown closed all cinemas – with no date known for their reopening. Even when the lockdown might have been relaxed, there was to be a limit to the number of people who could attend public gatherings, and a requirement for social distancing meaning that less than half of cinema seats could be sold.

This forced the not-for-profit New Zealand Film Festival Trust to say it was “unable to confidently present the 2020 programme as originally planned.”

The chair Catherine Fitzgerald said:

“This is an extraordinary situation and we need to adapt and find a creative solution for 2020. The shared experience of cinema and the power of storytelling to bring communities together has always been our driving force… we believe in the value and importance of cinema now more than ever [and] we cannot do without the Film Festival in July.”

The Wellington Film Festival was inaugurated in the Paramount Cinema 48 years ago. Its main venue for the last 35 years has been the Embassy. The film festival moved in to the Embassy to start its annual screenings when the building was unloved and abandoned. Lawyer Bill Sheat created a Trust which started the long and laborious task of restoring it. By 2001 it had been magnificently restored, a great venue for the film festival which has been selling more than 80,000 tickets every year – the city’s biggest winter event.

But this year, with all cinemas closed indefiniteiy, the organisers faced the challenge of continuing the event without audiences being able to come together in front of big screens. (The Embassy has one of the biggest.)

At the end of April, Catherine Fitzerald announced the new plan:

“We are excited to be able to upgrade our online platform to ensure we can bring the best of new cinema to our audiences with new ways to share the experience and interact with the filmmakers and fellow audience members.”

It was to be a festival at home, on line.

Other film festivals including Cannes were cancelling, but the NZIFF’s Director Marten Rabarts was able to obtain assurances from key film distributors and agents in Australia, New Zealand and around the world that they would commit to making this online edition work well. He said:

“After the initial realisation and heartbreak of not being able to provide an in-cinema experience this year we’ve worked quickly, while leaning on our strong relationships with filmmakers, distributors and sales agents, to ensure we are able to confidently adapt the way in which we’ll present their films to our dedicated audience across the country.

“NZIFF At Home – Online will be a true film festival experience featuring world and New Zealand premieres of films each night,and including virtual red-carpet, and filmmaker Q&As and we can potentially invite more international guests to present their films to our festival audiences than ever before, using virtual means. Some films will be screened as special ‘one-off’ events, and many of the films presented will be exclusive to NZIFF and won’t have other New Zealand screenings.”

Then a month ago, with cinemas reopening earlier than expected and social distancing being relaxed because of New Zealand’s record in containing covid-19, the festival planners had a brief window to try and restore a limited number of festival screenings in cinemas. (The event is now a national one, run from Wellington.)

NZIFF was now billing itself as the first hybrid film festival in the world – presenting its films on line and (some of them) on cinema screenings. It is a model that will soon also by followed by Venice, Locarno and Toronto. Marten Rabarts again:

“This has been enormously complex to bring together and we are thankful to the independent filmmakers, international distributors and sales agents who have been flexible and enabled us to put together a capsule selection of films which we were then able to offer to cinemas.“

It was too late, however, to bring back the Embassy for Wellington’s festival screenings this year – except for one event on Monday night.

dutch film [2]

The Wellington Film Society (which inaugurated the festival 48 years ago) is presenting a one-off film festival screening on the big screen at the Embassy – the NZ premiere of Instinct [3], a Dutch film which was first seen at the end of last year at the Locarno and London Film Festivals. The film’s woman director says:

“Our film is not a social drama. It is not a realistic movie. It’s an abstract experiment about sex and power, control and boundaries. My film looks at the beast inside its characters, human behaviour and the grey areas”.

Monday’s screening at 6.15 in the Embassy is not only for film society members; it is also open to the public on payment of a koha.

And Marten Rabarts confirms that there is an absolute determination to get the whole festival back into movie theatres where it belongs in 2021 and beyond.

News from NZIFF – July 24
Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2020 opens today with a hybrid edition screening films online and at participating cinema venues including two in Wellington.

The Festival opens tonight with an online love Opening Ceremony streamed on Facebook and YouTube at 6.45pm, prior to the Opening Night screening of True History of The Kelly Gang on the Festival’s streaming platform at 7.00pm. Tonight’s film is also followed by a LIVE Q&A with director Justin Kurzel and lead actress Essie Davis (The Babadook).

For the first time ever, audiences across New Zealand with a broadband connection will have access to the entire Festival programme from their homes with 79 feature films and seven short film collections available At Home – Online screening across the Festival duration.

Festival Director Marten Rabarts said he is excited to now be able to share this year’s festival with audiences – the first hybrid film festival in the world.

“Bringing together the 2020 festival has had its challenges, but now it’s time for us all to get comfortable with friends and whānau and settle in for this most remarkable film festival available for the first time for all New Zealanders from Kaitaia to Bluff.”

The in-cinema programme, Your Festival – Your Cinema also opens today with films screening at 15 cinemas and venues in eight cities, including the Roxy and City Gallery in Wellington.

Also announced today is the five-member jury for New Zealand’s Best short film competition: Arts Laureate, renowned New Zealand filmmaker and Member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Pietra Brettkelly, Madman Entertainment Theatrical Sales Manager Luke Murray, award-winning author and screenwriter, and Creative New Zealand board member Briar Grace Smith (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai), renowned New Zealand actor Kerry Fox, and internationally-acclaimed film producer, Academy member and Chair of the PJLF Arts Foundation (London) Olivia Stewart.

The five jurors have viewed the six finalist films online and the jury awards, Creative New Zealand Best Short Film Award and the Madman Entertainment Emerging Talent Award, will be presented following the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland screening on Saturday 25 July. The Audience Award, as voted by the online audience and in-cinema audiences at the ASB Waterfront Theatre and Roxy Cinema, Wellington screenings, will be announced on Sunday 2 August.

Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival runs until Sunday 2 August ending with the Closing Night film, The County. However some Online Rental films continue their rental periods and are available until Sunday 9 August.