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Alice Miller is a film programmer and PhD researcher based in northern England, currently writing a thesis on the history of local independent film exhibition. In 2018, she joined Leeds International Film Festival as a programmer for the retrospective stand. For the 2019 edition of the festival, she curated Mother Cutter: Women Who Shaped Film, a retrospective season celebrating the work of women editors. She’s passionate about creating meaningful and inspiring experiences through film culture and help organize community cinema events in various spaces across Leeds, as well as the annual DIY film festival Scalarama.
I am spending my ongoing lockdown in my small terraced house in a suburb of Leeds, England. I am fortunate to have a home I can work from and green spaces I can walk to. I am not ready to resume "normal" life. Restrictions here are easing, but our country is far from beating COVID-19. Living in a country that has failed disastrously in its handling of the pandemic is exhausting, continually heartbreaking and infuriating. This has an impact on work as feelings of outrage and worry permeate all aspects of life. Like many, this pandemic has brought me personal and professional anxiety, not only worries regarding health but also the survival of film exhibition.
A key element of programming work is watching and selecting films. As cinemas closed and festivals cancelled, the first weeks of lockdown brought a deluge of online content, endless film recommendations, free trials of streaming subscriptions, virtual film clubs and "viewing parties". Was this a film lover’s dream or a nightmare? I had an abundance of films to gorge upon, yet depleted concentration levels and a craving for comfort films over cerebral ones. The limitations of inhabiting an online world became clear, this world of small screens was noisy, overwhelming and counter-productive to mental well-being. The sudden unfettered access to films online also brought feelings of redundancy, and as digital exhibition became emboldened, was this a threat to festival exhibition?
That said, a considerable amount of film festival work continued remotely. Emails sent, screeners viewed, meetings now on Zoom and my colleagues were even able to attend the Cannes’ virtual Marché du Film. Visiting festivals is a vital part of research work and nothing can replace that experience, yet one online event that made me feel connected with the film festival world was our neighbour Sheffield Doc/Fest, which launched an online edition in June. I found it a joy to dive into their virtual programme and thoughtfully curated selections. It was a vital reminder of the transcendent power of film, its ability to connect you with belief systems and worlds outside of your own, and that film can provide enriching aesthetic experiences regardless of viewing space or platform.
As exhibitors, we work to create meaningful encounters between films and audiences, and the current crisis has made these encounters a challenge. The digital realm is a vital way to connect with our audiences, yet we long to be physically reunited. Festivals are meeting places where international audiences converge, but right now global travel and bringing together large groups is not safe. Our re-opening world brings further worries and ethical dilemmas – can we ensure the safety of our audiences and of ourselves while the virus remains in our communities? While nothing can replace the thrill of watching films with others in darkened cinemas and festival piazzas, I am excited to see festivals embrace the virtual possibilities of film exhibition. Perhaps a hybrid model of exhibition is the future – a blend of the physical and virtual that allows us to reach many more audiences across geographical boundaries and build an accessible film culture for all.
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