Film festivals have broken out of physical boundaries and gone digital

On a cold morning, huddled under bed sheets, I watched farmer and wage labourer, Mura Lala Fafal sing Sufi music in the Great Rann of Kutch desert between India and Pakistan. “All your sins, all your deceits, all the money you can earn, will stay behind. Nothing in this world will last,” he sang sitting on a bed under a kuchcha roof. I’m at the ‘We Speak Here’ online film festival organised by the website Culture Unplugged (CU). Do Din Ka Mela (DDKM), a documentary on the music of Mura and his pastoral Dalit community, the Meghwals, is being screened. I’m joined online from Coimbatore by 1,600 others from countries as far flung as Israel, Burkina Faso, Congo, China and Iraq, among others.

Online film festivals are a natural progression from websites that earlier just uploaded films. Atom Films was among the earliest to upload short films. Websites, such as Youtube and Vimeo, later made the concept almost clich?. In 2008, CU pioneered a themed film festival online with entries from across the world. The trend spread with established, non-virtual festivals such as Tribecca and Sundance hosting their online counterparts. But CU, with its four festivals (each online for six months), is one of the few where Indian filmmakers are found in abundance.

Access to global audiences is the biggest advantage of online festivals, say Mumbaikars, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayashankar, directors of DDKM. “From 2008, over 50 million viewers from 24,000 cities in 210 countries have visited our festivals,” says the CU team (The members of CU answered this interview collectively via e-mail).

“At non-virtual screenings, there’s a 100-strong audience, at most. So reaching thousands online is satisfying,” says Anjali. But for older-generation filmmakers, adjusting to a virtual audience is part of the bargain. “Filmmakers survive on feedback from their audiences which are immediate in physical screenings. Tracking emails, comments and votes over months isn’t as easy,” says Delhiite Aparna Sanyal, director of A Drop of Sunshine, a film about a schizophrenic artist.

For independent filmmakers, online festivals are a godsend, says Anamitra Roy from Kolkata, director of Smriti...Mrito Janopaud, about the destruction of his childhood home. “It costs upwards of US$ 40 to enter a non-virtual festival and that’s most often beyond our means,” he says. Even for Anjali and Jayashankar, with their 22 National and International awards, online festivals offer a fresh platform. “Spaces dedicated to documentaries in India are few and far between when compared to the country’s output. So any new forum for discovery is welcome,” says Anjali.

Virtual festivals also replicate physical ones in that they too grant filmmakers awards. CU, for instance, grants five awards, the cash prizes of which compare with physical festivals. For filmmakers looking for sponsorship from distributors, it is better not to participate in online festivals as they are unlikely to fund what’s freely available online, cautions Aparna. “You may also lose out at acclaimed physical festivals as they often accept only works that premiere at their festival. Moreover, few online awards hold the credibility that non-virtual ones do, simply because they haven’t been around long enough,” she says.

Boon for viewers

While online festivals remain debating ground for filmmakers, they are unequivocally hailed by viewers for the sheer variety available. Add to that the comfort of your home and the freedom to be distracted by ringing phones. “Online, things may not be technically perfect; even buffering could irritate people. So it’s down to the film’s power to hold the audience,” says Somnath Chakraborty, whose film Swapno Satyakam, about a dwarf finding love, is on CU. “But ultimately, it doesn’t matter as long as films reach people,” he adds. Virtual festivals also narrow the viewer’s experience to his notion of the film, unlike at physical festivals where understanding is moulded by audience reactions during discussions says Anjali.

There is a strong future for online festivals judging by the growing audience and sponsors who are now Net-aware says CU. While Internet penetration is small in India, its growth will soon tap into potential viewership.

“Five years ago, the online festival wasn’t understood as an idea and there was resistance from distributors and filmmakers. Today, it’s become a must to have an online presence,” they say. But commercial viability depends on how websites manage to cover the massive costs of supporting bandwidth for millions of users, especially when paid viewership hasn’t succeeded.

Says Anjali, “With their openness to films made on any device and of any duration, I foresee online festivals coexisting with physical ones. Their strength lies in the ability to break the limitations of time and space.”