GIEFF 2020 – Impressions from an online film festival

In May 2020 many of our readers were supposed to have been in Göttingen to attend the biannual German International Ethnographic Film Festival (GIEFF). But two months earlier, the corona crisis struck, bringing all travel to a halt. Rather than cancelling the festival, the organizers converted it to an online festival. How did this work?

Technically it went rather well. The participants were given two options. One was to watch a streamed version of the festival that followed the slightly adjusted program. Another option was to watch the films, all password-protected, at their own leisure on Vimeo. The discussions with filmmakers were conducted on Jitsi and streamed as part of the program while being recorded for later use. And, lo and behold, from a participant perspective it all worked wonderfully well. This attests to the hard work put down by the organizers when Europe went into coronavirus lockdown.

So how did this online ethnographic film festival – probably the first of its kind – compare to regular film festivals where everything happens in one place? The advantages were obvious. First, it enabled people with limited funding and time to attend, thus expanding the audience well beyond the most dedicated filmmakers from the most affluent countries. As a result, attendance grew to 1200 participants, which is rather impressive. Second, by extending the temporal window for Vimeo viewing beyond the duration of the festival, participation was less rushed and more easily combined with other duties. Third, by recording the discussions and putting them online, the festival will also get a more public afterlife than before. Last but not least, there was no CO2 emission from festival-related flights, though it needs to be said that digital storage is not entirely green either.

There were also drawbacks. One was that the streamed events were poorly attended. The ones I attended only had between 5 and 10 viewers except for the awards session, which had 19 when I checked in. Evidently the online format makes participants more selective. Many filmmakers will also have missed the opportunity to network with international colleagues, as the online format precludes informal conversation. Without queues, conference meals and refreshments, the serendipitous magic that sparks new film ideas, collaborations or job opportunities simply disappears, which perhaps is a particular loss for the younger generation. But lest we forget, this was simply not an option in 2020.

So will future film festivals be held online? Given these drawbacks, probably not. Yet the advantages of going online cannot be discounted. What we are likely to see is the emergence of a hybrid format in which core participants (organizers, presenting filmmakers, local students) attend in person, while more peripheral participants (non-presenting filmmakers, anthropologists, students living far off) participate online. Admittedly, a hybrid model may require a larger organizational staff with different skills than earlier, but thanks to GIEFFs pioneering effort, we now have experiences to build on.