Chattanooga Film Festival 2020 Proved that Virtual Fests Aren't Just Possible, They're Vital
I never could have imagined growing up that my life would be the way it is now...
...I always knew I’d be writing, of course. Never imagined it would be predominantly as a film critic. It’s been an amazing growth experience, but it isn’t without its obstacles. There are some strings that come attached to media analysis that I can’t or simply won’t grasp onto. Sometimes the reasons for both levels of refusal are the same, sometimes I’m just stubborn. Meaningful analysis should not be on a timetable. There is unmistakable value and need for coverage in the first couple weeks of release for anything. From a sales standpoint, the first two weeks or so are the most critical, and any buzz generated in that time period is vital to the product’s survival and success. I understand the necessity, but I also frequently feel the sting of its drawbacks.
If you can’t make it to a theater to support something and write about it in a timely manner (read: the first two weeks or so) the general belief is that interest wanes and traffic to your article is almost nil. Partly this is the nature of the age of content creation and social media we’ve built ourselves, where attention and focus flits around like a moth in lamplight. No one’s fault, exactly, it’s just the system we’ve made. Trouble is, the system tends to give the short end of the stick to disabled reviewers like myself, if we’re offered anything at all. I’m fortunate to have found a section of the community that seeks diverse viewpoints out, but I’m also constantly aware of the places where our voices are overlooked or buried under as unimportant. Beyond writing platforms, though, there are the places for consumption, and not all theaters are created equal; few of them are accessible for people who use assistive devices to get around.
Back in December, I wrote a piece on Medium about this very struggle and briefly mentioned that festivals hold a similar set of issues in terms of accessibility. When I think about in-person film festivals, I picture massive crowds of people confined to a space that, for someone disabled, would be inherently difficult to navigate. I don’t even get as far as questioning whether or not there are ramps in place of steps, or places to sit while walking around. I knew if I ever got the chance to attend one, I would hesitate unless I had the option to go with someone I know and trust to help me get around. If that weren’t possible, it would simply be an area of film review I might never get to experience, and I’d pretty much resigned myself to that. When you’re disabled, sometimes you just have to accept that some things will be more difficult. It’s a truth rooted in a systemic problem most people prefer to overlook unless they know someone personally affected by the issue.
But then, amidst this shitshow pandemic, an opportunity I never imagined opened up before me: the Chattanooga Film Festival was forced to go totally virtual. For $30, all four days, complete with every panel, every film and short, and every watch-party at my fingertips and on my terms. I could go to a festival without worrying about crowds knocking me around, or getting lost, or missing something because of some other unforeseen obstacle! An opportunity once cast in the light of little more than a pipe dream, right in my lap. I was able to participate in panel discussions, asking questions that mattered to me directly to people with insight into the business, not just the void of social media. Able to interact directly with filmmakers and creators whose work mattered to me. Able to promote work I loved at the same time as everyone else, without worrying if it was still in the time window of relevancy. Suddenly I was more a part of the community I’ve grown to love than I’d ever been, or at least ever felt.
People were listening to and engaging with me in conversations that people like me still struggle to drag to the table. I love getting screeners and bringing attention and new angles to new films and retrospective pieces alike, but there’s something to be said for having a once-immovable door kicked down to allow you entry on your own terms. There’s something to be said for feeling like your voice and your presence matter in a world that, largely, would just prefer if you didn’t because to help you get in on the action would just be too hard.
I know Chattanooga Film Fest’s move to virtual was more about survival than inclusivity, but it was a move that leveled the playing field and showcased how possible it is to build a community of everyone, really everyone, for the first time. It took a lot of work, a lot of passion, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for them to throw it together in entirely unexplored territory. I can’t thank them enough for building a community that truly spread its arms to every voice and made me feel like I was a part of something I didn’t even know I wanted as badly as I did until I got it.
They did something even more impressive than community building in a time when we’re all so stressed and sad we hardly know which way is up. For them, it was a create or die situation, but for film festivals as a whole it set a precedent. This is possible, it said, this is necessary. The media landscape is ever evolving. Our methods of consumption are in a constant state of flux and improvement. The world around us is never fully formed, always twisted a new way as a result of pressured circumstances. Social media gets a bad rap—and for good reason—but it is not without value. It connects us in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible without it and, for some of us, might be our primary means of connecting with people with common interests who would be otherwise unreachable. Hell, honestly, without social media as a networking platform, I wouldn’t have the writing job I do, and would have missed out on tons of opportunities I have because of it that don’t have anything to do with social media.
Chattanooga Film Festival’s example of what an entirely virtual film festival could look and feel like was an opportunity that never would have come along without the giant societal setback that is this pandemic. No one, I don’t think, ever really thought before about having something like that be entirely rooted in streaming and real-time video chats. As a result, film festivals always felt a little elite to me, a little untouchable. The truth, as it turns out, at least in our niche, is that they’re built on the backs of people who love movies just as much as consumers do, for people who love movies. The virtual experience of Chatt Fest felt so much more intimate and connected and filled with love and passion from all sides than almost any large scale gathering I’ve ever been to. You don’t have to scream over anyone to be heard, or worry about missing anything because you can’t make the time slot, or push past a crowd of sweaty people who don’t even know you’re there (if this is not what in-person fests are like, you’ll have to forgive me, being knocked over in crowded places is one of my largest fears and it applies to all public spaces).
From a content access standpoint, virtual access to festivals is a dream, particularly for but not limited to disabled people who have less of an opportunity to engage in that kind of setting. From a networking standpoint, virtual connections are just as meaningful as in person ones and can be forged more intimately than any crowded space could ever offer. In terms of review opportunities, virtual access allows for less of a pressured time crunch, which means less stress and more attention to the film, inevitably resulting in higher quality work on the part of the reviewer. And, look, it’s just really nice to have a voice that gets heard as a disabled fan. The more you offer a virtual component, the more accessible your festival is, the more traffic you’ll get to it! The more traffic you get, the better it does! What’s not to love?
There’s always room for improvement, of course, and Chattanooga Film Fest was not without its struggles. But it powered through and resolved them as it went and showed us how amazing and connected such a big event could truly feel, even in times of crisis. Art saves lives, and right now art is one of the most important strings to hold onto. I just hope when we grow forward from this lockdown we don’t forget the advancements we’ve seen. Don’t let this be an accessible carrot dangled in the face of people who don’t have the same opportunities under usual circumstances. Fold it into the fabric of how things are done. Build on it for the future. Every voice in this community is deserving of a platform and creating as open a platform as possible has never been more vital.
So, thank you, Chatt Fest. May your create-or-die adaptation have opened the door for even greater possibilities.
By Katelyn Nelson
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