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Venice Film Festival Endures Amid COVID with Docs to Tell the Tale

On viewing coronavirus docs amid the pandemic’s return to film festivals

11 mins read

The first A-list film event taking place physically after the long European lockdown showcased four works revolving around the pandemic and bodes well for the future of festivals

On Sunday September 12, the 77th Venice Film Festival was brought to a close by the traditional awards ceremony, which saw the triumph of Chloé Zhao’s new drama Nomadland and the screening of the closing movie, Stefano Mordini’s You Came Back. This edition will be long remembered and for many obvious reasons, given the peculiar historical context. My festival experience started on September 5, after taking a direct flight departing from Dublin, walking around a semi-deserted Marco Polo Airport and jumping on an old vaporetto to reach the Lido and start my coverage of the event.

The Mostra d’Arte Cinematografica at Venice was taking place after the first violent wave of COVID-19 affected Europe and, in particular Italy, one of the most hardest hit countries. The Italian example may set the standard for the future gatherings of this kind: an online booking system, distanced seating, constant cleaning of the venues, inevitable temperature checks at checkpoints, constant presence of hand sanitizers, a 40% reduction of the granted accreditations, and the strict obligation to wear mask at all times during the screenings (while being supervised by employees tasked to enforce the rule). It all helped the whole festival to make it somehow till the end. The programming was not heavily affected by the outbreak; all of the sections were presented, with the exception of Sconfini (cancelled) and Venice Classics, provisionally moved to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato (August 25-31). In addition, the dedicated VR strand took place entirely online.

However, one might wonder: was the organization of the Mostra really impeccable? Surely not–for instance, distancing and wearing face coverings in open spaces and cafes were quite relative concepts. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm of “being” physically there was palpable among filmmakers, the talent, journalists, and viewers. The Mostra paved the way for a concrete “re-opening” of the festival circuit. In this sense, festival director Alberto Barbera’s persistence and bravery in having a physical event has been commendable and was certainly aided by the Italian authorities’ good management of the health crisis.

The audiovisual sector, particularly the European one, is now trying to pick up the pace again, after the long halt to film production and this year’s Venice Production Bridge represented an important occasion to share strategies and to forge new partnerships between filmmakers, exhibitors, VOD platforms, distributors and institutions. Over 1,000 industry professionals were physically present and about 370 one-to-one meetings took place at Lido. It’s something that was unimaginable in March and April, when the outbreak was reaching its peak. The weirdness of “shaking hands” by hitting each other’s elbows and trying to speak clearly through a mask are acceptable compromises for the time being.

Besides the festival’s organization, the troubled months we have been going through have inspired four of the filmmakers taking part in the Mostra. Four non-fiction films revolve around the pandemic, namely Andrea Segre’s Venetian Molecules, Abel Ferrara’s out of competition video-diary Sportin’ Life, and Serena Vittorini’s short In This Moment, presented at the Giornate degli Autori section alongside Elisa Fuksas’ feature iSola.

Andrea Segre’s Venetian Molecules, chosen as this year’s pre-opening title, is a moving documentary filmed before and during Venice’s painful lockdown. It is a melancholic film that attempts to catch–rather successfully—the mixed feelings of the Venetian community facing the current post-lockdown phase, even though the primary subject of the piece is very personal and intimate. Segre had already tried to explore the wide humanity populating his hometown with his last year’s out of competition title Il pianeta in mare, revolving around the community living in Marghera’s “industrial planet.”

Speaking about his project, Segre defined it as literally “sprung from the water” and the whole process as “unwitting, highly instinctive and devoid of any rational planning process.” The improvisational quality is explicitly mentioned in the film itself and, while its structure is far from being linear, the documentary finds its own balance and coherence from its early stages. Two key themes are at the centre of the narration: the director’s personal association with Venice and, more importantly, his complicated, silent relationship with his father Ulderico. Segre’s off-screen reflections are accompanied by a few testimonies from Venice’s inhabitants, organically juxtaposed with footage from his family archives and the poetic images of a surreal lagoon town depicting the gloomy sky, the empty squares, the mist and the sea almost entirely bare of boats. The director’s reflections were stimulated by the peculiar “atemporal atmosphere” experienced during the quarantine and led to a fascinating closing monologue about “learning to dialogue with the inevitable,” now more timely than ever.

Serena Vittorini’s 15-minute short In This Moment springs from an experiment filmed during the director’s relationship with Ophélie, a girl she was seeing during the lockdown in Belgium. In her piece, Vittorini attempts to capture both the confusion that her partner was feeling as well as her own inner struggles. Aesthetically speaking, most of the film displays claustrophobic shots, perhaps intended to enhance the uncertain emotions experienced by the two women. Nevertheless, the short fails to dig deeper and seems to be made of several casual moments with weak connections between each other, resulting in a film that may have needed a longer format to properly exploit its potential. Ultimately, it feels more like a documentary exercise on self-reflexive filmmaking than a finished festival product.

Similarly, Abel Ferrara’s Sportin’ Life is a chaotic collage of scenes that are barely connected to each other, interrupted by concert shots, some scenes from his previous movies and a significant amount of archive footage, which puts COVID-19 in the background. The outbreak vaguely marks the passing of time and the content of the piece does not seem to fulfill the premise written in the director’s statement. The American master says that the subject of Sportin’ Life is the relationship he has with his directorial work, his iconic actor Willem Dafoe, and with his music and art as a “starting point,” while not ignoring “what the world went through” during the pandemic. The conversations between Ferrara and Dafoe are at times appealing and fun to watch and we can get quick glimpses of Ferrara’s private life during the quarantine spent in Rome; nonetheless, these two areas are far from being treated in depth and do not manage to deliver a compelling video-diary.

On the contrary, Rome-born Elisa Fuksas’ iSola takes a unique angle on the narration of the outbreak. Slightly before the pandemic, the director learned that she suffered from thyroid cancer and a very close friend of her happened to fall ill as well. The painful experience united the two women, who had not been in touch for long time. The whole feature was shot with Fuksas’ cellphone and constitutes a genuine tale of a difficult time, rich in spontaneity and immediacy. At the centre of the narration is the director’s personal relationship with fear and how it evolved throughout the pandemic in tandem with the developments of her disease. Together with Venetian Molecules, iSola is a powerful tale of this troubled stage that humanity is facing, and both works have in common the choice of exploring – without prejudices – very personal themes in order to later convey a more universal, timely message.

All of the four films tried to record the first accounts of our “new temporality.” It will be surely interesting to see how this novel perception of time originating during the pandemic will affect future films, even the ones produced after the resolution of the health crisis. In this respect, the 2020 Mostra played a crucial role showcasing what might be the cinema of the years to come.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian film critic and filmmaker based in Cork, Ireland. He currently works as a foreign correspondent for the EU-funded press agency Cineuropa, where he regularly writes about Irish and European cinemas. He is a PhD Excellence Scholar in Film and Screen Media at University College Cork. His bylines appeared on other European outlets such as The Location Guide, the Independent Cinema Office’s blog and Film Ireland. He is also a member of FEDEORA (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) and NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies).

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