Along with most cultural institutions, film festivals have been struggling to get by during the COVID-19 shutdown. Movie theaters are largely shuttered. Gatherings are discouraged. And nobody's eager to get on a flight to hobnob at a party with a bunch of directors and crews from all over the country.
But festival director Curt Heiner and the University of Colorado Boulder's Center for Documentary and Ethnographic Media are forging ahead with the first of what they hope to be many editions of the Mimesis Documentary Festival, which runs August 12 to 18.
Before the global pandemic, the event was originally planned as an in-person gathering; now the organizers have retooled it so that audiences and filmmakers can explore dozens of nonfiction films from home, supplemented by live virtual conversations with filmmakers. The program is also including a selection of offerings from the Flaherty Film Seminar, an annual documentary media gathering that was postponed this year.
To find out more about the first edition of the Mimesis Documentary Festival and to learn what it takes to throw such an event when most of the world is on pause, we caught up with Heiner.
Westword: What have you been up to?
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Curt Heiner: It's been a busy couple months since the pandemic hit. Our submissions closed and the festival launched within a month of each other, so July and early August have been "all hands on deck." We originally planned for an in-person gathering, and when we made the decision to transition online at the end of April, it was a nonstop hustle to get everything reoriented. Navigating the online streaming world has required a whole new set of skills, so there has been a lot of reconfiguring and establishment of many new contacts.
Tell me about the festival.
For our inaugural year, we've compiled 64 nonfiction films from across the globe that explore boundaries between documentary, ethnography, experimental and expanded forms. Most films were made within the last two years, but we're also showing a first-ever retrospective of films screened across the 66-year history of the Flaherty Seminar titled "The Unwriting of Disaster." The festival runs August 12 to 18; all films will be available to stream at people's leisure throughout the week, and there are many live-streamed conversations with filmmakers scheduled for August 14 and 15. These events are designed as roundtable discussions between MDF2020 Artists and several moderators working within the departments of Critical Media Practices, Cinema Studies and Anthropology at CU Boulder. Many notable artists, including Deborah Stratman, Ngozi Onwurah, Joanna Priestley, Portia Cobb, Mary Filippo and others, will participate in conversations connected to the Flaherty retrospective programs moderated by their curatorial team.
How did it come about?
The festival was created as an initiative from the Center for Documentary and Ethnographic Media at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Mimesis initiative brings artists, filmmakers and scholars together, providing them with resources to extend their research and creative work through documentary media production. MDF is the Center's branch for exhibition, existing alongside several other production and distribution branches that have already been established, including a series of micro-grants available throughout the year.
What are some of the films you're most excited about showing?
I'm most excited about the programs that have been carefully curated by our programming team. The Shorts Blocks contain a wide variety of shorts but also include several feature-length films that have been thrown into the mix. Our programmers worked hard to find a home for a diverse and often disparate selection of work, constructing them in ways that create new experiences and contexts beyond the films themselves. I'm excited about the films that we discovered rather fortuitously, including an experimental Lebanese feature called "one sea, 10 seas," a performative Brazilian feature called The Horse, and a Danish feature filmed in Zambia called The Remandee. In addition, we have new films from experimental filmmaking staples like Abraham Ravett and Alfred Guzzetti, not to mention all the well-established artists found in the Flaherty retrospective programs. We also have great work from many emerging artists, with short films like "Talamanca," "Becoming," "In Harmony" and "Uriah Plays the Alien," plus many things coming out of a variety of MFA programs at Duke, the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin, CU Boulder and many others.
Talk about the connection to the Flaherty Seminar.
This connection was established by Eric Coombs Esmail, director of the Center for Documentary and Ethnographic Media. He was in talks with Jon-Sesrie Goff, Flaherty's executive director, about creating a collaborative series between the two organizations. Flaherty presented an online version of the 2020 Flaherty Seminar in mid-June, but was also looking for other virtual screening outlets during the pandemic, so the idea to do a retrospective at MDF was pitched, and things developed from there. Jon put us in contact with Suneil Sanzgiri, Devon Narine-Singh and Alia Ayman, Flaherty's programmers in residence, and they curated The Unwriting of Disaster, which is now the first installment of the ongoing screening series called "Flaherty x Boulder."
How are you dealing with rights and digital streaming?
When we made the decision to transition to the virtual realm, we knew we needed a suitable online platform that fit our needs and abilities as a first-year festival. We settled on Seed&Spark, who are mainly known as a crowdfunding platform for film projects, but they recently got involved with the booming online festival market. They supported our mission as a small nonprofit organization and have worked with us to create an all-in-one platform for ticketing, streaming and live virtual events. Since the majority of our film titles don't have specific distribution and are coming from the filmmakers themselves, we haven't had to navigate complicated rights agreements. This has been great for us, because we're screening films that are unique and can't be seen on popular streaming services. We only had to deal with one film that submitted but subsequently got picked up for online distribution. In that case, the filmmakers were enthusiastic about our festival and organized with the distributor to allow us to screen it in tandem with other streaming services.
How did you pick the films you're screening?
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Our team of programmers looked for work with strong aesthetic qualities that utilize non-traditional or innovative methods to engage with underrepresented, personal and culturally specific subjects. Our call for entries lasted over four months, and our selection process was dedicated to programming 80 percent of our festival from films discovered in the open submission process alone. This method is unique compared to other festivals who mainly rely on distribution networks and navigating "what's hot' within the festival circuit, despite the fact that they also have an open submission option. Our festival team is made up of filmmakers who regularly submit work to film festivals, so we're well aware of the challenges associated with getting a film screened, particularly at large or more established events. As a small, first-year endeavor, we had the opportunity to source some great projects with high production quality and significant levels of achievement that may have been overlooked by larger, more exclusive festivals.
MDF started as a small initiative that has already become bigger than we imagined. This growth has generated a lot of excitement within our team to start planning the future for the festival. We want to continue this as an annual August event, hopefully gathering in person next year depending what happens with the pandemic. Our goal is to create a festival that will operate at a similar level to other, more established local festivals such as BIFF or DF, with hopes to offer additional unique programming for local audiences in the Denver/Boulder metro areas.
The Mimesis Documentary Festival runs August 12 through 18. Festival passes are $25 and available at the festival website.