Digital Festival

Michael Fox May 2, 2007

Movies are shifting at mach speed from the theater to the home, at least in this country. Anyone who doesn’t endorse it risks looking like the Pony Express rider cursing the Iron Horse as it thunders past. The future is at hand, in the form of streaming video via the Internet and video on demand through your cable box. Movie theaters themselves may be with us for a long time, but the urge to have the movie come to us rather than vice versa is unstoppable. Whether it’s Americans’ lust for convenience or the lingering post-9/11 impulse to stay close to the homestead, home viewing is only going to keep growing. Which brings us to the world of film festivals, community events that generally manifest themselves in theaters: Their future vitality inevitably depends on forging a truce — or better yet, an alliance — with the nascent platforms for delivering moving images. It’s fascinating to consider how it might work.

Even a casual follower of the San Francisco International Film Festival has to recognize how new Exec Director Graham Leggat has rewired the Festival to embrace new media. He spearheaded the innovative KinoTek stream that Sean Uyehara programmed for the ’06 festival, which encompassed everything from CGI animation created with video-game graphics engines (“Cock Byte: Masters of Machinima”) to shorts made on cell phones (“Pocket Cinema”) to “International Remix,” which allowed anyone to download and mash up clips from SFIFF films. This year’s KinoTek lineup — also programmed by Uyehara — features especially timely works. Take the duo of animator Pierre Hébert and local composer/musician Bob Ostertag, who’ve collaborated for some time as Living Cinema. (They presented a piece called “Between Science and Garbage” at Intersection for the Arts in 2004.) They unveil their latest, “Special Forces,” inspired by the child casualties of last summer’s war in Lebanon, this Friday at 6:30 p.m. at SFMOMA. There should be a hum in the air: Ostertag had passport problems and couldn’t join Hébert in Beirut for the premiere, so this will be the first time they’ll perform the piece together.

Also on the SFIFF menu is Dutch filmmaker Cyril Frisch’s cell phone feature, “Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan?” This subjective window on the world, shot on the streets of Amsterdam, puts the viewer smack in the middle of the scene. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan once said, Frisch’s handheld opus proclaims that every person with a mobile device is a potential witness, and filmmaker. Does that mean that everybody with said gizmo is also an artist? Um, what do you think?

What’s exciting about these two programs is their live-wire immediacy, an element often lacking at film festivals. I remember when Yugoslav director Ademir Kenovic showed up at the 1993 festival with his invited film plus some raw footage from the civil war in Bosnia. Then-artistic director Peter Scarlet (now Tribeca’s Festival Director) touted the specially added show every chance he got, and there was a palpable excitement surrounding Kenovic’s attendance. Today, of course, such images would reach the world instantaneously via YouTube. But if done right, KinoTek can infuse the SFIFF program with up-to-the-minute political urgency while drawing in younger audiences enamored with the leading edge of technology.

No doubt it’s the latter that drives some of the Festival’s fascination with new platforms and consumer electronics. The new initiative with Jaman, to make a handful of films available after their festival screenings to a limited number of people for one-time download, is a way to reach a certain group of potential moviegoers where they live — online — and lure them to the festival, i.e., to the theater. (Titles, including Les Blank’s “All in This Tea,” were just announced.) Consider the generally poor record of PBS in attracting new generations of viewers, and it becomes even clearer that the SFIFF must innovate instead of passively reacting to changing viewing patterns.

Frankly, I’m all for any scheme or brainstorm or experiment or longshot that pushes the Festival further into the city’s consciousness and nervous system. Bus-shelter ads are effective, I suppose, but the Internet seems to have a mite more potential. But I’m not talking about marketing so much as devising a strategy to push filmgoing — foreign and independent, mind you — into the dead-red center of San Francisco’s cultural life. (The Fetival presents “No Snacking Allowed: Online Strategies for Meaningful Films” Sun/5 at House 2 of Sundance Cinemas Kabuki, 4 p.m., with Jonathan Marlow of GreenCine, Carlos Montalvo of Jaman, and others, moderated by Joaquin Alvarado, SF State University Institute for Next Generation Internet.)

It strikes me that Hollywood, responding to competition from television and home video, has concluded that the only way to lure people to theaters is with special-effects epics that must seen on the big screen. (Or so they claim, although they have no difficulty coming up with a different line a few months later to hawk the DVD.) As a result, movies have been subtly redefined for a lot of people as effects extravaganzas. Anything that doesn’t fit that category can be consumed at a later date on a laptop or a TV.

I don’t view the festival’s efforts to reach people though their computers, or to convince them that a film shot on a cell phone is the New Wave, as buttressing that Hollywood message and contributing to the continual shrinking of movies. Nor do I see it as a flag of surrender to home viewing. I think it’s a way of keeping film relevant and exciting and, by the way, reminding people that movies are an art form. If I sound like a cockeyed optimist, well, you caught me on a good day.