When the organizers of the Venice Film Festival announced on Monday that, yes, the festival would take place in September, you could read their assertion as a statement of hope, obstinacy, or sheer denial. Or maybe all of the above. At this moment, the world of film festivals may seem less important than many other things in the world, yet festivals matter — as cultural events, as capitalistic movie-industry hives, and (right now) as bellwethers of our ability to gather in one place.
Back on March 6, the sudden announcement that SXSW would be canceled had the effect of an ominous reality check; it was an early sign that coronavirus was about to smash down on life as we know it like a giant anvil. At that point, the collective mind of the movie industry moved on to whether the Cannes Film Festival would happen — and if so, when. On March 19, when the Cannes organizers issued their first major statement, asserting that the festival would not be canceled but merely postponed, and floating the possibility that the event might run from late June to early July, it felt like a quintessential liberté, égalité, fraternité declaration of French resolve — an attempt, in its way, to preserve Cannes as a beacon of hope. It had the effect of saying: As long as that June/July possibility exists, then we can all still see the light at the end of the tunnel. And maybe that light will arrive sooner than expected.
You might say that the Venice representatives have now tried to do the same thing. Their statement, coming one month after the initial Cannes statement, was even more unequivocal; it declared that Venice would happen. Just saying so doesn’t make it a reality, of course, but the effect was: The show will go on, because the show must go on. That’s a scenario that dovetails with recent speculation about how the Telluride Film Festival, in September, is also clinging to the possibility of going on as planned. And then, of course, there’s Toronto, the largest of the fall festivals, which has said that it’s going forward but has yet to issue a definitive statement of intent.
Yet even as Toronto weighs its options, the issue of whether any of the fall festivals can, and will, take place as planned now looms as a larger symbolic question. What’s really at stake is: Four short months from now, can life as we know it begin, in some small way, to creep back?
That, of course, is not just a health question but a political question, one that in the United States is rapidly igniting into a culture war. The protesters in places like Michigan and Arizona, who have turned their own denial into a destructive alternate reality (one that mirrors the daily brew of misinformation and egomaniacal spin that the president treats as a press conference), are easy targets of mockery and ire. Yet what can’t be denied is that they’re sketching in one half of the war, the one that asserts, explicitly, that saving the economy is more important than protecting every last citizen from Covid-19. Many of us believe that those two goals are not, in fact, in opposition — that if society opens up too soon, not only will the virus spread (in some places, all over again) but the economy will be shut down to even more drastic effect. So it shouldn’t be one vs. the other.
Nevertheless, the way things now work in America, where President Trump is staking out a position that aligns with right-wing tinfoil-hat conspiracy fantasy, the culture war has become embedded in the media narrative. And since that narrative is out there, the existential question confronting the fall film festivals can, and inevitably will, be seen through the lens of it.
To be or not to be. That’s the question the fall film festivals face. As it turns out, there is now a liberal answer to that question and a conservative answer, and the two are at radical odds. The liberal answer states that unnecessary risk, at a time like this, is unforgivable, and that as a society we should err on the side of collective caution. The conservative answer is that the economy needs jump-starting, as soon as possible, and that too much caution is for snowflakes.
But that creates a problem for festivals, because they are among the most liberal environments on the planet. I mean, pretend that it’s two years from now, and that the very issue we’re talking about is the subject of a documentary that’s playing at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival. Which side of the issue do you think that documentary, or the audiences watching it, is going to come down on? They’re likely to come down on the same side of the issue that I do — believing that six months into the eruption of this pandemic, the risk of spreading the virus makes the international gathering of people at a film festival an untenable, and unlikely, proposition.
In a situation that shifts every day, and that now seems about as secure as quicksand, too many variables are unpredictable; making a definitive pronouncement on any of this is pure folly. The answers to how our society can begin to start back up aren’t etched in stone, and they aren’t black-and-white. Decisions will have to be made about how gradually we can re-open the economy — linked to issues like when, and how widely, antibody testing becomes available. That’s the reason fall festivals can still be flirting with taking place: to keep hope alive, and to float the logistics of what a re-awakened culture might look like. I think that’s a healthy hope to have, and a healthy thing to do. It’s not for me to say if September will prove to be too soon, or maybe just soon enough. What I can say is that one of the reasons that film festivals matter in the first place is that they stand for something: a belief in art that is also a belief in life. In this case, it’s the very values they stand for that may stand in the way of their taking place as planned.