Bringing YIDFF Online
Here we are—the 17th Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2021 will be fully online. The past year and half of the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone. The staff have continued our preparations hoping against hope that we could hold the festival with public screenings here in Yamagata city as usual, if at a reduced scale. We could not shake off the concern, however, of whether it was ultimately safe to usher in guests, audiences, and volunteers to a city of nearly 250,000 people with a limited number of intensive care beds. Besides, even if we held screenings in theaters with state-of-the-art ventilation systems or in the most tightly managed community centers—even if we succeeded in creating a truly safe viewing environment, would we really want pangs of anxiety to shoot through what we value most about our festival, the pleasures and joys of close-knit exchange? We simply cannot meet in person this year. Let’s see what we can do online. This is the answer we found at the end of a long debate filled with hesitation and hindrances. Therefore, let me first express my deepest gratitude to Yamagata’s community centers, theaters, projectionists, and all others affected who waited patiently, kindly accepting our decision to either cancel entirely or call on them for only a limited time.
Here, if not for the pandemic, the depths of summer would ordinarily find us working with scores of volunteers getting the venues ready and preparing to receive guests. Instead, my colleagues and I sit still and solitary in front of our computer monitors holding meetings with colleagues and companies. This time, while fitting our mouths around unfamiliar technical terms regarding streaming on the internet, we began the process of soliciting help from experts to construct the festival’s online environment. The new undertaking seemed filled with challenges at every turn. We reminded ourselves, however, that a film festival embodies the new. The films, the guests, the faces and reactions of the audiences and volunteers—each year they are, of course, fresh and unique. I would like to thank all the directors from across the world who remembered our biennial YIDFF despite the COVID-19 pandemic and submitted nearly 2,000 new and outstanding films that offer their subjects a critical eye. We have accepted a great change this year moving from live screenings to an online space, but this may simply be yet another encounter with the new.
This year, our two main programs, the International Competition and New Asian Currents, once again feature a rich lineup of documentaries whose subjects exhibit both breadth and depth—from historical, to current coverage, to personal—from a group of talented new and veteran directors. Unfortunately, we have run up against streaming rights issues with some of the films in the first program. Outside of our main programs, however, this year we continue our screenings of wonderful films in the popular programs, Perspectives Japan, Yamagata and Film, and the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami-themed Cinema with Us. We have also worked hard to make possible in the digital realm our large variety of director Q&As, public talks, and panels. We hope people across the country will enjoy the encounter with the new they expect of our festival alongside the newness that is this year’s online experience.
As Our Everyday Opens Up
With no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, it was decided to hold the 2021 festival online. The discussions that led to this decision placed an emphasis on what the festival has looked like in the past, and what it might look like in the future. One question for which we sought an answer was just how to go about holding online screenings. The prevailing model for online screenings is on-demand—which allows viewers to watch films at their convenience (with some limitations) multiple times during a fixed period—but for YIDFF we sought an approach as close as possible to the fixed screening schedule of a conventional film festival. As film festivals worldwide have transitioned online, I myself have had the experience of attending this way. For me, viewing such films within the context of my everyday routine was surprisingly difficult. As COVID-19 has made remote work increasingly common and as all kinds of events and opportunities for communication have moved online, the private space of the home has been turned into a site for collective work, social interaction, and even the experience of cultural and artistic events. In that sense, the role of private space seems to be changing. “Home” and “the workplace” have lost their distinct meanings, becoming contiguous. The environment in which we conduct our lives reverberates with a jumble of cell phone and email alerts, the sounds of household chores, and noise from the outside. As long as the “everyday” of today meets this description, it seems to me that it takes active willpower to carve out time within all the commotion for film viewing—for the act, in other words, of watching a film. That willpower is something that is surely activated by the sensory experience of entering a theater to watch a film being projected.
The fixed schedule for screenings and Q&A sessions at this year’s YIDFF reflects an attempt to create conditions for participants to have an experience akin to watching a film in the theater—a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Choosing which films to watch within a limited amount of time involves taking a chance based on what you have read in the festival program and also on your intuition—this is one of the sweet pleasures of film festivals. Therefore, this time as always, we ask our audience to let Yamagata intrude on a portion of your everyday and enjoy selecting and watching films that are not easily available.
A glance at the films in the International Competition and the New Asian Currents programs shows how they embody sharing, difference, and discovery in a multitude of ways: voices are shared with us that emerge from the fullness and difficulties of life in the here and now, awakening us to differences and leading us to the joy of discovery. As before, each program features a lineup of both new and experienced filmmakers. If the world we live in since 2020 has become fractured, perhaps our single Special Invitation Film this year, Wuhan, I Am Here, may shed light on some things intrinsic to our new reality.
To gather the jury for the films in competition, we spoke to producers, critics, researchers, and filmmakers residing in Japan. It was a great incentive for us to be able to welcome such a expressively diverse and internationally active group of jurors, and I very much look forward to seeing how they will view and discuss the films.
COVID-19 has meant that it is impossible to enjoy the festival in precisely the same way as in past years. And yet, I do hope we are able to convey the spirit that it has cultivated over the years, even if from a distance. I would also like to take this opportunity to say that when this year’s YIDFF opens, you the viewer will be raising the curtain on each film.
I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all the filmmakers who submitted films, to everyone who lent their generous support and cooperation to this venture into the unknown, and to all the audience members who will take part in this online film festival.