Coming back together

For the better part of the past year, I have constantly found myself replaying personal memories with movie theaters. What this led me to was a confirmation that going to the pictures was never only about the movies themselves, but also about every little thing that surrounded them. I was surprised to see how easy it was all coming back to me: tight transportation schedules, missed screenings, cinephile discussions in a nearby café, which could go on for hours. And also, the collective loneliness of the theater, when the lights go down and – you know what I mean. I guess this is what a full experience means – and why it could never be reduced to a neutral description of an objective fact.

Nowadays all this is getting further away from us. Trying to keep the feeling of the movie theater alive may be as illusory as it is necessary. Pessimistic voices say that the pandemic has only accelerated what was meant to happen in ten years anyway. I would argue that by expecting to get the feeling of a real screening from an online medium can only lead to disappointment. But online means of bringing people to the art of cinema should not always play by the rule of theater exploitation. Online alternatives can lead to new territories; what can be achieved in a movie theater cannot come into play when online and vice-versa. Mobility was always a constraint in the old world: festivals were destined to the privileged, those who could afford to travel; what was showing in the south of France could never be experienced at the same time in another region – let alone another country.

Does this mean that the Internet has contributed to a sort of more democratic viewing experience? In a way, it does. Without the flavours of an actual venue, online screenings have isolated the film as the exclusive object of the experience. I remember one critic who wrote that the worst part of this sanitized experience was that now you can no longer leave the theater in anger when the movie is bad – now your only option is to close the tab. If there can actually be a most objective festival viewing experience, then what numerous events around the world – from Berlin International Film Festival to Film O’Clock International Film Festival – were forced to do this year has to be it.

From the first creative attempts in what was then thought as “an industry without a future”, cinema developed a deep connection to distance. The Lumière brothers sent autonomous cameramen all over the world, in order to document faraway places and bring back footage. Since then, plenty were those who sought to make us see elsewhere, connecting the audience with the Other. Never before had it seemed possible for a crowd to be transported hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away – literature did it, but only one person at a time; and drama was too rooted in spatiality. With cinema however, humanity achieved a wholly different conception of space, free to modulate as one wished. Along with editing, cinema could move within immense boundaries, and then transcend them.

As a simple moviegoer, I could hardly be indifferent to this story – because, from Robert Flaherty onwards, cinema always involved a kind of superior gaze, as if visiting your neighbours, who could be living in the other part of the globe, was suddenly possible then and there. As a film critic, I could say just the same – since discovering new cinema centers from around the world, be they Tokyo or Warsaw (in the sixties), Taipei (in the eighties) or Tehran (in the nineties), has always been one of the biggest joys of cinephilia.

Film O’Clock, then, was all about distance. This was a festival which fully considered the intricate relation between cinema and space, as well as the possibility to turn it into our advantage with the help of the Internet. In a way, moviegoers were never as close, even without leaving their home. From Lithuania to South Africa, this initiative proved that it was possible to come together around topics which apparently could not be more different from one another if they were fueled by the mutual passion for discovery. One should never think of cinema only as a means of learning about the world – but he or she should not neglect this possibility either. The Internet can make wonders, that’s a fact. But these wonders are here to remind us the way back to the movie theaters. I truly believe that this is the first step towards getting back to the way we were – that is, together, in the dark, accompanied by the same images projected on a big screen.