Swiss documentary festival Visions du Réel is taking place for a second year under the shadow of the Covid pandemic.
The 52nd edition of the festival, running April 15-24 is being staged mainly as an online event but there will be physical screenings for accredited guests who have made it to the lakeside town of Nyon. Meetings and round tables will be held in hybrid form.
The day before the launch of the festival, the Swiss government announced that cinemas could reopen in the country from April 19 and VdR will open four theatres for the public, from April 22, extending over four days.
On the eve of the event, Screen spoke to artistic director Emilie Bujès about the challenges of hosting a hybrid festival and how rivalries have been put to one side during the virus crisis.
Screen: How challenging has it been to assemble an international competition during a pandemic?
Emilie Bujès: It is a really strong competition and I am very proud of it. It has been difficult [to put together] but not because the films weren’t there or not ready. Maybe we will have fewer films [to choose from] in 2022, but documentary makers work differently from fiction. They are still able to make films even if is a ‘lighter apparatus finish’, let’s say.
However, there were more films that weren’t ready because a technician caught Covid or wasn’t able to finish on time. What was also complicated was the Berlinale moving dates. When they close [their selection], it is easier for us to talk with filmmakers.
You have 82 world premieres and 142 films. How does that compare to previous years?
EB: It is smaller. In general, we have around 170 films in the line-up. We made it a little bit smaller this year because of the [pandemic] situation. The amount of world premieres is always around 80 or 90. A crucial and essential notion of the identity of the festival is to work on discovering films – doing that work of digging in order to launch new people [filmmakers].
What themes have emerged from the selection?
EB: In terms of topics, it is a little darker than usual. We usually have some lighter entries but there weren’t so many this year.
This is your second edition since the outbreak. What have you learned since last year’s festival?
EB: Last year was very special. It was at the beginning of the lockdown in Europe. People were at home, feeling disconnected, not really understanding what was happening. Now, we’ve learned a lot of technical things and that it is possible to do it. It’s a sad solution because we are very much attached to theatres and the exchanges after screenings. We are screening films that really benefit from being viewed by people sitting together in a room. It is a change of paradigm.
Why have you selected French author and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère as guest of honour?
EB: The guest of honour used to be dedicated to people who work in both fiction and documentary. I thought it would be interesting to push things a bit further and go beyond which art they use. The films we screen at Visions are all author-based. You have this feeling of a first-person account. In [Carrère’s] writing, there is something like that. Of course, he has made documentaries… but the origin of my interest to invite him is the way he writes.
Has the pandemic encouraged a new camaraderie between rival festivals?
EB: We definitely all want the best for the films and understand it is a difficult moment for professionals. It is a moment where we are all making an effort [to work together]. For instance, we are sharing films with CPH:DOX [among them Holgut, Living Water and The Mushroom Speaks]. It has been very serene and peaceful. I have also been talking to Carlo [Chatrian, artistic director] at the Berlinale.
How has it been for you, working as artistic director during the pandemic - enjoyable, exhausting, rewarding?
EB: [Sighs] Well, I have to say it has been a little more difficult than usual. First of all, 2020 was really exhausting. Usually, the festival recharges our batteries somehow. Last year, we didn’t get that. There was something that was really missing.
This year, we had to work remotely with the selection committee for the first time. This made life really complicated. Usually, we gather and spend a lot of time together and it is somehow more efficient. Do I enjoy it? Yes, I always enjoy it. It is both difficult and enjoyable. We view a lot but there are those moments - when you find the films - that is so satisfying. It is like digging for gold.