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That was Then, This is Now
by Mary Nyiri

If you have ever watched news reports of the happenings at film festivals, then you have seen glamorous celebrities strolling the red carpet, disheveled journalists questioning film crews, arrogant directors sitting in the theater, enthusiastic fans cheering actors outside theaters and many other fun activities that make up a film festival. How exciting to catch a glimpse of Meryl Streep getting out of a limousine! How much more exciting even to pose a question to her on live television at the Berlinale film festival. Or to catch a discussion with famous director/screenwriter/actor/producer Fatih Akin in person at Filmfest Hamburg.

What you don’t see in the television coverage is a journalist getting up before dawn to catch the bus or train to the press screening location, spending hours hunched over schedules trying to fit certain films into specific time slots, waiting in lines to get into theaters or pick up press tickets, going through security checks (sometimes leaving phones with security, yikes!), waiting for the WC during short breaks between films, scarfing down a sandwich out of a paper bag, running through traffic to reach the next theater before the doors close, or critics sleeping in an uncomfortable theater seat during an intolerable film.

Covering a film festival as a critic is work. There’s nothing glamorous about squeezing into a cinema seat between two other critics each of whom has already claimed the arms for their jackets or scarves or drink or sandwich wrappers or cellphone. But then again, there are rewards. Watching a film on the big screen! Access to wonderful films that you might possibly never have had the chance to see in a movie theater or even on DVD or online. Random conversations with friends, colleagues, or complete strangers. Seeing celebrities live and even having the occasional chance for questions or interviews. That was then. Now what to do in the middle of a pandemic?

Many of my colleagues donned masks, topped off their hand sanitizer bottles and eagerly headed for cinemas on foot, bicycle, by bus or train. I on the other hand, after careful consideration of several risk factors, chose to stay at home and participate in the 28th Filmfest Hamburg by screening films online with Streamfest Hamburg. Critics were allotted three films of the festival’s choosing for free. The rest of the films in the Streamfest program could be purchased (most) for €7. I purchased a couple of films in English with a credit card and then waited for the exact dates and times the films would be available for screening. One film only allowed 48 hours. Most films gave you a week to watch.

Now to compare Streamfest at my home to the Filmfest in downtown Hamburg. The first benefit to watching from home is that I slept in as long as I felt like it! Normally I would have to skip breakfast, cycle 2km to the U-Bahn, and ride the train for 35 minutes, then walk to the theater. Total time door to door at least an hour if the train was uninterrupted and I didn’t have to ride another bus downtown. Add to that this year the need to put on my mask and apply hand sanitizer before entering the theater and choosing a seat far from anyone else. Instead, I set up the film to watch on the television in our living room, made a full breakfast, then still wearing my sweats, enjoyed breakfast and a movie. There are many other advantages to home movies. If I needed a WC break, I could pause the film instead of sneaking out of the theater then sprinting to and from the film hoping I didn’t miss anything important. I didn’t miss a thing! If I wanted another cappuccino, I hit pause and made a fresh cup. Same for snacks. Didn’t quite understand what was said? I just skipped back a bit to listen again. The ability to rewind also made it possible to write down great quotes. With the freedom to watch at my own pace, I felt like I could get more out of the films. And there were interviews that could be viewed as well, such as an interview in English with Kelly Reichardt, an American filmmaker who had three films screened this year: FIRST COW (USA 2019), MEEK’S CUTOFF (USA 2010) and RIVER OF GRASS (USA 1994). Access to many interviews from the film festival is free under Streamfest Bargespräche, Filmgespräche and Unzensiert (includes other years as well). Some are in English. But the best advantage to staying at home was sharing the entire experience with my cat Astra, who often lay on my lap purring and was a devoted film fan companion.

One unanticipated disadvantage at home, which I believe depended on the film and perhaps was not a problem with most films, is that the English subtitles were so small that when reading along it was impossible to actually watch what was happening on the rest of the screen. After about thirty minutes, I just gave up. I was reluctant to spend €7 on another film with subtitles for that reason.

Streamfest had fewer films for screening than what was offered in cinemas, however there are other opportunities to screen films at home, making the options too numerous to count (or choose!). A summary of the possibilities is on under the Sofasektion. With a local library card, you can access hundreds of films, documentaries, TV series and kids’ films either using or downloading the app. There are many original language options that are available in English as well as German. Or you can try which offered a special of five films for five euros. Many films are available in English. Single films can be rented from €3,99. Just make some popcorn before settling down on your sofa with your favorite film companion!