For some reason, it really felt like the Berlinale was caught off-guard by the pandemic. I know, that sounds rather harsh considering we were all, as a society, caught off-guard by it, but hear me out. The 2020 edition of the Berlinale just managed to squeak by the pandemic restrictions as it finished on March 1st, 2020, only a couple of weeks before Germany’s first lockdown. Yet, despite having a full year of awareness of the pandemic, its deadliness, and the government’s likely restrictions, festival directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian chose to instead hope for the best and planned an in-person festival for 2021. Despite the ban on foreign travel. Despite the ever-increasing infections throughout the autumn of 2020. Despite the lockdown that began in November. It seems for Rissenbeek and Chatrian, hope dies last.
The result was a decision at the eleventh hour to hold two festivals for 2021, a digital festival for the industry in March, and in June, an outdoor Summer Special for general public. This of course, was never communicated to the journalists, whose ability to register for accreditation had been suspended in December, pending a decision on how to proceed with the festival. Instead of informing former accredited press about the decision for an online winter industry event, we were left in the dark. Luckily, two of our journalists were able to discover this fact at the last minute and were accredited, but that was down to luck and not due to the help or professionalism of the festival itself.
Considering that the topic of digital festivals or hybrid (both digital and in-person) festivals had been utilized around the globe throughout 2020, it was particularly disappointing that the leadership of the Berlinale seemed to struggle to face the realities of a world struggling with a pandemic. While I appreciate that most people prefer the traditional, in-person event of a film festival, sometimes, as The Rolling Stones say, “you can’t always get what you want” and so it is a better choice to allow for flexible thinking and solutions. In the end, there was no choice but to give into the hybrid model, although the result was a basic digital platform which did nothing to utilize the many opportunities that a well-designed platform can offer in terms of engagement or community. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the festival will learn from its mistakes so I suppose we will all just have to hope for the best for the 2022 edition.