Watching in the Time of Quarantine: Jason Ooi and the Long Distance Film Festival
The Long Distance Film Festival has risen to the demands of our current environment, where audience members and filmmakers are forced to interact while being geographically isolated. Conceived quickly under COVID-19 lockdown by festival director Elias ZX and marketing director Jason Ooi, it offers three programs of shorts and Indian directors Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen’s feature Ghost of the Golden Grove. Rather than giving into the idea that the Internet inevitably reduces us to atomized individuals screaming at each other, the LDFF is trying to forge community ties, with a slogan, “We are closer than ever,” even if the social elements of a film festival still have to change. Its programming is connected thematically, without being too rigid. Carlo Piscicelli’s “Cat in a Box,” which could pass for a cute cat video found on YouTube, and the intricately animated Leto S. Meade and Agata Leniartek’s “The Fishman” might not have anything in common formally, but both reflect on the psychological effects of our current state of confinement. Sponsored by Kinoscope and Brooklyn micro-theater Spectacle, the festival will be live-streamed from June 19–22.
What are the particular challenges of trying to get a film festival off the ground right now?
We’re definitely proud of what we’ve achieved because of all the challenges. This is an unprecedented event. The first thing that comes to mind is a cliché. We started with nothing but a concept. We’re gratified to see the film community come around to us as much as they did and get support from industry professionals, Kinoscope included. People were willing to take a chance. The biggest challenge I’m thinking about is how we can make this a worthwhile experience for the artists and audience involved, with the differences between physical and digital. If you’re a filmmaker, the best part of a festival often comes after the screening. You have a chance to see your work presented on a big screen, you can see how people react, you can make new friends and network, there’s free food. We had to take a really hard look at that framework. Festivals can establish camaraderie but homogenize taste and sensibility. Your success is measured by appeal to the collective audience. The common critique of festivals regards gatekeeping and access. Our programs are unique because rather than defining films by their form or how audiences will react to them, we have these shape-shifting programs that give you different styles. The next film will make you ask questions about the last one. They’re designed to make connections. You saw the program. What did you think?
I thought it was quite strong. Actually, my favorite was “Cat in a Box.” I thought it was interesting because I was wondering if animals can tell that something has changed even if they don’t know exactly what. I also liked [Saman Hosseinpuor’s] “Slaughter” quite a bit.
From those two films, you go from a traditional Iranian art film to a playful cat video. We really wanted to have those conversations. Not those two specifically, but that kind of varied genre and style. I do think that animals can tell something’s going on. I’m in Southern California at the moment and coyotes are digging deeper and deeper into the suburbs.
Did the idea for the festival come to you as soon as lockdown began?
My co-head and I are both recent grads from NYU. We were distressed about what was happening to the film industry and had a conversation regarding the loss of opportunities for the people in our class. People in our senior class had spent a year working on films but many were not able to finish or screen them. This seemed representative of the future of the film industry at large. We were anxious about the recent monopolization of film exhibition and distribution. We were trying to think of a way to make that change. In the past few decades, people have looked to art for escapism. We wanted to bring up art that challenges its audience to think differently. I hope it marks a first step towards people becoming more open-minded about the media they consume. We’re already starting to see this in lockdown, with media connecting us all at the moment.
Do you see a new eclecticism, where people are open to watching “Cat in a Box,” then an episode of The Office, a Tarkovsky film, a documentary on Netflix, and a Ken Jacobs short? Maybe that’s a bit utopian.
Most people wouldn’t be aware of Jacobs or think the a Tarkovsky film is within their reach. It’s viewed as an upper-class, highbrow luxury. Escapism is comfortable. It would be nice if people shifted their viewing a bit. It’s how I’ve been consuming movies for the last decade, and how I’ve been pushing my friends to look at art.
What inspired you to select Ghost of the Golden Grove as the only feature in the festival?
The film navigates the notion of “dystopia” and speaks to this climate as a whole. It explores what brought us to this state in which that word is thrown around so loosely, speaking to the legacies of colonial trauma alongside those of the filmmakers who confronted those issues. A film by Tarkovsky, for example, is spiritually informed, but also tells you a lot about the world in which it was made. I also think the cultural associations represent India in a unique and genuine way.
Do you see a new aesthetic forming from work made under these conditions?
In times of struggle, situations create their own genres, and protest art quickly emerges. So two themes have become clear to me. The first is toilet paper as currency, the second is how much people in lockdown hate their significant others. Formally, these films are reflecting aesthetic trends which have been developing before lockdown: homemade films shot on cell phones; crews made up of one person, a couple, or a family; and films taking place entirely in virtual space, like Unfriended (2014). Even if they’re limited in production, they’re experimenting with so many techniques and styles. During May ‘68, a new political consciousness, armed with new technology in film, also led to different forms of experimentation. I think this is also part of the transitions that have been happening, like the death of movie theaters and transition to television. I worked as an analog projectionist and ran a screening space, so I did my best to keep that alive. But we should also consider that the cinema of the future may transcend what screen it’s shown on, especially independent and subversive works, which were starting to lose theatrical space anyway.
For me, slow cinema works best in a movie theater, and work featuring close-ups and oriented around actors and dialogue comes across best at home, so I think there is a certain distortion to this. I’m watching everything on my laptop now. I have a link to Albert Serra’s Liberté (2019), but I think, “Do I really want to watch this on my laptop?”
We were talking about the utopian ideal of repertory theaters everywhere and people being able to see these films wherever they live. Where I grew up, there were only two theaters. If I wanted to see the new Terrence Malick film, I had to drive into L.A. I couldn’t watch it at my local theater. A lot of these material limitations are harder to ignore. You can’t say there isn’t a problem going on with ticket sales and audiences with weirder films. We have to explore alternatives. It is worrisome. In the shift from analog to digital, we lost a lot of viewing opportunities for experimental films — like the flicker film or the work of Michael Snow — that required analog projection to get the proper consciousness-changing experience. Everyone wondered if that shift to digital would be the death of cinema, but now we are seeing filmmakers like Rainer Kohlberger or Johann Lurf make digital work that redefines what we thought cinema could be.
Did you start out with the idea of having three feature-length programs of shorts?
We didn’t know how many submissions we would get. We got so many good ones — over 600 submissions from 60 countries. As we were filling up the programs, we started to notice these themes. Our three themed programs are “Connection,” “Culture,” and “Quarantine.” Each one deals with those topics, but they aren’t limited by them. Quarantine does not only feature films that were made under quarantine, which would severely limit their impact. That breadth was important to us.
For instance, I wondered about “The Fishman,” which seemed like a metaphor for being stuck inside under quarantine. I didn’t know if it was produced then. The animation seemed too elaborate to be conceived and produced in just a few months.
That’s the thing. We were so surprised at the quality of the films that which were made under quarantine. They evolved too; as submission deadlines drew closer, the runtimes were getting longer, and the risks taken, greater. “The Fishman” was made before quarantine, but the anxiety it expresses speaks to this situation. We have it under a separate program, even though it can be connected to COVID. It has such a simple premise but also thinks about a lot of different things and executes its ideas very deliberately.
What do you see as the future of film festivals going forward? For me, there’s been a certain disenchantment with the way the fall festival circuit has become a promotional device for Hollywood and the Oscars. Toronto shows 300 films, but if something like Ghost of the Golden Grove played there, it’d likely be ignored.
Ghost of the Golden Grove played at the London Indian Film Festival and received little coverage. With larger prestige festivals in general, you sometimes start to see the same directors show up festival after festival. It is harder to uplift new voices. The smaller films that play there are overshadowed by bigger names. At Cannes, sometimes the best films play in Un Certain Regard or the Directors’ Fortnight. But they don’t get as much coverage unless they were made by a prestigious director. TIFF’s Wavelengths and the New York Film Festival’s Projections rarely get wide coverage. Experimental or shorts programs become this niche thing that only a certain amount of people feel like they can enjoy. The idea has emerged that only certain kinds of people can watch this. “The Fishman” has experimental qualities. It wouldn’t play in a normal shorts program. It would probably play in an experimental program and, regardless, not get as much coverage. I’ve played it to a lot of my friends back home, and they all love it. They’ve been watching studio blockbusters their whole lives, but they enjoyed being surprised by it. I hope that the festival climate changes in a positive way because of these digital changes, but we alternatively worry that even the prestige films may be overlooked this year because of the ways in which film festivals have been limited. Ideally, we can do our part to demystify the festival experience and promote more variety.
The Long Distance Film Festival live-streams June 19–22.
You can watch the official trailer for LDFF on YouTube.