The 52nd Visions du Réel is set to take place from 15 to 25 April 2021 as an online experience for the second year in a row.
Over 140 films will be screened, as well as industry events, filmmaker discussions, panels, and more across its 10 day span. As the only Swiss festival dedicated to documentary filmmaking, Visions du Réel is a flagship event at an international level, offering a series of specific projects to make themselves accessible to as many as possible.
Each day new film will be made available (subject to availability & geolocation – Switzerland) with its first batch available 14 April 2021. So, with the festival imminent, Modern Times Review spoke with Artistic Director Emilie Bujès on the challenges, trends, and future of Visions du Réel in this, the second year of COVID-19.
How has the artistic direction and the strategy differed from past years, in particularly from last year? We are now in the second year of pandemic festival life so what did you learn from last year? How is the festival changed from 2020 to 2021?
Last year, as you as you might know, we had to move everything online within five weeks. It ended up being a great success. On the one side, of course, it was very sad and disappointing for everybody. Yet as an exchange, it was a really great success, both for the industry and the press, as well as the audience participation. I’m sure that we definitely realised we are able to change things massively in a very short amount of time, which I think also shows how the festival can be different things.
Theoretically you aim for the festival to be really different each year it’s not really the case. The lineup, the guests, and everything is different but it’s still hard to make big changes when it’s a big festival such as ours, but indeed you still can. It’s possible. It’s painful, but it’s possible. I think that this is something we learned and I’m happy we did because, for instance, this year I think that we had to be much more flexible in terms of timing, which is again quite painful but feasible because the festival landscape has kept shifting the whole time.
In terms of artistic matters, I’m not sure that that we have changed anything because the number of submissions has been the same. Maybe for 2022 there will be less films, but for this year it was the same. We just had to wait and push things a little longer than usual, but otherwise I think that the process has remained the same – apart from the fact that we of course have been working remotely, which is more time consuming as we all know…
This year there seems to have been do some additions to the selection committee. Can you give us some insight into the reasoning behind this?
I was really happy with the selection committee we had last year. I’m really happy with the new one as well. In the selection committee, we had Giona Nazarro, who has been appointed director of Locarno Film Festival so obviously he couldn’t sit on the committee. There was Elena López Riera, who is a film director and is currently shooting her first fiction feature. It’s a lot of pressure for a fiction feature. The selection committee is a huge commitment, both in terms of work and time and so she didn’t feel that she would be having the mindset this year, but she might come back… It wasn’t like she didn’t want to do it anymore, but this year it was impossible. The last person was Madeline Robert, who is now our head of industry. The aim for me since I was appointed four years ago was to create a very strong relationship between the official selections and the industry side. To have someone that used to be in the selection committee and has great industry experience is the best way to create a very strong coherence between the two sides of the festival.
Those three people couldn’t, for different reasons, take part in the selection committee, and so I had to reshape and find new ones like Violeta Bava, who has worked with us for many years (last year as co-Head of Industry). She also works for various organisations such as the Venice Film Festival, the Torino Film Lab or the Doha Film Institute. She’s based in in Argentina.
There is also Alice Riva, who is a film programmer based in Switzerland because I also wanted to have someone from the country. Then, the two remaining were already part of the group last year, Rebecca De Pas – who works for Berlinale Talents, used to be the Head of the FIDlab – and Emmanuel Chicon, who has been a member of Visions du Réel’s selection committee for 10 years now.
The selection committee seems to have a big job every year with all the submissions. As you mentioned, there hasn’t been any dip or change in the number of submissions over the last few years even in pandemic times for online festivals. Can you talk a little bit about what you and the selection committee look for in what makes a Visions du Reel film?
First of all, it’s essential that we remain as open as possible. That the lineup is not, I would describe as, lukewarm. I really do not want to have a lineup with films that are very similar to each other. We all have our taste of course, but it’s really important for me that the lineup goes way beyond that, has a common understanding of cinema and still stretches things in all directions, be it towards experimental or towards bigger production. Really to stretch it as far as possible.
In terms of describing the vision, what is essential and central is the idea of a very strong authorship. To have a camera that is definitely a first-person camera. Not necessarily that the film is a first-person view but that it’s really clear there is someone behind the camera that is taking responsibility for what’s happening. It’s really about looking for people that want to express something and have a clear idea how to formally and originally address it.
«It’s really about looking for people that want to express something and have a clear idea how to formally and originally address it.»
What sort of trends have you seen in the 2021 submissions?
I don’t know if it is by chance, but I have the feeling that it was a bit dark. Maybe a little darker than usual. We did receive many films about COVID; people confined in quarantine, missing their loved disappeared ones and everything else. I, for instance, theoretically didn’t want to have so much of that. It’s fascinating because actually, again, you get to the point where you realise that if there is a director that has a cinematic ID and has some something to say of course we’re going to select those films as well. We do have a few films that definitely are related to COVID. Beyond that, though, I don’t know if I would notice anything special. Perhaps more science-fiction and dystopia? I think that our 2021 lineup is really strong. This year I’m really happy and proud that we also have films that are maybe bigger than in previous years in terms of production. To have them share a common space in the competition with films that are more modest in production is a very powerful and relevant statement.
I’m wondering if you can look into the crystal ball. How do you see the physical festival presenting itself again when the pandemic is over?
I think there is no way back because again we were forced to change. We realise that there are other audiences that we can reach through these ways and it’s our job to reach them. I would definitely imagine that festivals such as us would keep a hybrid dimension, I’m not exactly sure how it will happen but I’m sure that it’s going to be the case, both on the film side and on the industry side as it allows us to get access to people that maybe wouldn’t come. When you can reach those other people, it is great for the project holders so it’s something that we cherish for them. It’s a fight we have to fight to make sure that we can reach as many people that are interested in those projects as possible.
On the other side, I’m very attached to the theatre because I think that those films do benefit from it – the common viewing, the energy of the theatre. If you’re sitting on your couch and you have Netflix on one side and on the other side, you have a more demanding doc, I don’t know if you will necessarily pick the doc, so I think it’s really important to create an event that will give the energy and allow those films to exist in the right conditions; to give them as many chances to fight for minutes. It may sound a little cheesy but to fight not to lose future audiences. I mean at some point you also need a way to access them. I think the festival still is a really big, powerful machine if you do it the right way. It gathers momentum. People come, they discover things, they get excited, they are aware that those films are there, and they get to meet people.
«I think there is no way back because again we were forced to change.»
Can give me a seminal documentary, a favourite of yours, that really brought forth your interest in the genre?
Just one would be really difficult. I think it is the directors that are really important for me in terms of nonfiction. I’m really lucky to have had some of them as guests at Visions du Reel. I’m thinking, for instance, Werner Herzog, Pietro Marcello, Robert Greene, Philip Scheffner. Sometimes also directors that are maybe more on the on the fiction side, leaning back to nonfiction…
Finally, is there any message that you really want to draw specific attention to, or just anything that you may be personally looking forward to on the programme this year?
I think we do have many different, different formats of talks that will be really exciting. On one side, the three masterclasses with respectively, Emmanuel Carrère, Pietro Marcello and Tatiana Huezo. But, also on the other side: the industry. One of them will include Tabitha Jackson from Sundance, Carlo Chatrian from Berlinale, alongside Hédi Zardi from LuxBox and Jason Ishikawa from Cinetic.
We will have some public discussions with short and medium length films directors around six or seven themes related to a certain topic. These will be public talks with them online, accessible for everybody, with the possibility for the audience to interact with the guests, just like for the masterclasses and the online Q&As.
Thank you for reading. You have now read 153 reviews and articles (beside industry news), so could we please ask you to consider a subscription? For 9 euro, you will support us, get access to all our online and future printed magazines – and get your own profile page (director, producer, festival …) to connected articles. Also remember you can follow us on Facebook or with our newsletter.