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Columbus Black International Film Festival Goes Virtual

Hope Madden Hope Madden Columbus Black International Film Festival Goes Virtual
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One of many adjustments 2020 has required affects film festivals. Even though theaters across Columbus are now beginning to screen films to live audiences, the pandemic has made the planning and execution of large festivals all but impossible. It’s a wild new world, isn’t it?

Not to Cristyn Steward. She’s a veteran, having navigated these shifting sands once already this year by moving the Columbus International Animation and Film Festival online—thereby keeping its record as the longest-running film festival in America intact.

Steward learned a few things from that experience as executive director of CIAFF that she plans to apply to the fourth annual Black International Film Festival.

“I learned a lot in terms of platform,” she says. “On demand screenings let people feel like they’re part of a festival, there’s an immediacy to it. But how important is that when you’re not there in person?”

When films are shown only once, at a specified time—as they would be at an in-person event—the power of the digital experience is limited to certain time zones. According to Steward, one of the real benefits of a virtual fest is global access.

“We had filmmakers in Japan who couldn’t watch their movie,” she says. So the BIFF screenings will be on-demand, each offering a window of 36 – 48 hours during which attendees can view the movie.

That is not to say that the entire festival is limited to virtual viewings. The festival includes one outdoor event, “Blackness Under the Stars.”

“I curated a set of the best short films,” Steward says of the program, screening at 8 p.m. at 400 Rich St. on Saturday, August 29. The set of short films includes narratives, animated films and music videos made by Black filmmakers.

The festival, which showcases the work of Black writers, directors, producers and performers, continues to provide important opportunities, according to Steward.

“It’s important to create this space because it allows Black artists to tell their stories. We all have different stories,” Steward says. She also sees the festival as an opportunity for artists to network and learn, although she admits the networking will look a little different this year.

“People will have to work a little harder,” she says. “But they’ll still be able to exchange information and build relationships.”

The education component may actually benefit from an online environment. Steward says she’s wanted to do table reads of winning screenplays for a long time, but coordinating all the actors in the middle of the rush of an in-person festival proved to be too much. For the fourth annual BIFF, though, table reads will be part of the program.

That’s not the only new feature, either. Steward and her team realized that the shutdown did not turn off filmmakers’ creativity. They capitalized on this with a challenge to filmmakers to create short films of 60 seconds or less, filmed exclusively on their phones.

“It’s been great,” Steward says. “We have a lot already and they’re really creative.”

Tickets are on sale now for the festival, running virtually Friday, August 28 and Saturday, August 29 with the live, in-person event “Blackness Under the Stars” on Saturday. For tickets and additional information, visit columbusbiff.com.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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