Wex’s Virtual Unorthodocs Program Opens Friday
Pandemic be damned, the Wexner Center for the Arts is determined to bring their annual celebration of nonfiction filmmaking Unorthodocs to moviegoers beginning this weekend. Chris Stults, associate curator of the Wex’s film/video program, talks about virtual film fests, urgent documentary storytelling, and how much he misses seeing movies in the theater.
Columbus Underground: Tell me a bit about the challenge of planning this year’s Unorthodocs program virtually.
Chris Stults: There’s almost more coordination that needs to happen when presenting a film festival like this virtually, from negotiating the details of the online presentation of films to getting captions created for some of the films in order to have fuller accessibility. And one of our big goals has been to have interviews between each of the filmmakers and a notable critic, filmmaker, or scholar, which ended up being a lot more wrangling and schedule coordination than expected.
CU: Are there any benefits to a virtual fest?
CS: I deeply and desperately miss watching films with audiences but this model definitely has advantages too.
With traditional, in-person screenings, one of the biggest barriers is that audiences have to adjust their schedule around the time a film is screening. And they’d have to be able to get to campus, deal with construction, parking or public transportation, etc. This online festival will hopefully make it more accessible to audiences who haven’t been able to attend much or at all, including audiences beyond Central Ohio. And, other than the live Nina Menkes presentation, all the films are available for windows of two to five days, which should allow folks to watch them on their own schedules.
CU: You plan video conversations between many filmmakers and special guests. What can we expect?
CS: I love to see two artists in conversation with each other, so pairings like Karim Ainouz—whose new doc Nardjes A is showing at Unorthodocs—and Kirsten Johnson —whose films Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead are two of the best docs of the decade—are especially exciting. And in that case, the two are old friends, so it has a really different tone than most film Q&As. It’s more like eavesdropping on a really lively and smart conversation between two interesting, curious artists.
And it also gave us a chance to involve notable film critics that we admire from outlets like Vanity Fair or Vox in ways that are tougher to do in person. So the virtual festival allowed us to get more ambitious in some ways and to involve more international artists because the price of international flights wasn’t a factor.
CU: What are some of the big highlights?
CS: I’m particularly excited about the one live event we’re presenting. Nina Menkes is a legend of underground and feminist filmmaking and she’s developing a documentary showing how the building blocks of cinema’s visual grammar contain a misogyny that reveals and fosters larger cultural outbreaks of sexism and abuse. She’ll give a talk on these ideas with lots of film clips breaking down cinematic language—clips by Hitchcock, Scorsese, and lots of other canonical film directors. I love Menkes as an artist and can’t wait to see what results when she turns her thinking on classical cinema.
CU: Her Sex and Power looks amazing, as does The Inheritence. Fascinating that two of the docs weave narrative movies into their nonfiction storytelling. And to a striking degree, every film is political. Can you talk a little about the trends you saw in this year’s program?
CS: For a festival where you’re focusing mainly on new work, trends always come down to timing. Films like Dick Johnson Is Dead, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, or Garrett Bradley’s Time would be perfect Unorthodocs films and would expand the focus of the festival. But those films are all streaming through various services and wouldn’t make sense to show.
So we focused on films that would be a premiere of some sort for our audience, and a central theme did really emerge this year. So many of the standout films were showing ways to enact change or studies of corruption and injustice, which became a natural theme to lean into when making final choices between two films. Each film is so different that they all add something new to a mosaic of this present moment and some of the factors that led us here—as well as where we might be headed.
But even though there is a seriousness of purpose with all of the films, they’re not without humor and entertainment. I hadn’t expected Mayor, a documentary about the mayor of a city without a country (Ramallah), to be as funny as Veep or Parks and Rec, but the film captures the absurdity of the Palestinian situation as well as the tragedy.
CU: What else are you eager for Columbus to see?
CS: Collective is a film I’m particularly excited about showing. I saw it in March a week or two before the lockdown started and it has only grown in its power. It’s one of the great films about journalists as it followers Romanian reporters who work for a sports daily because it’s one of the few outlets that hasn’t had massive layoffs. They uncover a major national health scandal that’s been guided by government corruption and influence, leading to a catastrophically larger death toll than should have happened.
Needless to say, it’s an extremely relevant movie. This is a rare, early screening of the film before it opens nationally next November, and it’s a film I’ve been passionate about all year. I’m very excited that the conversation we’re producing with the film’s director for Unorthodocs is going to accompany the film’s national rollout in virtual cinemas next month. It’s a great way for us to champion a film we believe in and contribute to the local and national conversation around the movie.
CU: Tell me about the “pay what you can” plan that allows ticket buyers to determine what they can afford to pay for tickets.
CS: This is another way to lean into the increased accessibility that a virtual festival provides. Especially at a moment like this, where lots of folks are experiencing financial uncertainty and job insecurity, it feels important to not limit who can have access to these films. It’s a model that the film world doesn’t take up very often and we’re really curious to see how it plays out. There’s never been a better or more urgent time to try out new models!
CU: What else do we need to know?
CS: There’s such a glut of viewing options available at people’s homes right now, so it seemed clear that we should really pare down Unorthodocs to what felt most essential at the moment.
These are all films that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about and were overwhelming experiences in one way or another. We’re presenting seven films or performances, and they roll out one a day, although all of them are available for viewing for several days. It seems like a really humane pace. Festivals can be so overwhelming and present too many options for people to wade through. So this is a really curated selection that hopefully allows flexibility about how folks can fit some art into their days.
The festival runs from Friday, October 23 to Friday, October 30. For tickets and information, visit wexarts.org.