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Film fests facing competition from streaming devices

They are the new gateways to world cinema, but regulars say they fall short on cinematic experience

It was in 1952, during India’s first film festival, that patrons saw Vittorio De Sica’s Italian film Bicycle Thieves. “It showed our film-makers that films can be made outside studios as well,” said Kolkata-based writer-director Shekhar Das. Three years later, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was released in 1955, kickstarting a parallel cinema movement.

Film festivals became that rare platform which gave fans access to world cinema. That may no longer be the case with foreign films becoming easier to access through Over The Top (OTT) streaming platforms, such as Netflix, and Torrent download.

That brings up the question of the relevance of film festivals.

Watching on big screen

The answer lies in the long serpentine queues ahead of the screening of the Mexican film Roma, which won three Oscars and has been available on Netflix for two months. Despite its accessibility, it was one of the more sought-after films at the Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFes).

“I have watched Roma on Netflix, but the experience of watching it on the big screen is something different,” said film-maker Sandeep Kumar.

Half the audience at the film festival who queued up for films like Shoplifters, Capernaum and Roma had already watched them, but the queues were the longest for them.

“Access to cinema, information about cinema and the experience of cinema are entirely different. The long queues for Roma testify to that,” said N. Vidyashankar, artistic director of BIFFes.

Access to world cinema

And despite so many streaming services, foreign cinema is still not mainstream. Film-lover Vivekananda Kodandaram argued that while newer platforms have democratised access to world cinema, they still have a long way to go.

“OTT platforms have only created an illusion of accessibility to world cinema. Most of the films being screened in the film festival circuit are not accessible online,” he explained.

One visitor, S. Rajeshwari, likened the experience to shopping for a novel. “Watching films online and at a film festival are like shopping for books through e-commerce platforms and picking them up at a bookshop. The festival offers you the chance to experience the serendipity of finding a good film or a director you did not know of,” she said.

‘Cultural role’

According to Vidyashankar, film festivals are not only about accessibility. “It has a larger cultural role to play. It expands the horizons of both film-makers and the audience, and facilitates cultural exchange as well,” he said.

Shekhar Das traced the evolution of film festivals to the film society movement in England in the 1920s started by writers like George Bernard Shaw. “Film festivals are about film appreciation as well, which is an important cultural activity,” he said.

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