Against All Odds: The New Orleans Film Festival

by Elisabeth Sereda November 16, 2020
New Orleans Film Festival, 2020

new orleans film society

Tickets or credentials to a festival these days are mostly virtual. Organizers all over the world have had to adapt to the rules of 2020. The New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) is no exception. Usually famous for its grand premieres with Hollywood stars and directors attending, sweeping parades throughout the city and after parties with music and food, it too, has had to make big changes. The most important ones are obviously the virtual screenings, unless you are a New Orleans local. Then you can enjoy cinema under the stars in two locations in physically distanced lounge chairs and enjoy the pleasant fall temperatures.

But the changes were tough, say Executive Directors Fallon Young and Artistic Director Clint Bowie: “The shift was incredibly challenging. We had to re-invent both the way we work, and everything about our presentation format. Every decision was a new decision about how the festival would function in this new hybrid format. This started with the transition to remote work, and implementing new technology, and transitioned in recent months into producing an outdoor event under COVID-19 gathering restrictions and protocols.” 

Speaking of outdoor events: the festival was pushed from October to November and it has been extended, running through the end of the month. The decision to move to November was made long before mother nature decided to prolong the hurricane season until they ran out of names, which should give even the staunchest climate change deniers pause. And although New Orleans escaped Laura and Co., it was hit hard by Zeta whose strong winds damaged buildings all over the city, including one of the outdoor screens. Luckily, it was repaired within a week, and the opening went off without a glitch.

“This year our festival budget is reduced by about 30% in this new format and due to COVID-19 restrictions,” Young says, “Another big challenge was that the festival has been so fortunate to have the cash in-kind support of many local businesses in the past, who just weren’t able to contribute at the same level as previous years.”

Scenes from the 2020 New Orleans Film Festival

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Despite the challenges, NOFF received 4655 submissions from 105 countries for the 31st anniversary of the festival, the festival’s seasoned team of programmers selected a slate of 165 films that represent a wealth of perspectives. Overall, the directors of selected films represent 44 different nationalities. This year, films made in the American South represent 45%, and Louisiana-made films represent 26% of the lineup. Films directed by women and gender non-conforming directors account for 57% of the lineup, and films helmed by directors of color make up 58% of the lineup. Additionally, there are 36 world premieres. Among them Farewell Amour, which opened the festival, Verde by Alfonso Morgan-Terrero, Marlo Hunter’s comedy American Reject, the documentaries To Decadence with Love, Thanks for Everything and Closed for Storm about the history of the shuttered Jazzland/Six Flags New Orleans theme park, which never reopened after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina but has served as a shooting location for such huge Hollywood films like Deep Water Horizon and The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The big plus for festival lovers is, of course, the virtual aspect. We can now watch these films from the safety of our homes whether we are in Los Angeles, New York, Europe, Asia or Australia. Locally, NOFF made its program even more accessible to low income film fans: “We’re able to offer free virtual access to the festival to over 1200 households this year in an unprecedented expansion of our Community Partnership Program, in which we work with 50 community partners to reach deeply into the community and identify those that might have a need for this level of access. We’re excited that local audiences who may have financial or other barriers to attending festival events” adds Fallon Young.

And in case you were wondering about big name participation, after filmmaker Garrett Bradley’s opening address, there are a few more live panels, including one with the cast of the TV-series Queen Sugar, currently shooting their fifth season in a Covid-safe bubble in town, and a 1-hour conversation with George Clooney. Not too bad for the 2020 version of NOFF. But like everyone in the world, the organizers hope for the best and prepare for the worst: “Yes, we deeply miss the ability to present in theaters and gather, and are hopeful that NOFF 2021 can mark a return to normal, but we’re prepared to continue to creatively pivot for the safety of our staff, artists and audiences.”