DOK.fest Goes Digital – Necessity is the Mother of Invention

By Benedikt Frank

The DOK.fest should have started in Munich on May 6th. But due to the corona crisis, a cinema festival is currently impossible. Even though the organizers had very little time to prepare, they nevertheless managed to stream the documentary film festival on the internet. The following interview with Daniel Sponsel gives insights about a rapid change that also brings new opportunities.

Photo: DOK.fest

Mr Sponsel, tell us your thoughts as festivals were gradually being cancelled in March.

Daniel Sponsel: It was a process rather than a singular thought. It all started after the Berlinale festival; things changed rapidly. At the beginning of the second week of March we knew that the DOK.fest couldn’t take place as usual. We had three options - cancel, postpone, or go online. Over the weekend we thought it through and calculated – because it has of course to do with money – and finally decided to go online. A cancellation would have been too big of a loss for the films and would have endangered the future of the festival. Postponing was not an option either because the festival calendar is already very full.

How will DOK.fest take place online?

Sponsel: We will stream 121 of the 159 films we originally had on our program. Most of the selected program will be included in the online edition. This is a good solution for everyone. The films are available on our website and they cost money. That is important, because valuable cultural work must also have a price on the Internet. With one ticket they can then be accessed 24 hours a day. Most of the films are available for the whole festival period, only very few are limited in time.

How do filmmakers react when an online festival changes its usual operating cycle?

Sponsel: Documentary films are already streamed in the further course of the audiovisual value chain. I think this shows that the filmmakers want to try out something new, especially if we look at the fact that many of them want their films to be streamed online. The industry is concerned about how things will continue in the future. We do not know yet how long the cinema ban will last. When the cinemas reopen in autumn there will be a lot of releases at the same time. One or two documentaries will certainly miss out. If the cinemas are closed, you have to try to make films available for viewing in other ways - because what doesn't happen now may never happen again.

How does the cooperation with the cinemas - who have to deal with the absence of the usual cinemagoers and the DOK.fest audience - work?

Sponsel: We have set up a system where the viewers can decide themselves whether they want to pay € 4.50 or € 5.50. If they pay one Euro extra, it will go to the partnered cinemas.  We have consciously decided to make this visible to people. This way we hope that the audience will develop an awareness of the cinemas’ current situation and show solidarity.

DOK.fest 2020

How will interviews with the people behind the cameras, which are crucial for a festival, take place?

Sponsel: We have set up a studio and are currently producing the first Q&As. This is a great experience. We can now talk to many more people about their films because until now we could only finance the trip to Munich for a few people. Now we have, for example, four-person conversations with the director, protagonist, cameraman, and the producer. That leads to interviews that have a completely different quality. Since everyone is now trained in video conferencing, intensive discussions are also possible online. We partly record the interviews beforehand, but we will also have a dozen live conversations during the festival where the audience can ask questions. The, with its marketplace, case studies, and workshops also works 90 percent online. I think that some people are quite happy that they don't have to travel far away anymore.

How is the response to the online learning program now that schools are closed?

Sponsel: At the beginning of May, 60 school classes were supposed to come to the cinema. We already filmed the workshops three weeks ago and they are now available online for the teachers. The response is very positive and there are even more people using the online offerings than going to the cinema. Last year we had 61 school classes coming to the cinema, this year we already have more than 160 online registrations.

What do you think will remain of all this once the Corona epidemic is over?

Sponsel: It will be interesting to see what kind of experience we will gain during this time. What did we gain, what did we lose? First and foremost, the most important question for us is how to maintain the reach of our festival online. If we manage this successfully, we can also imagine offering a best-of program or selected festival films online throughout the year. We will definitely miss being able to go to the cinema and hearing the applause. The festival days will feel very strange for us because we will be sitting at our desks offering support instead of experiencing the usual festival feeling.