A boy races across hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, desperate to reach his elderly grandfather: 5 minutes.
An epileptic teenager anxiously awaits the school prom, knowing the lights will likely cause a seizure: 10 minutes.
A pair of zombies, fighting each other over a fresh corpse, find that their brains may be dead but their hearts are still working: 7 minutes.
For local fans of short-form cinema, such pithy summaries and time-specific statistics can only mean one thing — Film Fest Petaluma is back. Petaluma’s annual international showcase of short films, an event typically held at the Mystic Theater, was on hiatus last year due to COVID-19, breaking an 11-year run. This year, the popular festival returns, but instead of public showings of the carefully curated assembly of films, they will be streamed for 10 days beginning April 23.
“Due to COVID, we have had to pivot entirely to virtual,” said Festival Director Mike Traina, chair of the communications department at the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College.
The festival is able launch itself into the world of online production this year thanks to the Alexander Valley Film Festival. The seven-year-old Healdsburg event debuted its own streaming platform last year and was able to host a 2020 event despite COVID-19. This year, the Alexander Valley festival is sharing its online platform with Film Fest Petaluma. The two festivals will run concurrently, with ticketing through Alexander Valley Film Festival.
“There will be no in-person events,” explained Traina, “except for some live drive-in events at the Alexander Valley Film Festival. We will run Q&As and panels via live Zoom webinars, with filmmakers from all over the world, as opposed to prerecorded talks, so ticket-buyers can interact and ask questions.”
The lineup of shorts this year is truly international, representing 13 countries. The schedule is also notable for an unusually large number of female directors. Of 29 films, 10 are directed by women.
“We ran a call for submissions in 2019 for the 2020 festival,” Traina said. “We got hundreds of films to consider.”
Because the 2020 festival was subsequently canceled, the festival held onto the pool of submissions and has now used it to select films for this year’s festival. However, any director already in the pool who subsequently made another short film was free to submit the new film for consideration.
“I have a panel of about 30 screeners who review films for us,” Traina explained. Those screeners include teachers, students and film buffs in the community. Each commits to viewing and critiquing 10 shorts per week for two or three months.
The screeners view and review the films on FilmFreeway, a leading platform for entering film festivals and screenplay contests.
“It’s almost like a YouTube for filmmakers,” Traina said. The site claims that more than 800,000 entries submitted through it have been chosen as official selections by the world’s leading film festivals.
“This year, we accepted films that had been highly recommended by at least three screeners,” Traina said.
Normally the festival does not build its program around themes, but this year one innovation — that of streaming content online — has led to another. The offerings have been grouped into four categories.
Borderlines — seven shorts about what Traina calls “boundary-breaking behavior.”
Horror Delights — eight films delivering “more laughs than screams.”
Global Visions — six shorts from distant lands, including Japan, Israel and Bahrain.
Close Encounters — eight films in which small moments of connection shape the lives of the characters.
“Altogether, it’s kind of a kaleidoscope of films,” Traina said. “This is a unique approach for us, and I hope it will distinguish the programs. This year is an experiment for the festival.”
While he misses the energy of interaction with a live audience, Traina said he hopes the streaming strategy will expand the audience geographically, as there are no limits as to where film fans can watch one or all of the four programs from.
Like most arts organizations, the festival is uncertain what the post-COVID-19 future holds. As for how people will access film in years to come, Traina expects some sort of “hybrid future,” in which many will continue viewing films at home while an unknown number return to theaters to enjoy a film as part of a live audience.
“I’m worried for the film industry,” he admits, but adds that he has faith that going to the movies will survive.
“The electric energy of seeing a good film with an audience is special,” Traina said. “Like film critic Roger Ebert said, film is an empathy machine. We can get disconnected from each other sitting at home, but viewing film with others reminds folks of the universality of humanity.”