Up Close With The Long Distance Film Festival

The Long Distance Film Festival is a virtual streaming film festival highlighting films made by filmmakers during the COVID-19 lockdown. Cell Vision correspondent Sylvea Suydam spoke with Festival Programmer Elias ZX about the origins of the festival and this year’s lineup.

words and interview by Sylvea Suydam

Started in quarantine as a means to allow filmmakers access to the festival circuit and bypass the restrictions of lockdown, this year’s Long Distance Film Festival is a buffet of 42 films from around the world arranged in three blocks with repeat screenings 8 hours apart, with two special presentations in between.

The festival opens Friday, May 28, at 8pm EST with Past, a section with many experimental and animated films from a diverse group of filmmakers, including two shorts that screened at Sundance. This block includes some pieces on the more abstract side. We see kaleidoscoping cityscapes, a film of text, tourist videos documenting landmarks constructed in gestalt grids, an animated tableau based on the photographic works of Cindy Sherman, and footage from parades, military exercises, street crowd, and traffic blended together with statuary and gravestones. But I was also impressed with some of the more touching and personal works here; films in which a Black woman poetically tells us the politics of hair, an Iranian father-daughter delivery team navigate life in Germany, a Latinx girl pontificates on her childhood and a new name, and a woman recounts her sobering experience during war in Kosovo are all beautifully crafted and evocative.

The festival continues on Saturday with Present, which highlights the world under lockdown, providing more personal views into the daily lives of the filmmakers. Many of the films in this section ruminate on quarantine, being trapped inside, and the constraints of living during the 2020 pandemic. A young woman prepares Christmas alone, an expertly animated stop-motion from Poland explores the concept of finding connection, and an experimental piece with a reflexive robotic soliloquy underscore our collective isolation. I was pleased by the couple of films that added some humor, including one about an interdimensional pizza delivery service, which used an array of animation techniques, and a German film centered around drinking wine and narrating the making of the movie as we watch, which got progressively more maudlin by the end. One inventively animated film in particular, where a man experiences a disquieting revelation with AI, was both visually striking and haunting in a way that left me thinking about it for days.

Closing the festival on Sunday, May 30, Future focuses on death, mortality, and the families (both real and imagined) of the filmmakers. There are a couple films that are as much portraits of areas (English countryside, farmland) as of the people in them. A film about a couple’s pregnancy test result effectively uses a one-shot technique, while a scruffy man oversharing his personal life with the cashier trapped at the counter of a mom-and-pop pharmacy will surely be recognized by anyone who has ever worked in a customer service job or lived in a small rural town. We are also shown intimate glimpses of birthdays, funerals, divorces, engagements, and other posts along the road of life. The festival closer, Still Processing by Sophy Romvari, includes a stunning shot of splaying photographs that has stuck with me, and I look forward to seeing her future work.

I spoke to Elias ZX about the festival’s own past, present, and future.

CELL VISION: Can you give us a brief background of the festival, how it started?

EZX: I started this because I love film festivals. Last year my film Your Security was supposed to play at Queens World Film Festival and a number of other American film festivals but they all got cancelled. And you know everyone was in their houses and very distraught, and I think less than a week after the shutdown I came up with the idea to run my own film festival. In most film festivals, experimental films and different genres and things that are offbeat get either sidelined or put in separate boxes, so the idea was to do something that connects everything in this really unique way at a time when we all needed to feel connected. There was something that felt really missing about not being able to have one, and also the way a lot of the festivals immediately pivoted to online platforms but there was a feeling missing that I wanted to capture as best as I could.

CELL VISION: Can you tell us a little about the submission process? Was it hard to narrow the lineup down to what we see in this year’s selection?

EZX: We got more submissions than last year, it’s difficult to see so many great films and then have to choose, but the way the festival is formatted everything needs to fall into three themes. Last year we did Culture, Covid, and Connection, and for this year’s lineup we used Past, Present, and Future. Past is about histories and the way that things shape your personality, which allowed us to connect a lot of really different films under that blanket idea. Present is a sort of reimagining of last year’s Covid section, but it’s very different than last year’s because it’s more about the interconnectivity of the world. And the Future section is more aesthetically and thematically linked than the others, all the films center around family and mortality in a very linear way, either directly with the filmmaker's family or an imagined family.

CELL VISION: The films this year ranged from humourous animation to intimate portraits to experimental works, but I definitely sensed an undercurrent of melancholy and poignancy that was running through the films. I think it goes without saying that this does accurately reflect the pulse of the times and our lives. I’m wondering if you have any repeat filmmakers from last year’s lineup?

EZX: There are a few, actually the first two films of the festival are by Gloria Chung and Duane Peterson who were featured in last year’s lineup. And it was difficult for a minute to make that decision, I asked the team “Is this ok, is this allowed?” but it felt like the only way to start things off. Gloria Chung’s movie is such a great preface, it sort of sucks you into the world of the festival. And then the way Duane Peterson’s film Recreation deals with the past and the way that images claim ownership over stories it felt like we didn’t have any other option but to start with it. I’m often asked if I have a favorite film from the festival and I can’t really answer that because I have 42 favorites and they’re the ones we selected for this year.

CELL VISION: How did you select the three jurists for the festival?

EZX: We reached out to them. I wanted to have the most eclectic group possible and they all come from different backgrounds. Jessica Dunn Rovinelli is mostly known as a filmmaker and I love the films she’s directed. She’s also a colorist and has written a few great pieces about editing. Jourdain Searles has a podcast, she’s a very funny comedian, and she has a series about films on Netflix’s Youtube channel. And David Ehrlich is this very respected film critic who has been around for quite a while and he does these amazing top 25 of the year videos, that’s how I was first introduced to him.

CELL VISION: Moving forward, you say the festival aims to “stay true to its origins and support films made under quarantine’s limitations.” Hopefully quarantine will come to an end and people won’t be trapped in their apartments anymore so I’m wondering what does that statement mean?

EZX: When we talk about quarantine limitations we are talking about very personal films that are made with small budgets that are sometimes made by just one or two people. Those films are the lifeblood of the festival. This festival is about every type of film, we have films that play at the big festivals, Sundance, etc, but a lot of what we show don’t play at any. Those films feel unique to our identity. We plan to stay online for free, without geoblocking, in the future, but there will hopefully be opportunities to see it in theatres around the world.

CELL VISION: Are there any types of films or filmmakers you haven’t had the chance to showcase yet that you would like to?”

EZX: We really want to have as many as possible, and there were some great horror submissions this year, but we haven’t got the chance to fit any into our lineup properly. So we’d really like to be able to do that next year.

CELL VISION: There is a kind of an unspoken horror just about quarantine in general but you’re right there weren’t any proper horror movies in the lineup this year.

EZX: No and there weren’t any last year either

CELL VISION: You are a filmmaker yourself. Have you submitted to the festival?

EZX: My film REBIRTH.jpeg was actually the first submission this year but the selection committee didn’t think the film was good enough.

CELL VISION: Ouch! Is there anything in particular you’d like people to know about the festival?

EZX: Just that it opens May 28th through the 31st. All the blocks are playing 8 hours apart so it should be accessible in every timezone. There’s no geoblocking, it’s completely free to watch courtesy of Spectacle Theatre, I hope you check it out and enjoy this year’s lineup!

You can check out the livestream or get news about the Long Distance Film Festival via the links below

Stream the LDFF via Spectacle Theater
Check the LDFF Website