A film festival is about more than just the films and the festival center. It is about the location, the journey, the experience. Here on Deadline we’ll be bringing you updates on what it’s like to be on the ground at the Venice Film Festival, the world’s first major COVID-era film event.
Monday, August 31. Day -1 of the festival.
“I can’t keep calm, I’m Italian,” read a man’s t-shirt as we got off our flight from London to Venice Marco Polo.
I knew how he felt after a decidedly non-distanced British Airways flight. Business class was distanced. Cattle class, not so much.
Having spent much of the last six months at home watching and reading about the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the need to maintain social distance from others, taking a flight with no physical separation was slightly unsettling. Rows and rows of masked travellers was like something out of a movie.
This will be old hat for many who have flown over the last six months, but for those like me who haven’t boarded a plane since early March, it requires a mental adjustment. The long-distance train journeys I have made in foreign countries since then have included social distancing. I guess British Airways didn’t get the memo. I’d say the flight was 90% full. “It’s a very busy service,” the woman at the check-in desk told us beforehand.
The airport in London was quieter than usual. Our temperatures were checked by a machine we walked alongside and would barely have noticed if not for a sign. Like much traveling these days, there are pros and cons. Fewer people is nice, but proximity to fellow travellers is a little more unsettling. The dining experience – ordering from an app, wiping down our table and sitting in a crowded restaurant – took us out of our comfort zone, for example.
The public water boat to the Lido from the airport was also a little uncomfortable. We were packed in like sardines. Thankfully, masks are required on public transport in Italy.
As we know, things that were once average and commonplace, like taking public transport, now require mental agility and the ability to suppress suspicion and anxiety. The act of sitting next to someone, or passing through a busy street, has become unnerving.
Once arrived on the Lido, the hub of the Venice Film Festival (which gets underway proper on Wednesday), things began to click back into gear. Most hotels, restaurants and bars are open and the atmosphere is convivial as usual. The eateries and watering holes were relatively busy last night and masks weren’t much on show: admittedly, it’s pretty hard to wear a mask when eating or drinking, and much of this is done al fresco here.
Life, on the surface, is much like it was last year, only quieter – again, this is a blessing for some, and a disappointment for others. “Business has been bad”, our hotel manager told us. “It will pick up again this week with the festival, but it’s not what it was last year, and the last few months have been tough.” Gel is readily available in hotel foyers and at the entrances to restaurants.
Three industry pals I was due to have dinner with this week cancelled last minute in light of the rising number of COVID cases in Europe. From afar, the travel and number of festival protocols can seem daunting. For some, travel this year won’t be possible for practical or health reasons, others will be able to justify it after some mental gymnastics. Coming from Europe is far easier than coming from further afield, with non-EU visitors required to take tests before arriving and once here. Understandably, attendance is expected to be significantly down.
Some have been put off by the lack of U.S. studio movies, but others are rejoicing at a more independent flavour. Either way, it is perhaps fitting that the world’s first major COVID-era festival, is also the world’s oldest. The grande dame of film events has seen it all, beginning as it did in the early 1930s.
Venice itself is quieter, but there are still throngs of tourists in the center as I discovered when I popped over to the ‘mainland’ today. The waterways are devoid of the massive cruise ships and there are fewer showy yachts this year. I’m not complaining.
Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll get a better sense of the altered workings of the festival center and the screenings (press seats at these need to be booked in advance via a convoluted online portal, which is an added hassle). It will be quieter, for sure. Again, some will rejoice in that, others will lament the diminished business and sense of ‘buzz’.
For this film festival regular and Venice lover, the strangeness of traveling to the festival hasn’t yet dampened the overall experience of being on the Lido, whose light is still as magical as ever, whose views back onto Venice are still unique and whose charm remains intact.
Life is a succession of new normals, so we better get used to this one best we can.
That positivity may dwindle very quickly when my neighbour in the first press screening starts coughing and spluttering. But for now, so far so good. Over and out.
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