Audiences at the Cinequest Film Festival last March wondered if “Before the Fire,” a story about panic, quarantine and family in a disease-stricken America, would prove prophetic during the first week of the annual event.
By the second week, those fears were confirmed as the organizers of the festival in San Jose and Redwood City pulled the plug, Covid-19 cases increased and public health officials forbade gatherings.
A year later, the festival returns, this time fully virtual, from March 20 to 30 with 199 films and shows from 55 countries, most of which will be available to stream throughout the festival. Another 13 “Spotlight” events will punctuate the festival with Zoom Q&As and “red carpet” interviews with filmmakers and actors and peeks at rough cuts.
The lineup features the festival’s traditional dramas, comedies and short films, but also a new class of films focused on the coronavirus and global health crisis that came with it. Halfdan Hussey and Kathleen Powell, the festival founders, tried to strike a balance of fantastic escapism with contemporary reflection of a global crisis. “To have movies that reflect the pain and the healing process of (the pandemic), but also movies that bring humor to our lives and inspiration, to me that's the power of art,” Hussey says.
Among those films are ones by Bay Area natives, including Women Is Losers, a story about a young Latina woman’s fight against poverty and misogyny to make it as a single mother in 1960s San Francisco.
Lissette Feliciano, the film’s writer, director and producer, held off on releasing her first feature-length film until this year after a tough 2020. While she loves the camaraderie and energy of traditional, in-person festivals, she says she’s grateful more people may see the film online. “Particularly with this story, the story is about struggle and it is about making do with life and trying to figure out access to prosperity,” Feliciano says. “We’re all really put into that space right now. Virtual for this story works really well.”
Before the pandemic settled into Silicon Valley, the March 2020 event was set to be a record year. Despite an estimated $1 million loss, Hussey says not all was lost.
The festival’s virtual pilot in October, known as Cinejoy, drew online crowds comparable in size to the real thing and for this year’s event, organizers fielded double the number of film submissions they expected.
“We were just astounded at the initial response last summer, and then when we opened up submissions for this year’s edition, it was a banner year of submissions,” Hussey says. “We were floored by an abundance of quality.”
This year, ticket-holders can host or join screening parties, a nod to Cinequest’s in-person soirees after film credits roll.
“The idea of these is that the community and the artists that are hosting them will get their friends to attend and open it up to the Cinejoy community globally,” Hussey says.
Cinequest’s online popularity is a silver lining for festival organizers, but downtown San Jose businesses still feel the void of thousands of festival attendees who will remain home for a second year in a row.
Typically, Cinequest’s potent 10 days of events generates between $6 million and $10 million for the city’s businesses and overall economy through parking, food, drinks and overnight stay costs. For comparison, Downtown Ice, the popular ice skating rink erected in the heart of the city each winter brings in about that much in 60 days of operation, though it, too, was canceled last year due to the pandemic.
For many locals, keeping Cinequest alive until more vaccines are divvied out, lockdown orders lift and film enthusiasts return downtown is the goal this year.