Like all current cinema events, the 2020 iteration of the Bentonville Film Festival is taking place almost exclusively online. Next week, the festival started by Oscar-winner Geena Davis will take place in Northwest Arkansas as pure usual, but with on-the-ground screenings taking place at a local drive-in—with nearly everything else going virtual. Panel discussions, celebrity guests and a great number of films will be part of this year’s festival, and its organizers are trying to keep it as, well, “normal” as possible in the era of coronavirus.
Even when Davis started the festival in 2015, one of its core missions was to achieve a diversity of voices in its programming. This year, eighty percent of the BFF films are directed by women and forty-five percent are LGBTQA+.
Normally, BFF takes place in late April, but this year an entirely different yet similar festival will bow on Monday. The festival’s president of programming, Wendy Guerrero (featured image), spoke with Screen Comment this week via phone from Idaho, where she is quarantining, about how a film festival can still happen in 2020, how the film world and the culture at large can meet our unique moment, and what happens if covid-19 is still a factor this time next year.
SCREEN COMMENT: How will this festival be different than in years past?
WENDY GUERRERO: When covid hit in March, we were trying to understand the future of everything, and Arkansas was a hotspot at that time. We were really concerned if we moved forward with a physical festival. Gatherings were limited, so we really had to [be] fearless and just say, hey, we’re going to move online. And once we made that announcement, it was how are we doing to do this?
There were many conversations with other people who have done virtual fests. We landed on this hybrid version of virtual and then some on-the-ground elements in Bentonville.
What types of events will actually take place in Bentonville itself?
Everyone is being extremely inventive. There is a drive-in theater where we are going to do three nights of programming with our partners at NBCUniversal. Then we are doing another on-the-ground event at Thaden airfield, which is a venue in Bentonville that is already doing movie nights. They have social distancing practices in place. We are going to do one night there of an outdoor film where you can sit under the stars and watch a movie socially distant. That will be Thursday night [August 13].
As strange as it is to ask, what will be similar to previous iterations of BFF?
It’s really tough to talk about similarities or compare it to what it was before. I think our audiences are really engaged. They are really supportive, especially the Bentonville community. We will [still] be watching films and communicating with filmmakers through Q&As—we will just be doing all the Q&As virtually.
People can go onto the website and log into the portal and buy a film pass or for a panel discussion. They can type in their questions and we’ll have moderators that will talk through those conversations with the filmmakers.
I think those connections are so important. At least we’re having the conversations and accessibility is there. You don’t have to physically be [in Bentonville] to be a part of the community and hear the conversations and watch the films. That’s been really exciting to me personally to open it up to people who maybe weren’t able to travel to a festival at all. It’s really cool to have that.
How will Geena Davis be involved this year?
She’ll [participate] in a lot of virtual panels. We have a lot of people coming back from “Geena & Friends,” a fun event every year where we bring in [actors] to reimagine scenes that were mainly written for men.
She will also be in some of our happy hours with the filmmakers. She’ll definitely be as involved as she can virtually.
You, yourself, have a background in the film industry …
I started out acting. I moved to New York, went to theater school and worked in theater off-off-off Broadway for many years. I moved to Los Angeles and started auditioning for a lot of film and television roles there. By chance I met the actor Bruce Dern and started a production company with him. We developed projects for theater at first, but we both realized this was not the type of thing we could make any money doing in Los Angeles; it was for the love of doing it. [Dern] has been at the festival for a couple of the early years.
So we pivoted to telling stories. My thought on our company was [finding] ways to tell stories that were female-focused. I’m half-Mexican, half-English, and I’ve always had a fascination with studying identity and what that means to be a storyteller when you have two worlds to draw upon.
The lineup this year is very focused on women and underrepresented voices. Was that conversation about inclusivity started before the protests we have seen this year, or did that simply speed this up?
We started the festival with an intent to champion inclusion, and Geena Davis’s mission has always been to study the gender “deficiency” of women and girls in the media. And the festival [seeks to] understand other communities that may not be as prevalent in the industry as they should be based on the population of the United States.
We’ve listened to a lot of the urgent calls for greater representation, and those voices are reflected in our lineup and are part of our mission, which is great storytelling. And then with the political climate, it’s certainly reminded us of how important it is to elevate the voices of our filmmakers and tell all of their stories.
It takes a lot of time, resources and personnel to put together a film festival. With that said, are you hopeful that this hybrid model can be economically viable?
It’s a virtual pass, so instead of buying a pass that will allow you access to [one] film or panel, the virtual pass gives you access to all the content online. So we’re not separating panels and films.
You can also buy single tickets if you want specifically to see one film and the Q&A with that filmmaker. Or one panel discussion.
We are an organization that is all financed by sponsors. We’re really lucky to have partners like Walmart and Coca-Cola to support us in these changing times. Our partners look at what we’re doing and see the value in it, and they still have that visibility as a partner of a festival and as a champion of inclusive storytelling.
Eric Althoff’s recent stories: “Radioactive,” starring Rosamund Pike, interview with Dawn Porter (“John Lewis: Good Trouble”)
Let’s say, worst-case scenario, the coronavirus pandemic is still going on a year from now. Do you believe that BFF could be held virtually again in 2021?
Absolutely. We’ve had to rebuild the entire festival the past three months or so, drawing on our commitment to [inclusion], which is where we’re really focused on the filmmaking side. [BFF audiences] are always looking for new talent from us and new stories they may not find at their local movie theater.
I think we definitely can duplicate this or have it be even bigger for 2021, if we have to. I really like the idea of everybody being able to access it. [Getting to Bentonville] is fun and always a unique experience if you can, but not many people have the ability to do this. So being able to access [the festival] through a computer, and being able to see all the great films and [witness] the compelling conversations right on your computer is something that we’ll probably keep going in years to come.
Will you be able to travel to Bentonville yourself next week?
That’s a decision I still have yet to make. I have a programming team there that will definitely be representing at the in-person events.
I absolutely love Bentonville. I was looking forward to going to the Momentary, which is a new contemporary art museum that just opened, and I love looking around [the museum] Crystal Bridges. It’s a surprise for everyone that ends up coming because they don’t know what to expect, and once they get there, they [say] I love this place.
I’ll be missing that for sure if I don’t go.
For information on this year’s film lineup and to buy online passes, go to https://bentonvillefilm.org/