By John O’Hara
A return to normalcy is perhaps what those organizing this summer’s Provincetown International Film Festival may have longed for most when planning the 2021 installment, unlikely as it may seem in a town so steeped in eccentricity.
Held June 16-25, the 23rd annual festival goes down in the record books as one that was planned out just right, with an extra few days added in length to compensate for the relatively short list of in-person venues which moviegoers were invited to attend.
Compared to last year’s starkly limited PIFF 2020 Reimagined gathering which spanned just three days and took place exclusively online, PIFF 2021 went bold in their planning, despite the slight irony that much of this year’s content could be consumed virtually from the comfort of one’s home as well.
With more 1,000 tickets sold to both the Provincetown art house cinema and the Wellfleet Drive-In, and another 1,440 virtual streaming passes purchased online, numbers indicate one year off due to a global pandemic was not enough to diminish interest in a gathering which had had two decades to establish its reputation prior to the recent societal meltdown.
The year’s complete lineup of movies was sufficiently expansive to distract from there being fewer in-person venues at which to watch movies in town on a big screen, while this year’s virtual pass granted a wider range of at-home viewing than ever before to maximize its long-distance reach.
Despite a full program, PIFF 2021 Artistic Director Lisa Viola says she and her colleagues had to plan the festival with a dark cloud of uncertainty still looming.
“We were deep in the third wave of Covid when planning the festival before any vaccinations had been administered,” said Viola, who added that she and her fellow core programmers sought to be “conservative yet aspirational” with their approach.
All planned gatherings were Covid-19 safe and friendly events, with 90% of in-person tickets sold to outdoor gatherings.
The only venue to host in-person screenings this summer was Waters Edge cinema, named after the legendary Provincetown filmmaker John Waters.
Like Waters who was the Festival’s first-ever Filmmaker on the Edge winner, Viola has been with the festival from its first year, starting as a consultant and ascending in status from there.
During her 23 years involved with PIFF, the 10th anniversary stands out, with Quentin Tarantino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the honorary director and actor respectively in 2008, and Jane Lynch as the celebrated actress before her meteoric rise to fame with the hit series Glee.
Viola said she was equally proud of this year’s award winners, however, including the Golden Globe-winning director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Slackers, etc.), and Academy-Award nominated Actor Riz Ahmed and Actress Natalie Morales whose directorial debut film Language Lessons debuted at Berlinale and SXSW before coming to Ptown.
What PIFF may lack in global notoriety compared to behemoth festivals such as Cannes and Sundance, it tends to make up for in star power and community impact.
The gathering’s remote location means that PIFF is relatively free of distributors who are there not only to attend screenings but also buy out films, Viola said.
The film festival also gets to showcase some of each year’s finest, albeit under the radar films to a small yet culturally attuned audience.
Though famous for its showcasing of LGBTQ+ themed movies above all given the town’s distinct history, PIFF is still not a genre festival per se, Viola said, while each year the small group decides which films to include keeps an eye out especially for underrepresented voices of all stripes.
This year’s complete lineup consisted of 46 shorts—more than ever before—and 42 full-length features, directly addressing topics not only about queerness but also people of color growing up on the Cape, along with select international narratives,
Viola was not the only important Festival Staff member to express satisfaction with how this summer’s event was planned and executed.
Film Society Executive Director Blythe Frank, who has only worked in the role since December when the former CEO was forced out due to Covid-19, described the planning process as “dynamic and creative” while adding that they were forced to stay agile throughout it all due to the shifting global landscape.
Although this was Frank’s year doing actual work for PIFF, she was able to attend a Drive-In screening in Wellfleet during last year’s PIFF 2020 Reimagined, providing a glimpse of what it’s all about.
“It was palpable how powerful it was. The joy that was in the air because people were out of their homes and they were together” said the new Executive Director.
Once Frank and her event co-planners had an expert on board to approve a festival return to roughly 70% capacity, they were able to revel at the prospect of bringing people together in a tumultuous time with far less cognitive dissonance weighing on them all.
The easing of social distancing restrictions even allowed for the in person visitation of certain featured artists, some of whom were able to conduct live Q&A’s after their work was shown to their audience for the first time.
Perhaps most quintessentially Ptown of all these guests was season one winner of Rupaul’s Drag Race Marshall Ngwa (a.k.a. drag performer BeBe Zahara Benet) who came to the United States from the homophobic Cameroon to showcase the closing night offering, Being Bebe.
Genre-by-genre breakdown @PIFF 2021. Infograph by John O’Hara.
Despite this film being on the highly personal matter of migrating continents to forge out a life of acceptance in a new land, the African filmmaker reveled in the prospect of opening up to his audience after the screening with the film’s director and producer by his side.
“We all have to be our own best cheerleaders” the former drag champion declared in describing his best methods of coping with anxiety in the past.
The filmmaker went on to emphasize what a uniquely safe location he deemed Provincetown to be above all.
“You all are the OG audience” as he put it while letting the small cinema crowd know this was the first ever screening of Being Bebe accessible to the public.