According to Lisa Viola, artistic director of the Provincetown International Film Festival (PIFF), she and her staff and the Provincetown Film Society’s new CEO, Rachael Brister, were halfway through preparations for the 2020 festival, set to open June 17, when the Covid-19 lockdown hit in March. “We were in the thick of it,” Viola says.
Over the next several weeks the situation rapidly deteriorated. As it became clear that the health crisis would last months, the film society canceled the 2020 festival, as well as its Women’s Media Summit and several fund-raisers. The Waters Edge Cinema, which the society owns and operates, was closed and the staff was let go. A virtual program of screenings was initiated, generating limited funds, but fixed Waters Edge expenses meant the society was bleeding cash. Eventually, the board decided to let Brister go. The future looked grim.
Amid this desolation, as Massachusetts reached phase three of its reopening, a “reimagined” PIFF is being launched, from Thursday, July 16, through Sunday, July 19. “I’m thrilled to be presenting films and making this happen,” Viola says.
It’s a shortened program: two nights of live in-person screenings at the Wellfleet Drive-in and 10 feature films presented virtually, to be viewed by pass ($50) or individual tickets whenever and wherever you wish throughout the weekend. There will be one virtual event, in which actress Mya Taylor (Tangerine) receives the festival’s Next Wave Award.
“I’m describing it as a grassroots effort to reengage the film society with the community,” Viola says. “It came out of a groundswell of people wanting to produce something in a very strange year.”
Drive-in to the Rescue
Even though indoor movie theaters are allowed to reopen in phase three, social distancing guidelines reduce seating capacity enough to make festival screenings economically unfeasible. Being outdoors, however, the Wellfleet Drive-in has been able to open for business with relative ease. “John Vincent reached out to us,” Viola says of the drive-in’s owner. “That was such a great opportunity.”
On July 16, two new features will open the festival at the drive-in: I Am a Town, a poetic meditation by photographer Mischa Richter on Provincetown, his home town, and its many creative and fascinating inhabitants, at 8:40 p.m.; and Save Yourselves!, a comedy about a Brooklyn couple who escape into the woods for a week while aliens invade Earth, at 10:15 p.m. “Mischa’s film is an art film,” says Viola. “It’s gorgeous, and it will be nice to see it on a big screen. Save Yourselves! is about an alien attack, and since it’s low-budget, they make it really funny.”
On Friday, July 17, the night belongs to Provincetown’s summertime auteur-in-residence, John Waters. He has picked a double bill of exquisitely bad taste, Night of the Lepus, a 1972 horror film about giant mutant rabbits, and Kitten With a Whip, a 1964 Ann-Margret vehicle, in which she plays an untamed teen who throws wild parties in a politician’s home. The fun starts at 8:40 p.m. “The ‘John Waters Presents’ program is drive-in specific,” Viola says.
The Virtual Component
There are five documentaries and five narrative films screening virtually. “For the modified festival, we couldn’t do the grand number of films we typically do, but we wanted a nice array that spoke to diversity, and we kept to that mission,” Viola says. “Six out of 10 films are by first-time directors. We see our festival as taking a chance on people beginning their careers.”
First, the documentaries: Along with Mischa Richter’s I Am a Town, also available virtually, there’s The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, which traces the rise and fall of the brilliant gay writer Truman Capote, using a trove of audio recordings and interviews with his friends and enemies. “It puts you right in the moment,” Viola says.
Coded Bias is about the racism and sexism involved in facial recognition technology. “The film is blowing up, because it couldn’t be more timely,” Viola says. Fish & Men is about the forces that create the modern fish economy — and Mac’s Seafood is a part of it. “It shows how the choices of fish that we are eating are not sustainable,” Viola says. And, finally, House of Cardin is about designer Pierre Cardin, directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes. “Cardin granted the filmmakers exclusive access to his archives,” Viola says.
Then there are the narrative films: Black Bear stars Aubrey Plaza (PIFF Next Wave winner in 2017), Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon as a couple and guest pushed to the limits in a remote Adirondack lake house. Identifying Features is about lives tragically crossed at the U.S.-Mexican border. “A sad story and beautiful film,” Viola says of the Sundance prize-winner.
Milkwater follows a young woman who impulsively offers to be a surrogate and egg donor for an older gay man. “It’s a nice film about finding yourself,” Viola says. In Stage Mother, directed by Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden; Beefcake), a Texas church choir director (Jacki Weaver) inherits a drag club in San Francisco. “Mya Taylor is one of the performers at the club,” Viola says of the festival’s Next Wave Award recipient. And, finally, the French film Two of Us is about two older women who have been secretly in love for decades. “It turns into a bit of a thriller,” Viola says. “An impressive film.”
There will be Q-and-A sessions with filmmakers, so the public can participate. For the virtual screenings, “We’re using CineSend, the industry standard for streaming festivals.” She says that virtual programming may well become a feature of future PIFFs, Covid or no: “This is a new opportunity to bring Provincetown to the rest of the world.”