By Lisa Patti, Associate Professor of Media and Society at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; Editor of Writing About Screen Media; and Co-Editor of The Multilingual Screen., March 15, 2022
From Ringers On to Cameras On


One of the first FLEFF events I attended was a multimedia performance exploring the festival theme of “Water.” It began in the lobby of Ithaca College’s Park Auditorium. The students who had produced the event asked every person who arrived to share their full name and mobile phone number before entering the theatre. 

Then, in a reversal of the instruction we typically hear at the beginning of any screening or performance, they asked us to keep our phones turned on.

Once the event (a combination of local documentary, live performance, and interactive media) was underway, phones started to ring throughout the theatre, the frequency of the rings slowly increasing. I remember well the successive jolts of anxiety, embarrassment, recognition, and delight as my phone trilled its five-note ringtone in my pocket, joining the telephonic chorus. 

As we laughed and whispered about our sonic participation in the event, we noticed that our names were scrolling across the screen as our phones rang. This visual roster incorporated us into the performance and implicated us in the event’s critique of our extractive engagement with our environment. 

The distance and the anonymity that we might have expected as we sat in the theatre were immediately disrupted. 

I thought of that event several times during last year’s virtual FLEFF events. After a year of watching, creating, and discussing media online, I had braced myself for a diminished festival experience. I welcomed the flexibility of the virtual screening schedule and the global accessibility of the many live events, but I imagined that these events would lack the interactivity, community, and unpredictability that had defined my pre-pandemic experience of FLEFF.



From the opening exchanges of the first virtual “talkback” I attended, however, I realized that I had underestimated FLEFF’s ability to mine every affordance of the online format. 

Scholars, critics, activists, cinephiles, and students from several continents gathered to discuss the films that they had watched. We were encouraged to keep our cameras on, and almost everyone did. Unlike the many virtual meetings that I had attended as a passive participant (camera off and microphone muted, indulging various distractions) these conversations were conversations. They were lively, layered, provocative. 

The virtual conversations also encouraged productive exploration as the events’ producers shared articles, images, videos, questions, and comments in the chat. I was not only listening intently but also browsing the material curated by the producers and making lists of questions and connections, more films to watch, more books to read.

FLEFF’s virtual festival tagline – “We Are the Screen” – captures the way FLEFF events activate their audiences. This year I’m excited to enjoy the best of both of FLEFF’s festival worlds, in a theatre and on my laptop screen. 

But, when I’m at Cinemapolis, I will remember to silence my phone.