Report from a Film Festival during a Pandemic

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

In which I tell you about the misunderstandings and problems a festival during a pandemic brings forth. Mask refusers & stowaways included.

Every year from the end of October to the beginning of November, the Viennale – Austria’s biggest film festival – takes place. This year, they managed to find the perfect time slot for it since immediately afterwards, a second lockdown closed everything within the culture sector and kept us from going to all our favourite places and enjoying the arts and culture. It was one of the first festivals to take place in its almost full form during this pandemic. Changes were made, a few days were cut, the programme was quite slimmer than usual and all Covid-19 regulations were strictly followed to ensure the health of guests and employees.

Nevertheless, they managed to bring a feeling of continuity and some normality to the visitors and workers’ lives by making it possible for the festival to take place at all. Contact tracing cards and stricter rules about entering and leaving the cinema were hardly an obstacle. The films and the atmosphere were just so much stronger in creating a collective experience that seemed like a break from the past months. And even if you weren’t exactly able to forget about the tough conditions we currently have to live with, the movies gave you an outlet, the possibility of falling into something else, and considering something wholly different for a change.

Not only was it the first pandemic-edition for the Viennale but it was also the first year that I upgraded from casual festival goer (though I’m not too casual about festivals) to becoming an active part of it and working there. I can truly say that the whole team consists of the sweetest and most engaged people I have ever met, and I’ve enjoyed every moment I got to spend with them.

But since this year was quite different in the end, with people having to wear face masks at all times during their stay and them not being allowed to consume the chocolate biscuits during their movie even though the Viennale provided them for the guests, I would like to share a couple of interesting moments with you.

One of my favourite encounters was when a woman asked me if she could get a coffee from the coffee shop next door and bring it into the cinema with her for the 4 and a half hours long movie that was about to start. I told her no, explaining that there were no drinks or food allowed inside this year apart from water and anyways, bringing food from someplace else wasn’t ever allowed. So she went inside, the film started, I went in too to watch and check on the projection and everything was fine for the first 2 hours or so. Understandably, a lot of people got up and left, either to go to the restroom or to never return again. But at some point every time someone returned to their place and sat down again two other people got up.

A strange pattern formed that was sometimes quite distracting from the film and that made me question whether anyone was even still watching or just paying attention to the returners so they themselves could get up. Mind you, the cinema staff’s reserved seat is the one on the far left right at the end. So you really notice every single person leaving. And at one point a woman walks past me again, slowly, since every returner must first get used to the dark room again, and stops right next to me, which turned out to be lucky for me but very unlucky for her. Turns out it was the woman from before, coffee in hand, returning fresh from the coffee shop and now spotting me and realising that I caught her red-handed. Her first reaction was to stumble along the wall trying to reach something she could get a hold of and hiding her cup by pushing it against the wall and unsteadily descending down the stairs. I just watched her because by that point I was a little dumbfounded by her boldness and later by her rather inelegant escape in shame. I figured she got that far and in the end, you could really see her embarrassment when she almost tried to push the cup through the wall. So why not let her have her caffeine.

So in addition to the obligatory mask-wearing even during the film, came the prohibition of letting any latecomers into the cinema anymore. Some would be very accepting, give up without a fight, and just leave. Others weren’t that easy. One guy came in 10 minutes late, started a discussion with us that lasted for 10 more minutes and just wouldn’t give up until we called for the manager. He proceeded to whine to her as well and told her all about how the underground came late and how he even got a taxi and that it’s his last movie here and that he toooooootally gets why we can’t let him in but why can’t we just make an exception but he toooooootally gets why we can’t but also it would’ve already been resolved and he could already be watching his film. So the manager actually made an exception, let him fill out a contact tracing card and sat him upstairs where he was completely alone and isolated from other visitors. By then he had missed a third of the film but props to him for not giving up and totally understanding our point but straight up disrespecting it.

Granted, he wasn’t the worst or at least most unapologetic. He at least didn’t try to sneak in like a couple did. They were latecomers too and hardly accepting the new regulations. But instead of trying to gain our pity, they asked if they could at least use the restroom. So they left, were gone for quite a while and we didn’t see them leave so we assumed they must’ve left through another exit. Turns out; they hid in the restrooms, waited a while, checked if one of the cinema staff was near or if the coast was clear and then ran for the cinema. We only found out because the administrator was inside and she later told us about a couple that came barging in almost half an hour late, looking for a place and disrupting quite a few people. Once again, instead of then trying to not raise more attention and just watch the movie quietly they opted for making out. Wildly. Without masks. So visibly that people complained.

What do you say to people like that? It was our job to remind people of the rules and regulations but … imagine silently walking up to them, trying not to distract anyone else, minding the safety distance and then asking them to please not eat each other up right in front of everyone or at least put a mask on whilst doing so? I’m not sure I would’ve been bold enough to do so.

All I can say is that I’ve worked in many different sectors now and have thus met quite a different clientele, but never have I ever encountered people as impudent and brash and also kind of rude and ignorant as cinema visitors. After each day or strange encounter we told each other our stories, laughed about them and moved on. In the end, some people managed to seem stranger than some of the rules and what I took away from all this is that you should just be respectful to the Covid-regulations for other people, if not for yourself. Take care of yourself and others. Let’s hope that we can all soon enjoy cinema and its weird visitors again!


  • drawing by daniel zineldin

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