FESTIVALS GONE DIGITAL

NIGHTSTREAM FEST AND THE BIRTH OF THE FERNIES

For those who have attended a film festival in person, you know what a special experience it can be. Where else can you see new exciting feature films before their theatrical release, discover up and coming filmmaker’s short films, talk directly with actors, directors, writers, and producers at after screening Q&A’s, attend retrospectives honoring our filmmaking heroes, and join lectures given by masters in their field? Where else do you get the chance to mingle with all of these people at the nightly after-parties hosted at a local bar? After SXSW canceled its festival back in March it seemed like festivals just weren’t going to be happening this year. Luckily some began to adapt to our current global crisis just like our educational system and quickly flipped to a zoom platform. One essential experience, arguably the biggest selling factor of even attending film festivals in the first place, was the tricky bit and most likely the first thing to go when committing to a sudden flip to a digital platform—the mingling and meeting of people. Yeah, there’s Twitter but that’s not the same. Connections are made, films are sold, and friend groups can grow at festivals. I mean, you can go to a festival for the films alone and call it a day after attending a screening but you’d be missing out on one of the most important aspects of film festival culture. One festival to help fill that void while maintaining a surprising level of interactivity was Nightstream Fest.

Nightstream Fest, which happened October 8-11, was the result of five separate genre film festivals, Popcorn Freights, The Overlook, North Bend, Brooklyn Horror, and Boston Underground, collaborating to host one beast of a digital extravaganza. They provided 12 special events including the first-ever live-streamed Masters of Horror dinner in honor of Mick Garris, 14 panels ranging from female representation in horror cinema, the history of Mexican horror cinema, and a horror camp hosted by Peaches Christ, almost 200 short films, and 42 feature films. With all of these events, panels, and screenings to choose from, some functioning in a “you snooze, you lose” fashion by only happening at designated times, could flounder the most veteran festival-goer—there were so many amazing options! Three of my favorite features at the festival were Bloody Hell, Boys From County Hell, and Frank & Zed.

Bloody Hell

Bloody Hell is an Australian dark comedy following Rex, a U.S. Army veteran recently released from prison for his role in a bank robbery gone wrong, fleeing to Finland to escape his newfound fame after a video of the bank robbery goes viral. Unfortunately, something is waiting for him in Finland much more sinister than viral fame. Ben O’Toole gives a gripping yet hilarious performance as Rex, a character who now talks to himself, his own “Tyler Durden,” after the traumas he experienced in Afghanistan. As an Army veteran myself, I appreciated seeing the dark humor represented accurately on-screen, as well as a creative representation of the traumas veterans face during war, how it affects their mental health, and how veterans are perceived back home.

Boys From County Hell

Boys From County Hell is an Irish horror-comedy about a small community being affected by industrialization and how the destruction of a historical site brings hell upon the people of the village in the form of Abhartach, the creature that inspired Bram Stokers Dracula. This film questions tradition, shines a light on intercommunity and familial relationships, and gives a nod or two to An American Werewolf in London. Forget the Slaughtered Lamb, grab a pint at the Stoker.

Frank & Zed

Have you ever dreamed of seeing a horror film but the whole thing is practical effects and puppetry? Well, since the answer is a resounding “hell yes” you’re in for a treat with Frank & Zed. In the film, we follow Frank, the film’s homage to Frankenstein, and Zed, the most lovable zombie you have ever seen, living a cyclical cohabitation in an abandoned castle. Unfortunately, the villagers below disrupt their peaceful existence when they come for blood to end a curse called the Orgy of Blood. This film took seven years to make and tackles very relevant subject matters and questions the human condition in one of the most creative ways I’ve seen in a long time. This is a hilarious heartfelt horror comedy that is destined to join the cult classic pantheon.

B.Y.O.B.

Welcome to the Virtual Bar! Great films aside, my favorite part of the festival was a retro video game styled space to meet your fellow horror fiends called Gather. Gather functioned in an interesting way. It’s a space where your webcam and microphone are activated as you log in and when within a certain radius of another user your video feed would pop up and you could start talking. Was it awkward as hell at first…yes. We all did the “quick sprint” past people and groups out of nervousness to interact. It’s hard enough to start up a conversation with a stranger at a bar let alone as a floating head in a virtual space after quarantining for months during Covid. But, as all things go, once you get talking and meeting people it became one of the best parts of the fest. I’d argue that given the current times we are living in it made it possible, maybe easier, to make friends that will last after the festival is over. That’s where the Fernies come in.

On my first night in the bar I saw a group formed near the entrance. I inserted myself into the group and waited for a point in the conversation they were having to interject, I can’t remember the subject, but I soon found my entry. Sometimes the vibe just isn’t right, which I experienced in the bar at other groups when a joke doesn’t land in the convo or you are obviously an outsider in an already established group of friends who know each other from outside the festival with no real interest in adding another. That wasn’t the case with this group. We all became close pretty quickly. After talking about what we’ve been watching and recommending films and panels to each other we found that our proximity to the entrance was causing interruptions from other users who didn’t know they were in range of our group which caused interruptions in conversations. We found our solution to this dilemma between two ferns at the bottom of the map—our new meeting place each night for the remainder of the festival and the reason we became the self-proclaimed Fernies. Each night we talked for hours about our interests, drank wine, cocktails, and PBR, discussed our career goals, projects, and or own creative processes. We quickly became genuine friends. The festivals end and the closing of the virtual bar closed in on us faster than we had hoped. How could this be the end of the Fernies? We’d only just begun! We discussed our options on how to keep in touch. Zoom is a thing and Skype was a possibility. The problem was we loved the virtual bar which led us to our only option—we will make our own bar on gather and keep the party alive!

The Fernies summoning Satan in the Devil’s playground

A Fernie Map was built by one of our members with spaces on the map to watch each other’s short films and read each other’s writings. There are even billboards on the sides of buildings on the map advertising our films. We now have our own place to meet up and share our work and chit chat about the world, cinema, and if one of our members accidentally summoned a demon spirit making us an unsuspecting sequel to Shudder’s Host. We’ll see how that pans out. Nightstream made it possible for a group of strangers to meet and become friends, probably more successfully than would have happened at an in-person festival where the furthest it may go would have been a sharing of social media handles leading to nothing more substantial than a future of likes and retweets.