As longtime Hassle readers will know, we love the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival. The longest-running genre film festival in the country, Boston Sci-Fi ordinarily descends upon the Somerville Theatre every February for ten or more days of intergalactic features, shorts, and panels, culminating in a dizzying 24-hour marathon of classics through the ages. (The Hassle has even partnered with the fest on several occasions, co-presenting locally grown gems with live introductions by your humble narrator!) For reasons I shouldn’t have to explain, the festival will look a little different this year, but, much like a creature from outer space, it refuses to die. As festival director Garen Daly is happy to explain, Boston Sci-Fi has a long history of changing with the times. This year’s festival will be virtual, but it will still be the same festival its fans have come to love, up to and including that legendary marathon. In the lead-up to this year’s festival (which commences Wednesday, 2/10, and runs through Monday), we spoke to Garen about Boston Sci-Fi’s past and present, the perks of virtual reality, and the challenges of curating what may be the first all-virtual movie marathon.
BOSTON HASSLE: To start with, just in case anyone reading this is uninitiated, what can you tell me about the background of the festival?
GAREN DALY: What we have to do is we have to go back to when the festival truly started. It started longer than 46 years ago– it started probably about four years before that. It was called the Orson Welles Horror and Science Fiction Film Festival. It was a week-long festival at the Orson Welles Cinema. And for people who don’t know what the Orson Welles Cinema was, it was the arthouse in Boston, and it was one of the major arthouses in the United States. One of the things that I like to tell people about the Orson Welles is that the first house manager was some young dude named Tommy Lee Jones, in his first gig in the business. And that people like Francis Ford Coppola, Neil Young, Frank Marshall, who was one of the biggest producers in the world– they all hung out there. Stephen King used to be one of those guys who used to hang out in the lobby all the time. And it really set the tone. It was the first modern arthouse. It had three screens, a restaurant, a bookstore, a film school– all the things that we expect a major metropolitan arthouse to have today, they were doing back in the early ‘70s. So really, it was all about independent film, discovering film, and enjoying film. And that is our DNA. And over the years, the festival has changed and morphed, and adapted to the changes that have occurred in the business. You know, when DVDs and blu-rays came out, or VHS came out, we adapted. So there’s all this adaptation going on, to where we are now, which is in a virtual world. A five-day festival with 25 feature films from around the world, 50 shorts, ten panels, and hopefully a couple of events that we’re putting together inside our virtual world.
And something also to remember is– my friend Harry, who is our archivist, always reminds me to tell people– we have survived. The Orson Welles burned in ‘86, and the festival continued. We didn’t have a home for a number of years, and the festival continued. When the snowpocalypse happened a couple of years back, when we got back-to-back-to-back eighteen-inch storms, the entire town and city and MBTA were closed down… we continued. We actually ran our stuff. We’ve been very flexible and resilient, and it says something about the community which we serve. They’re the ones who support this.
BH: Tell me about what the process was like to bring it virtual this year. I’ve covered a bunch of the virtual festivals and I’ve talked to a bunch of the directors, and I feel like it’s always a little different for each of them.
GD: Well, yes, I’m sure it’s different, because every festival is unique. It has its own ethos, it has its own culture, it has its own community that it serves. We’re using three, perhaps four different virtual platforms to be able to put this together, and that’s a function of who we are. The first one we’re using is called FestHome, which is our technical platform. Then we’re using Socio Event, which is an event platform, so that we can have more interconnectivity, and people meeting each other, and doing some of the things that you would do normally at events, but are not necessarily in a lot of the software that is being offered in this first year of virtuality. And then we’re also using Swank’s proprietary virtual platform to be able to produce the marathon, which is a self-contained and, we believe– and we talked to Swank about this– it’s the first marathon binge-view of film in the country, maybe the world. We don’t know for sure. So we’re gonna say it, and we’re gonna put parentheses around “we think.” Because we just don’t know.
But that was probably the hardest part of the festival, because we spent a good three to four months talking with various American distributors about getting access to their libraries to be able to show the films in a virtual environment. And the industry is very– as you probably know and understand as well as anybody– it is a very conservative industry. It doesn’t like change very much. All you have to do is to think back to the days of the DVD and VHS, when the industry was really just dead set against this, and were very difficult in dealing with it, until they realized they could literally double their profits by selling VHS tapes and blu-rays and DVDs, and then it became a lifeblood to them. Any new change, they’re fairly resistant to. So they really weren’t open to have us get access to their libraries, and take a digital copy and put it up on a virtual platform, even though we were talking about using DRM, digital rights management software, to make sure that their stuff was protected. So that’s where Swank came in, because Swank developed and created the virtual platform years ago, for cruise ships and some of these other places that they were working with. We got access to their library, and we negotiated to digitize a number of their films to be able to pull the marathon off.
BH: What can you tell me about some of the guests you have lined up this year? I know you always have an excellent assortment of speakers and panels.
GD: This year the panels are much more advanced than what we’ve ever had. I really tip my hat to my team. We had an initial meeting, we talked about what we wanted to do, how we wanted to go about it. The team came up with some great ideas, and then they executed them like heck. We’ve got incredible topics, and all of them but one is prerecorded. And when we prerecorded them, the team used several different camera angles, even in a Zoom-type environment. We worked with each one of the panelists to create at least two cameras that they were working with in their homes, so we were able to get different angles for four or five different panelists. And then we put it all together, edited it, color-corrected it, and made it look really, really good. And on top of that, because we did the prerecording, whenever a film is brought up and mentioned, we were able to go out and get clips or stills and interject them into it. So it becomes like a real program, even though it is all Zoomed. It’s quite amazing, and they’re really, really good.
I’m not sure if you got the topics, but we’re doing one on fact-checking in documentaries, “What is a Documentary?” We’ve got a whole series of documentaries this year– we’ve got one that’s called a “speculative documentary,” we’ve got straight-ahead documentaries– so we’re asking, “What is actually a documentary in the year 2021?” Is it truth? Is it post-truth? Is it fake news? So that’s one… We’re doing a thing on Afro-futurism. The moderator is going to be Lisa Simmons from the Roxbury International Film Festival. It’s talking about how this term, Afro-futurism, became a buzzword, but what does it really mean? So we explore that in a panel. We have a panel with all young, female filmmakers, called “Our Films, Ourselves.” We’ve got a really interesting one called “Generations,” because we have Lloyd Kaufman, who’s one of the great independent filmmakers of all time with his Troma films, and then we literally have a nineteen-year-old filmmaker from Framingham called Caleb Spilios, who has made a horror film [Blood Moon]. And the idea is having a 75-year-old and a 19-year-old talking about making films, and in the middle is this really up-and-coming independent film director from England named Matthew Butler-Hart [director of INFINITUM: Subject Unknown]. We’ve also got a thing on– one of our people is actually a COVID coordinator for film production, and she is leading a thing about pandemic filmmaking. What are the protocols for making films? So I think we have a really nice collection of panels and discussions to complement the films and to complement what’s going on in the world right now.
BH: You got a little bit into this, but what are some of the films themselves that you’re excited for people to see this year?
GD: You know, I have to say that, when you start the process off, you never know where you’re gonna go. It’s really a journey of discovery. And we are a curated/submitted film fest, which simply means that we curate films, and then we find people who submit their films to us. And we take about, I would say 60% from the submitted films and about 40% curated. But the submitted films are getting better and better and better. I mean, I’m looking at the first day, we have this film from Argentina called Tóxico. It’s really a prescient film. It’s about a viral pandemic, that people have to wear masks– and this was made before COVID. And it’s the story about a young couple leaving the city to try to get away from the viral epidemic, which causes insomnia. And as they get further and further away, things get stranger and stranger, and you don’t know whether it’s because the world is getting stranger, or their lack of sleep is causing it. That’s a really smart, intelligent– very funny, in a wry kind of way.
And then we have something like The Old Man Movie, which I can’t wait for audiences to see, because it is a stop-motion animated film from Estonia, of all places. It’s the story about a farmer who has a cow, and his grandchildren come out to visit him from the city, and they think that he’s mistreating his cow, and so they let the cow free. And it’s a road movie about them trying to go rescue the cow, because if the cow is not milked it’s gonna blow up! So it’s a kids’ film, but it also kind of dusts off all those old folktales.
And speaking of animation, we’ve got this incredible film, which is the US premiere, called Beauty Water, which is a story about a dumpy, young woman who feels that she’s absolutely ugly as sin, and discovers that there’s a product that can make her beautiful as heck. And she takes it, and it’s a story about what does beauty mean– and in South Korea that’s a big issue, and it’s also an issue that transcends borders. That’s really a cool film. And then in the crazy world of Japanese films, we have Monster Seafood Wars, which is all about kaiju-sushi, where the sushi becomes kaiju… It’s done tongue-in-cheek, and it’s way over the top. And then that is balanced out with something like Fish Love, which is a rom-com based on the dying of the sea. It’s really kind of interesting. It’s [set] in the future, the oceans are dying, the last whale is being tracked obsessively. Meanwhile there’s a middle-aged fish guy who doesn’t have love, and is worried about what’s going on, and then one day he finds a rare, unusual fish, and he finds a rare, unusual girl, and it kind of spins away from there. But what’s really kind of interesting is that, at the end of that film, it’s really about hope and endurance, and what humanity is all about, because, you know, the whale does die– spoiler alert!
We’ve got The Curse of Willow Song, which is a wonderful Canadian film about a young woman who you don’t know if she’s possessed, or she might be crazy. There’s all sorts of different kinds of films for different people. Lloyd Kaufman’s #ShakespearesShitstorm is a way over-the-top take on The Tempest by Shakespeare. But, you know, it’s Lloyd Kaufman, it’s Troma, it’s The Toxic Avenger. So it’s sort of like The Toxic Avenger meets Shakespeare.
So there’s no real theme. But I’ll tell you this: we have a lot of US premieres, we have one world premiere, which is a documentary about a young man from Andorra [Mr. Hand Solo]. It’s the story about how this young man was born with Poland syndrome, which is a deformation of the arm, which is malformed and short, and can’t be used for much. And as he grows older, he falls in love with Legos, so he makes himself a prosthetic Lego arm. It’s cool– really cool.
BH: Just to wrap things up, I know it’s tough to plan for the future right now, but what do you see for the future of the festival?
GD: That’s a good question. That’s a really good question. And it’s kind of a big question… I actually like to think of myself as a bit of a historian about entertainment, and the entertainment industry. My parents were in Vaudeville, they were in an opera singing group. The entertainment industry has always been challenged by new technology. You know, the minstrel show was replaced by Vaudeville. Vaudeville was replaced by radio. Radio was replaced by film. Film was replaced by TV. TV was replaced by VHS. VHS was replaced by DVDs. DVDs were replaced by blu-rays. Blu-rays were replaced by streaming. And now we have OTTs all over the place… What has happened is that the industry adapts to these new technological changes. The old ones don’t necessarily die off, but they morph and they change and they adapt to whatever the new environment is. So that’s kind of what I expect is going to happen this time. We have a new technology: it’s called virtuality. It’s being forced down our throats by the pandemic, but it still was there, it was starting to develop anyways. COVID has really just accelerated a lot of different kinds of things.
So, what I expect is that, for 2021, obviously, we’re a completely virtual festival. I think by 2022, it will be a hybrid. And I think, going on from that, it will be a hybrid, where you use the tools of virtuality to accentuate the live experience. You may not be able to travel to Boston and spend five days in Boston, or six days in Boston, watching all these films, but you can watch these films [virtually] if you’re in Pueblo. Colorado. You can watch these films if you’re in Texas. And so, that is going to open up things really interestingly for everybody. And I think that there are other pieces that are going to be coming along.
So, is the virtual cinema going to replace the arthouse? I can go into great detail about how, when I came to Boston in 1975, there were like 15 to 20 art repertory movie theaters in Boston. Boston was the number three or four market in the country when it came to film. And then, by 2005, we’re down to number 11 or 12. So there is an opening there for us to be able to rebuild the audiences. And one piece of all of this is, there is a burgeoning connectivity between the various independent film festivals in Boston working with us, and working with each other. I work with Lisa Simmons over at Roxbury, she’s on several of our panels. We’re working with the Boston Latino International Film Festival, we’re working with the Boston Asian American Film Festival, we’re working with the Wicked Queer festival, and we work with the Boston International Kids Film Festival. All of us are working together. It’s not like we’re working in the same office or anything like that, but when we find connectivity, we are using that connectivity to expand our audiences. The Roxbury Film Festival has its own audience, we have our own audience, but both audiences love film. There’s no reason why we can’t bring them together and expand the Boston audience of film lovers more and more, so that we get to share and be transparent with each other.
BH: Thank you again for talking. Like I said, it’s so amazing that you guys are bringing this online this year.
GD: Well, I can’t tell you how great the team is. These are all volunteers. They are giving us an incredible amount of intelligence, they’re bringing great ideas that I never would have thought of to the table, and I think that whatever success that we have, it really rests on their shoulders. They’ve done a great job. And I’m sure that’s true for most festivals: the volunteers and the people behind it, their love of film, their love of filmmakers, their love of that passion and that connectivity is paramount.
The Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival runs virtually from Friday, 2/10 through Monday, 2/15 – click here for program and ticket info!
Right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.