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Ebertfest Filmmakers, Experts Take Challenge of "Reimagining Filmmaking For the Digital Age"

Tackling the challenge of filmmaking in the digital age provided a spirited and lively debate amongst the cream of independent film makers and film professionals who gathered for the Academic Panel Discussion on "Reimagining Filmmaking for the Digital Age" at EbertFest this year. The panel was moderated by Festival Director Nate Kohn, who introduced this year's panelists: Brie Larson, star of award-winning "Short Term 12"; Steve James, whose masterful documentary on Roger Ebert, "Life Itself," opened EbertFest; Jem Cohen, director of the mesmerizing "Museum Hours"; Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi writer-director of the acclaimed "Wadjda"; consulting film preservationist Barry Allen; and festival favorite, film theorist David Bordwell.

The digital revolution has a firm grapplehold on all aspects of how films are now made, distributed, consumed and discussed.

For the filmmakers in attendance it has been an exciting revolution, giving voice and a means to those that were once excluded by filmmaking’s prohibitive costs. "I would still be shooting "Life Itself" if I couldn’t do it digitally," laughed Steve James. "Most of the films I make would not have been affordable on film especially the way I work where I follow people for long periods of time. Before it was unthinkable. You would need someone with access to a $60,000 camera and somewhere to edit. Digital has really democratized the process."

James also saw digital as a window to another form of storytelling citing such startling non linear documentaries like the ongoing multimedia project, "A Short History of the High Rise" "It’s quite extraordinary and a different way to tell stories and that is very exciting," he said.

For Haifaa Al -Mansour, the celebrated first female director from Saudi Arabia, the digital revolution has been essential to expand the opportunities of filmmakers in her country.  

"It has give a lot of young people a voice to be heard. It’s cheap and accessible," she said. "There are now a lot of interesting short films and documentaries coming from places like Saudi Arabia. Despite the restrictive censorship, young people and women in particular have a chance to make films about their life and what they see. It’s giving those who have been traditionally unheard a chance to be heard."

Jem Cohen shot half of his film "Museum Hours" digitally. "I come from a film background and I think there is something to be said about film because you know it’s very precious and can’t be wasted. You have to think carefully of what you are shooting." he said. "When you are working on a tight budget and on film, there is a discipline bordering on terror. That discipline can be really helpful but digital does allow you to be freer with what you shoot."

He went on to express how he hopes the way we experience films may act as a counterpoint to our accelerated digital infused lives. "There is collective realm when you experience a movie in a theater. Maybe thats what people will be seeking as a respite to the rest of their lives become more and more rapidly paced." he said.

Brie Larson agrees. "To have that moment when we are all in a room and experiencing the same thing. I think that will become increasingly important," she said.

For Barry Allen and David Bordwell, their concern is the challenge the conversion to digital now presents for the preservation of film. "If it’s not on film, it’s not preserved. There is a whole shift away and I think this is of great concern," warns Allen.

"The way we have to think is that one technology should not completely supplant the old one," concludes James. "TV was not the end of film. The actual physical film may be disappearing but I think at its heart, it’s essential essence is not going away anytime soon. I also believe the communal atmosphere of film festivals like this are going to become more and more precious and more desired."

Katherine Tulich

Katherine Tulich is an Australian-born entertainment journalist now living in Los Angeles, where she covers music, movies and television. She is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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