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How to move a festival online in a week - Lessons from lockdown

The Coronavirus lockdown hit just days before Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival was due to start. The team at CPH:DOX had to move the event online - fast.

Devoted to supporting independent and innovative film, CPH:DOX festival is one of the largest of its kind across Denmark, presenting contemporary non-fiction, art cinema and experimental film. This major annual festival and conference could have been completely abandoned  - but instead organisers including curator of the immersive COP:LAB programme Mark Atkin created a completely new online version.

They programmed it using the elements of CPH:DOX that could work online, they figured out how to bring together the guests and the audience virtually, and they worked fast. Ideas that they might otherwise have spent months developing had to be worked out now. Technology they would like to have spent weeks testing, had to be learned, adapted and made robust right now.

It did, though, also mean that one key element of the original, physical festival proved to be an even better fit to the online version. Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers is a modern stage play that The Space had commissioned for online adaptation and CPH:DOX had wanted to use it to spark debate about key social issues.

“It was planned to be part of the conference programme,” says Mark Atkin. “It was part of our talking about activism and how technology is generally having an influence on our lifestyles.”

That’s how Atkin saw the play contributing to the festival before it pivoted to online. In the physical festival, Believers was going to be more than a simple film screening. It was going to become a new hybrid of the stage and recorded versions.

While the film was being shown, the plan had been for writer Alipoor to be in the audience and for there to be a group WhatsApp chat for everyone present. It would seemingly have been used to discuss the show as it happened, but in truth WhatsApp was being used to draw the audience into conversations that reveal how social media shapes and challenges us.

“Without wanting to spoil what happens, it's immersive,” says Alipoor, who also performs the piece. “The offer for the audience at the beginning is 'talk to me on WhatsApp and talk to each other', but then what happens on screen starts to bleed into that WhatsApp group. It's about what the metaphor means of using your phone in a theatre, to undermine what's going on stage or get the audience talking to each other.”

Rather than some social media gimmick added on top of the play, this WhatsApp part of the experience was essential to the drama. Alipoor had used it very successfully in his touring stage version. When remade for broadcast television, it hadn’t been possible to recreate that live interaction, not when a broadcaster could be airing the show at any time. But rather than just stripping out that element, Alipoor reworked the television version to create that audience connection by utilising the medium itself.

“On the TV version, it was a question of what was going to be on that screen, looking at you,” explains Alipoor. You became part of the drama just by how you were watching it on TV or especially on phones. The result was a television film that was as arresting and compelling as the stage version, just in a different way.

The Believers Are But Brothers, Javaad Alipoor The Believers Are But Brothers, Javaad Alipoor
Now CPH:DOX had become an opportunity to combine these two versions and build on them both. Alipoor wanted to keep that sense of the viewer being immersed in the drama because of the technology they were using to watch it on, but then he also wanted to use social media to help in his drama’s examination of that same technology.

“What The Believers Are But Brothers is really about is fantasy and religious sensibilities, not in some narrow way but in terms of the myths and experiences that kind of haunt us in everyday life,” he says.

“Largely, I was trying to think about the preponderance and ubiquity of digital screens and how that is changing this for young men.”

That was the plan for CPH:DOX but then the lockdown hit –– and Alipoor became ill.

“My wife and I had what we think was the coronavirus,” he says, “and we ended up going ‘how how can we pull off this show without going anywhere?”

There was a period where the whole project was simply going to be abandoned. However, once Atkin and his team had decided to scrap their entire physical festival and conjure up an entirely new and separate online one to run in its place, Believers then became key to what they wanted to accomplish.

“The Believers Are But Brothers fitted in very well because it’s essentially about toxic masculinity and some of the problems with online social platforms,” says Atkin. “That appealed enormously but when thinking about what we could keep and what we could not, I spoke to Javaad and he said I’m sure we can do this online.”

Any arts organisation knows just how much work is involved in putting on a major event, but here CPH:DOX was dismantling one and creating another from scratch. It meant working fast and juggling new technology, but it also meant the organisers having to work incredibly closely with all of its event partners. “It was great working with The Space because they were enthusiastic and they wanted it to happen,” says Atkin.

What Atkin, Alipoor and The Space made happen was an online screening of the television version within CPH:DOX and every one of the WhatsApp elements that they’d hoped to use in the physical space.

Using Alipoor’s WhatsApp script, the team sent out messages and watched as online audiences went from tentatively writing “hello” to actively taking part in the debate and discussing issues
with each other.

“It worked absolutely brilliantly and certainly the people who participated in it, really, really loved it,” adds Atkin.

It became exactly the debate that Atkin wanted for CPH:DOX and that Alipoor created it to be.

The Believers Are But Brothers ignites questions and starts debate, whether that’s with one audience in a theatre, another online, or especially within the mind of each individual viewer. The drama compels audiences to truly examine what they know, what they believe, and also just how they formed those beliefs.

This is the kind of production where the medium is not just the message, it is the drama.

That drama has now been a stage play which continues to tour, it’s a television film that continues to air, but it’s now also a third piece which can tour virtually. The play has been adapted both to different media and to work even in lockdown, but it’s not as if the show was changed. It is as if these media and these different ways of viewing it were always part of the play’s own story.

Find out more about The Believers Are But Brothers.