“We have to cancel, it’s no longer a choice,” KC Thompson texted in a group chat on March 12, nine days before Los Olivos’ third annual NatureTrack Film Festival was set to open.
The chat was between Thompson and fellow festival co-director Holly Cline and NatureTrack founder Sue Eisaguirre.
“We all debated what to do, watched what other festivals were doing, and ultimately had to face the hard realization that we had to postpone the festival until October,” Cline told the Sun. “Right after our decision, California shut down. It was a wrenching and mind-numbing decision, but the right one. Ultimately, the safety of our volunteers, staff, filmmakers, audience, and community was a priority for us.”
But the festival’s postponement was announced under the assumption that the COVID-19 crisis would be well in hand come autumn, Cline explained.
“At the time, we all hoped that by October, the United States would have a handle on the pandemic, and we would be able to have a live event,” Cline said. “But it became clear a couple months ago a live event would not be possible, and all our efforts turned toward a completely virtual event.”
The NatureTrack Film Festival originated in 2018 as an extension of the NatureTrack Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating cost-free outdoor activities and field trips for students throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, hence the festival’s theme of showcasing nature-based documentaries.
Eisaguirre, also the foundation’s executive director, said the nonprofit “took a huge hit” upon the festival’s event cancellations back in March, having already paid for the rentals of the participating venues and other expenses.
“Proceeds from the festival were projected to cover operating expenses for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2020, for us,” Eisaguirre said. “Without this revenue or ability to cover operating and program expenses, the 10th season of our program will be severely impacted.”
The decision to take the NatureTrack Film Festival online—by offering dozens of virtual film-streaming opportunities between Oct. 9 and 18—was inspired by observing other postponed film festivals’ reactions to the ongoing pandemic, Thompson explained.
“Eventually we started to see other film festivals struggling, and succeeding in migrating to an online platform, and this gave us hope that we could too,” Thompson said. “We briefly contemplated drive-in movie options and social-distanced screenings at the Solvang Festival Theater. But any gathering, even outdoors, was going to be inadvisable, which left us with the sole option of a virtual festival.”
Among the featured films available to stream during this year’s festival is The Lost Kings of Bioko, documentarian Oliver Goetzel’s examination of an endangered primate species on an island off the coast of Central Africa.
Filmmaker Matthias Mayr will transport viewers to the Arctic’s northernmost mountain range during his featured documentary, 83 Degrees: Ski the North.
Other films include Kokoly, described as a heartbreaking look at the decimation of coastal waters near a village in southwest Madagascar, from the point of view of a local who depends on fishing for sustenance.
During The Birth of a Pride, filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert follow the adventures of six new lion cubs in Selinda, Botswana.
For the festival’s organizers, the benefits of taking the festival online include the ability to reach audiences all around the world rather than just locally, while also offering flexibility for attendees to stream the featured films anytime they choose within the festival’s 10-day span. An all-access pass to view the festival’s complete lineup is available for $100.
“The virtual platform offers a global reach that an on-site event obviously doesn’t capture,” Thompson said. “The downside of course is the missing camaraderie and community energy that we all generate when we’re gathered together in Los Olivos over three days.”
This year’s festival was originally slated to hold film screenings and special events at various locations throughout Los Olivos, including Epiphany Cellars, St. Mark’s In-the-Valley, the Global Eye Art Collective, the Carhartt tasting room, Wildflower Women Boutique, Lavinia Campbell Park, and other venues.
“No matter how hard you try, you can’t replace the feeling of a live event,” Cline said. “The ability to talk with the filmmakers and other audience members, wander the streets and drink in the vibe, the excitement of engagement during a party—that is what I will really miss this year.”
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood is making popcorn. Send comments to [email protected].