Madeline Robert, Visions du Réel: ”We wanted to make sure these films will be seen, it was our commitment.”

6 May, 2020

Visions du Réel is one of the top film festivals for documentary filmmaking. Launched in 1969, the 2020 edition was about to take place at the beginning of April in Nyon, Switzerland – until the Coronavirus happened. One month prior to the festival, almost every European country saw itself going into lockdown for an unlimited time. For Visions du Réel that meant either postponing, canceling or moving the whole edition online in only four weeks. The team chose the latter, becoming one of the first prestigious European film festivals to do so. 

From its programme to its events, the whole festival moved online – and the best part is, almost all the selected films said yes without any hesitation. The news of Visions du Réel launching its edition online came like a big surprise and I have so much appreciation for the team’s courage and ambition. I sat down with Madeline Robert –  member of the selection & artistic committee, and discussed the process, the struggles and the thoughts behind this year’s edition.  

Madeline Robert, photo by Miguel Bueno

Madeline, how did you join the Visions du Réel’s team? Tell us more about it.

I was working at Marché du film at Cannes Film Festival, where I was managing a space for documentary filmmaking, and here I met Luciano Barisone who back then was the director of Visions du Réel. He invited me to work with him on the festival, that was six years ago – I have always worked in the programme department, at the beginning in the coordination office and later on in the selection committee. After a while, Emilie Bujès became the head of the festival, and since then we decided to intertwine the programme and the industry department, so now I’m also working to find the connections between the two – what we present in the official selection and what we do for the industry professionals. 

How does the selection process work at Visions du Réel?

We receive about 3000 films every year. We are five persons in the selection committee and we do the preselection and selection altogether – we split the films between us and after the preselection, we all meet in Nyon and watch all the remaining films together. We have very different tastes, so I believe our selection tries to describe the documentary today. 

Tell me about this year’s edition and your implication in it.

When we decided to move online, we didn’t have a good idea what it would look like – it’s a completely different job, totally different than an actual film festival. So, when we decided to move online, my activity regarding the final selection was already done, and I started working in the industry department – what is different compared to the live festival is the networking part, so the first thing was to bring everybody together on an online platform, which is not easy. We had different activities during the festival and we had to rethink them for the online format – we decided to record the live presentations, rather than have a live streaming – we recorded the pitches (it’s a very international event, we didn’t know if, for example, someone from Indonesia will have good connection for a live session), but we had a live viewing with the film directors, jury members and a pre-registered audience. We also had the roundtables within the pitching sessions – pitching at Visions du Réel is quite famous for its format; filmmakers present their projects live, and then they meet with the 10 jurors – online via Zoom. It was quite tricky. In only one month we created an online platform connected to Eventival with access for participants, we worked with BSquare for the meetings and with Cinando for the online media library. We also printed the programme for the people of Nyon and we sent it to everyone via post-office.

It’s quite a lot to do in only four weeks. Why was it so important for you to go further with this year’s edition? 

For us it was very important to support all the directors and their films, which were selected and had their world premiere at Visions du Réel; we are living uncertain times, so we don’t know when the next film festival will happen, we wanted to make sure these films will be seen. It was our commitment. 

Were there any cons in going online?

For sure. The moment we decided to move it online, we knew we were deprived of the most important thing for us – feeling the audience, meeting the filmmakers and watching the films on a big screen with proper color grading and sound. We tried to do the best we could in the circumstances – we had quotes from directors at the beginning of each film, but it’s not the same as in real life. The most important thing for a film festival is to present films to an audience. 

Do you think a festival like Cannes, with a totally different profile, could go online for this year’s edition?

It’s difficult to say, we had a talk at Visions du Réel on festival life during Coronavirus. I think you have to take a lot into consideration – what is the place where your festival is held, what is the connection with the audience, the profile of the festival, also in what stage you are with the programming and organisation. For us it was easier because we are not that big – for a bigger festival I think it’s much more difficult. 

Visions du Reel, 2019. Photo courtesy to the festival

Should we rethink the way film festivals work?

Moving online made us think about certain aspects of film festivals – such as premieres, it’s like we’re racing to have them. Films shouldn’t get stuck on the ‘premiere’ status demanded by festivals. In a way, it all seems futile – and I believe we should all gather and rethink this together. 

From a producer’s standpoint, how do you see your films affected by the worldwide lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic?

In terms of festival presentation, it’s not easy. I make films that are mainly for film festivals, so it’s my main way to present my work. I can’t say what the future of art films will be in terms of distribution. Regarding production, in my case, I don’t have any projects in production right now, but everything in documentary film is a matter of reality and all the shootings have been canceled   – it’s not easy in normal times but now it’s quite tricky. 

Would you say it’s a risk for the film’s producer or director when he/she decides to go forward and present its project within an online festival?

It’s one of the main things we took into consideration when we decided to move our festival online – it was our responsibility. I think it depends on the kind of film we are talking about – for films that are very creative or travel a lot in film festivals, there are no risks; it’s a small community and everybody is supportive. When we moved VDR online, we discussed with colleagues from other film festivals about premieres – to make sure films won’t be rejected in other festivals if they have their world or international premiere during our online edition of VDR. There were a few who didn’t agree and asked us to block some titles for specific countries. So for each film, we then talked with the right holder about their strategy, and decided together what’s the best option. 

Could you imagine a future for the films screened this year?

Of course, I hope so. We will try to help the films with cinema screenings in Nyon, when that will be possible. Also, we have a section – Opening Scenes, for first time filmmakers – we screened it online this year and we plan to bring the film directors in an autumn festival or in Nyon – but we still don’t know when that will be possible.  

Tell me what are the most important things you believe the European film industry should do after the Covid-19 pandemic, to ease its downfall and get on its feet.

It’s something much bigger than us, the cinema industry is managed by public institutions. I think it will be great if these institutions would communicate and come up with a plan together – that would be ideal. A filmmaker in Indonesia is not equal with one in France, and if we do not communicate, filmmakers won’t have the same support and the worldwide industry might collapse. 

Visions du Reel, 2020. Photo from Madeline’s personal archive, live Zoom conference

Before we finish, I’m curious how this online edition was for you?

Hectic. (laughs) Strange and weird because we worked from home, in different places around Europe. On a more serious note, I think this edition reflects the documentary film community – even though we were all separated, the masterclasses, the talks, the industry events felt very interactive due to the large number of people present; we had on Zoom up to 200 people together – people from Los Angeles, where maybe it was 5am, with their coffee, people from China, which are in a different time zone – everyone in the same time, coming together. It felt good.


Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the interview of the month. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.